By Mark Osborn
At the end of March a sweatshop union organiser from the militant Haitian trade union Batay Ouvriye will go on a speaker tour of Britain organised by No Sweat and the Haiti Support Group.
Batay Ouvriye describes itself as "an organisation [of] factory unions and committees, workers' associations and militants, struggling for the construction of an independent, combative and democratic union movement, and to organise wage-workers, self-employed workers and the unemployed for the defense of their rights.
"The organisation is an alternative to the traditional bureaucratic, corrupt union movement that upholds the dominant classes' power amongst the exploited masses of Haiti.
"Not only do we take the initiative of developing spontaneous direct issue struggles, but also we incite the working class to fight and to organise themselves to defend their independent interests.
"Batay Ouvriye also links these particular struggles with those, more wide-ranging, of the people... we take part in all types of popular democratic struggles by encouraging the involvement of workers."
The visit coincides with a major political crisis in Haiti. Big mobilisations are rocking the government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which on 17 January warned of a coup.
On 18 January up to 10,000 people assembled in the capital Port-au-Prince after Sunday morning mass. They marched, shouting anti-Aristide slogans. Government supporters, waiting on rooftops and behind walls, threw stones at the demonstrators and later the marchers were fired on by gunmen hidden behind Haiti's state television centre.
A similar protest was staged on the previous Sunday.
On 16 January several people had been injured when police fired shots and tear gas to stop a crowd of mourners from approaching the presidential palace. The mourners were carrying the coffin of a student, Maxime Deselmour, who was shot dead during a previous demonstration.
At the funeral, the priest condemned the administration's corruption and human rights abuses. A crowd of more than 100 interrupted him with chants of "Down with Aristide!" and "Too much blood is flowing! Aristide must go!"
When the crowd approached the palace, police fired into the air and tried to push it back. Aristide supporters circled the area for several minutes, firing guns and throwing rocks.
While police fired tear gas, the mourners loaded the coