The following article was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 16 (Spring 1982).
Thousands of refugees who have fled Haiti for the U.S. are undergoing an intense, racist victimization here, continuing the oppression that forced them to leave their homeland. Having escaped the clutches of the Duvalier regime by risking their lives in small leaky boats, Haitian men and women arrive in the “freedom-loving” United States only to be imprisoned and brutalized in internment camps. Since the late 1970’s, tens of thousands have attempted their desperate voyage. Some never make it here alive; of those who have done so, over 2000 are now in detention.
The U.S. government’s treatment of the Haitian refugees is consistent with its open support of the gangster regime of President for Life Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier, heir to a family of semi-colonial dictators rivalled only by the recently ousted Somozas of Nicaragua. Duvalier earns his keep by his cooperation with imperialism: his policy of “free trade zones,” for example, allows minimal taxes on foreign-owned companies; he has setup large agribusiness enterprises, encouraged big landowners to switch from share-cropping to wage labor – and dispossessed small peasants from their plots to force them into the army of unemployed job-seekers. Duvalier’s private thug army, the Tontons, Macoutes (bogeymen), sees to it that the workers remain docile.
U.S. businessmen are enjoying the Haitian state of affairs, for it allows them ample profits by exploiting the lowest-paid workers in the Americas. U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Ernest Preeg, speaking to the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince last October, exulted over business opportunities. Improvements in Haiti’s infrastructure, he said, “were giving welcome impetus to a manufacturing industry that has grown from some 60 to over 230 firms since 1970, with a corresponding increase in jobs from less than 10,000 to upwards of 60,000 today. Government policies, including an open trading system and favorable tax treatment, greatly encourage new investment in the private sector.” (Haiti Patriote, December 1981). What he didn’t say is that the jobs increase is dwarfed by the number of peasants and artisans thrown out of work and forced to emigrate or starve.
Preeg also noted that “the country was experiencing its most severe financial crisis in decades. The percentage of imports covered by export receipts had dropped from 70 percent in 1980 to 54 percent in 1981. Tax receipts were down. Budget expenditures were substantially above planned levels. International reserves were nearly exhausted while the country faced a record balance of payments deficit.” And so on – the catalog of ill effects is precisely the result of Duvalier’s kowtowing to imperialism. If capital is invited to loot the country, the country will be devastated. And so it has been.
Preeg saw the problem somewhat differently. “I observe,” he added, “something of a communications gap, often referred to as an image problem, between the positive realities of doing business in Haiti and the negative impressions as viewed from abroad. [...] The cruel exploitation of poor Haitians by international traffickers, the flagrant violation of laws in both countries, and the disruptive social and economic impact of this migration on certain areas of Florida cannot continue in any event. The large flow of illegal migrants [...] has also had a negative impact on the business climate in Haiti, for industry and especially for tourism. Much of the current negative image of Haiti is directly related to the boat people problem.”
Thus the spokesman of the biggest international trafficker, American imperialism,. blames the misery the refugees are escaping from on the refugees themselves. How damnable of these people to let their starvation publicly sully the noble image of Haiti! Why don’t they drop dead quietly someplace is what he really means. To combat this “negative image,” the U.S. government set up joint coastal patrols with the Haitian rulers to dump the refugees back where they came from, hoping that the problem will go away. But this will not stop the terror and deprivation the Haitians live under, nor will it prevent resistance from growing in both Haiti and the U.S.
The hypocrisy of disallowing “economic refugees” from semi-colonial outposts of the U.S. like Haiti and El Salvador while boasting of “political refugees” from governments the U.S. dislikes is blatant; so is the racism that incarcerates black immigrants while welcoming and settling others. There is also a built-in class distinction between the economic and political categories. Working people generally choose their politics out; of economic necessity, not for the intellectual “dissidence” that bourgeois propaganda celebrates in Russia. The race and class distinctions also explain the U.S.’s recently stiffened attitude towards the Cuban refugees: the earlier migrants were mainly middle- and upper-class whites, while the current ones are largely poor blacks, mulattoes and whites.
The government policy of jailing Haitians until they agree to return home has aroused some resistance. The most successful action was the demonstration in December at the Krome Avenue Detention Center in Miami. During a battle with police, demonstrators tore down the fence and more than a hundred prisoners got away. On the whole, though, demonstrations and other actions have been small and limited to Haitians and Haitian-Americans, with some participation by blacks from other Caribbean nations and U.S. black and white leftists and liberals.
When rank-and-file Haitians dominate the actions, the spirit can be very militant: the favorite chant at a January 2 demonstration in Brooklyn was “Only one solution – revolution!” But in general the leadership of the refugee defense movement has come from Haitian Catholic priests and bourgeois politicians, the latter exiled for falling out with the Duvaliers. The tone, especially from the clergy, has been “humanitarian” – that is, beseeching the imperialist oppressors to have pity on their victims. The bourgeois politicians, for their part, have no beef with U.S. imperialism. They wish only to replace Duvalier as recipients of U.S. aid.
The bourgeois strategies are losing credibility with the masses of Haitians in the U.S. The bourgeois oppositionists have traditionally looked down on the Haitian working classes; they prefer to address each other and bourgeois Haitians still linked to the Duvaliers, hoping to split them away. The Church, which has a real base among the Haitian masses, may likewise be losing credibility. One Haitian tried taking a hammer to the Rev. Jerard Jean-Juste of Miami, called by Newsweek, a “leading Haitian-American spokesman.” The Reverend thinks the hammer attack is “a sign that many Haitians are getting tired of my preaching passive protests.”
To put forward a more militant face, a collection of mainly Haitian organizations with support from Latin American and U.S. left groups formed the January 2nd Coalition to sponsor the Brooklyn march referred to above. But it too bases its program on liberal humanitarian grounds despite its more leftish statements. Thus the Coalition denounced “the Reagan administration’s reactionary policies towards the Haitian refugees in the context of its reactionary policies toward peoples nation-wide and worldwide,” (La Nouvelle Haiti Tribune, December 29) ; it cited particularly Reagan’s threats against Nicaragua, his support for the Salvadorean junta, his social service cuts and his crushing of the air traffic controllers’ strike and union. Its statement concludes:
We want to emphasize that freedom for the Haitian refugees is more than a moral issue. It is in the concrete interests of the American people to support the struggle of Haitians against the Duvalier regime in Haiti and for political asylum in the U.S. For the same aggressive and illegal tactics that are being used against the Haitian refugees are also being used against the American people.
Unfortunately, not all Americans see their “concrete interests” in this way. Some “American people,” notably the liberal bourgeoisie and trade union bureaucracy, are willing to oppose Reagan’s policy in El Salvador as a losing effort for U.S. capitalism (“another Vietnam”), but are effectively silent on his Haitian policy as long as it appears to be working to “solve” the refugee problem.
Moreover, the Coalition avoids suggesting that the context in which reactionary Reaganism thrives is the world capitalist crisis. Like much of the U.S. left, the January 2nd Coalition opposes Reaganism and imperialism without opposing the capitalism that gives rise to them (see our articles in Socialist Voice Nos. 14 and 15 on the All-Peoples Congress, one of the Coalition’s sponsors). It spreads the illusion that imperialism can be halted without destroying capitalism, or that the real problem is Reagan’s imperialism – as if liberal imperialism would be basically better. We fully support united front actions to stop specific imperialist policies, like its treatment of the Haitians or U.S. aid to Duvalier (the LRP marched in the January 2nd demonstration), but we refuse to endorse propaganda that misleads the working class in the United States and Haiti.
Similarly, the Coalition supports a hunger strike begun by the Krome Avenue detainees in Miami and other refugee prisoners as a “dramatic action” which will “bring major pressure to bear on the Reagan administration.” A hunger strike, like that of the Irish militants against British imperialism last year, is a desperate action by people willing to undertake heroic sacrifices to shock public opinion; but an administration that sponsors the Duvaliers and Somozas is no more likely to be moved by even the deaths of poor, black “illegal migrants” than was Margaret Thatcher by the H-block strikers. At best it will turn the hearts of a few bourgeois liberals who will do nothing to alter imperialist relations with Haiti.
The struggle to free the Haitian refugees cannot be left to liberal bourgeois elements. It will get nowhere without help from the masses of U.S. workers and black people. The fact that there exists no independent anti-capitalist working class movement in the U.S. today is chiefly the responsibility of the entrenched labor bureaucracy, often aided by the petty-bourgeois leaders of black and left organizations. In orienting the Haitian struggle toward liberal public opinion, the petty-bourgeois Haitian organizations are helping to reinforce the isolation of the refugees and the backward consciousness of the American working class.
The leaders of the U.S. labor unions, even the “left” bureaucrats, have totally capitulated to the chauvinist and protectionist sentiment that the American bourgeoisie is whipping up in this period. The AFL-CIO has called for curbs on immigration to protect American jobs, but such protectionism will not stop U.S. capitalists from laying off American workers and setting up runaway shops in low-wage countries like Haiti. The unions, which should be taking the lead in the Haitian masses’ fight, support the government exclusion policy and in some cases work to get refugees deported.
A struggle against the reactionary labor bureaucracy must be central to the fight for mass- organized defense of the refugees. Haitian workers and all workers who understand the importance of the refugee question must wage a battle against the leaderships of the unions and minority organizations in this country. This battle is part of the struggle to convince fellow workers of their true interests – which are not those of the anti-Reagan bourgeois liberals.
It is crucial to fight to get the unions and the major black organizations to build and join all demonstrations and actions for free entry to the U.S. for Haitian emigrants, for the release from detention of imprisoned refugees and for ending support to the Duvalier regime. The latter demand is not a plea to the U.S. imperialists not to be imperialists, but it does permit unity in action with workers and others who believe that support for Duvalier is an error rather than imperialist policy.
Leading Haitian and American workers in combatting the chauvinist course of the American trade unions is a task that can only be done by communists. Their revolutionary alternative must take the form of fighting for the creation of revolutionary parties in both countries, sections of a common communist international.
Their demands would not be restricted to simply socialist revolution, on the one hand, or to basic democratic rights, on the other. In their struggle against the petty-bourgeois misleaders of the black groups and the unions, they would begin to popularize demands for full employment and a sliding scale of wages and hours to divide up the necessary work among all available workers at no loss in pay; it is crucial to convince workers of all races that under socialism additional workers are a benefit to the working class, not a threat to their livelihood. Communists fight for such transitional demands and all democratic demands alongside other workers; while particular struggles can be won under capitalism, they would argue that all democratic rights are inevitably doomed unless imperialism is overthrown by socialist revolutions.
Just as class divisions determine the nature of revolutionary strategy for struggles in the U.S., so do they in Haiti. Haitian conditions, however – it is possibly the poorest country in the Western hemisphere with a small working class – have contributed to the disorientation of the left organizations working for a Haitian revolution. A brief look at Haiti’s history is necessary to understand what strategy can free so backward a country from the imperialist grip.
Haiti occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola;; the eastern part is the Dominican Republic. The Spanish colonialists originally conquered the island and exterminated the Indians. They then set up plantations and kidnapped African blacks to work on them as slaves. The French colonialists eventually conquered the western side of Hispaniola and continued and expanded the slave plantations. By the late 18th century, the black slaves were the vast majority of the population.
Despite the efforts of the French slave-owners to suppress any African cultural survivals, the slaves on the plantations and the runaway slaves in the interior were forged into a new nation with its own language, Creole, based on African languages and French, and its own religion, Voodoo. With the outbreak of the revolution in France in 1789, the French in Haiti fell out among themselves. The free blacks and mulattoes took advantage of the whites’ disunity to fight against the racial oppression and restrictions they faced. This breakdown opened the way for a general uprising of blacks in Haiti. In 1791 the “maroons” or runaway slaves revolted, followed by the plantation slaves. The former slaves fought successive French governments for 13 years until they won independence in 1804 as the nation of Haiti – the only successful slave revolution in the history of the world.
In the process, however, the land was laid waste several times over. Large-scale agriculture broke down as the land was divided and redivided. The former slaves, kept in ignorance and degradation by the slave-owners, could not get beyond this condition without aid. The defeated French, the other colonial powers and the United States, slave-owning nations all, did what they could to seal the new black nation off from the rest of the world. Of course, they had no objections to getting rich off Haiti’s resources. This they did by dealing with Haiti’s rulers, for the most part the mulattoes and originally free blacks and their descendants who were the only people with property and education.
Using the state to enrich themselves, the Haitian bourgeoisie sold off much of Haiti’s rich forests to European and American capitalists, leaving bare, eroded hillsides impossible to cultivate. The bourgeoisie seized the land from the poor peasants, reducing many smallholders to sharecropping under the de moitie or two-halves system. To this day, the rural people, the majority of the population, are divided mostly between smallholders farming tiny plots and sharecroppers. All the peasants are subject to occasional labor drafts by the government and large landowners.
The bourgeoisie of Haiti has remained tied to foreign capital, until recently mainly French. This is reflected in the fact that the official language of Haiti is French, which at most 20 percent of the population speaks. The bourgeoisie has depended on foreign loans to finance its government, enterprises and expensive lifestyle. Today the dominant imperialism is America, which sent the marines into Haiti as early as 1915 to collect debts owed to U.S. capitalists. More recently, the U.S. contributed to Haitian “modernization,” as described at the beginning of this article, and the new opening up to imperialism is what led to the massive internal crisis and refugee exodus.
What then is the class nature of Haitian society? It is clearly a backward capitalist country exploited by imperialism. Pre-capitalist social forms like slavery were abolished by mass revolutionary struggle. The sharecropping that many peasants are forced into has nothing to do with feudalism or “semi-feudalism,” as a prominent “Marxist-Leninist” view of Haiti would have it, but is rather an emanation of imperialism’s stranglehold on the country that prevents even the economic expansion typical of nineteenth-century capitalism. Haiti is typical of economically backward, ex-colonial countries in the epoch of imperialist decay: the surplus-value produced by peasants and wage workers is largely siphoned off by the world capitalist market and the direct imperialist owners.
Under these circumstances the Haitian revolution has the primary task of breaking out of the clutches of imperialism. This can be done only if the revolution is under the leadership of the proletariat, the only class whose fundamental interests can be realized only in opposition to imperialist dependence. It also requires a thoroughly internationalist revolutionary strategy, for economic independence for an isolated Haiti is inconceivable in an imperialist-dominated world. In sum, Haiti cries out for a socialist revolution to create a workers’ state (or dictatorship of the proletariat) ; its tasks would be not only the expropriation of the large capitalist holdings to end imperialism’s power, but also the accomplishment of the remaining democratic tasks, like supporting peasant land seizures and, above all, spreading the revolution throughout the Caribbean. This is precisely the Trotskyist strategy of permanent revolution.
The contrary view has been raised by the Mouvement Haitien de Liberation, a tendency that expresses a very left-wing version of Maoism but operates on the assumption that no socialist revolution is possible today:.
In a society like Haiti, semi-feudal and semi-colonial, the struggle must first of all be anti-feudal and anti-imperialist; it is in this sense that it is democratic and national; it is in this sense that it does not stand for the suppression of capitalism and that, while the great imperialist enterprises must be seized and nationalized, the feudal lands will be distributed among the peasants anrid we will even allow, in addition to small-scale cultivation, a rich-peasant economy. It is in this sense that it will be a bourgeois democratic revolution, because the target is large feudal property and not private property in general. Against the common enemy, imperialism and feudalism, an alliance is necessary among the proletariat, the great mass of the peasantry, and the different layers of the urban petty bourgeoisie. (Haiti Liberation, October 1981) .
The MHL thus distinguishes itself from the comprador bourgeoisie that backs Jean-Claude Duvalier, which would be happy to eliminate the landowners in favor of capitalist fanning for the imperialist market. The MHL insists that its entire strategy is dedicated to the achievement of the dictatorship of the proletariat – but at a later stage, when capitalist relations will have developed independent of feudalism and imperialism and the working class will be allied in the class struggle to a rural proletariat arraigned against the rich peasantry. It also believes that this strategy was Lenin’s – but it forgets that Lenin transcended his early “democratic dictatorship” formula during the socialist revolution of 1917.
The picture the MHL paints of a “people’s” dictatorship of three classes – workers, peasants and urban petty-bourgeoisie – is completely utopian and fundamentally reactionary. Since the economy will still be capitalist, how will it avoid a renewed imperialist penetration and domination? This is certainly what happened in Mao’s China, whose revolution was made under a similar strategy and has since gone begging from Russian imperialism to Japanese and American for the capital and technology it needs to escape its historic backwardness. Likewise, the MHL’s encouragement of a rich peasantry, which dates back to the disastrous Bukharin-Stalin “enrich yourselves” policy in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s, will lead, just as it threatened to do then, to an open door for imperialism.
The Nicaraguan revolution under the Sandinistas’ petty-bourgeois domination, in alliance with the anti-Somoza sector of the big bourgeoisie, shows the pitfalls of a non-proletarian “popular” leadership: the workers remain exploited by capital and the country’s leaders incessantly maneuver from one imperialism to another. All the nationalist-led colonial revolutions have failed to free the new nations from imperialism. Even though the MHL criticizes the Sandinistas for basing themselves on the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie rather than the workers, in what way is their strategy for Haiti different from the Sandinistas’ for Nicaragua? There is no fundamental (that is, class) difference between the Nicaraguans’ bourgeois alliance and the MHL’s insistence on maintaining capitalist economic relations and allowing a (non-petty) bourgeoisie to grow.
In fact, the only way to try to defend small-property capitalism, avoid imperialist penetration and do nothing about spreading the revolution internationally would be to restrict the economy to small-scale production for the internal market. That would be nothing but reactionary, and it too would fail to keep the imperialist powers at bay. Moreover, an isolated country as backward as Haiti will never become ripe for socialism through its own internal efforts alone, no matter how profoundly the class struggle develops. “Socialism in one country” is a fraud for the most advanced nations, let alone the least. The two-stage revolution formula of the MHL and other Maoist-derived tendencies is an impossibility. The Haitian revolution will be proletarian socialist – and above all internationalist – or it will lead, sooner rather than later, straight back into the lap of imperialism.
In the final analysis, the only hope for Haiti and other ex-colonial countries to escape from imperialism is the socialist revolution in the United States and other imperialist countries. Undeniably, revolutionary conditions have not matured here as they have in Central America and could equally well do in Haiti. The building of a proletarian revolutionary party in the U.S., a task the LRP is dedicated to fight for, is an inescapable necessity for revolution. This and other revolutionary developments in the U.S. would be greatly enhanced by a revolutionary workers’ state in Haiti that proclaimed its socialist goals and appealed to the U.S. working class for support; and they would likewise be advanced by a campaign by Haitian-American workers for an internationalist policy by the U.S. working class and oppressed peoples. The tasks are not unrelated. A working-class strategy is the crucial element both for the immediate struggle in defense of the Haitian refugees and for the long-term goals of anti-imperialist and socialist victories.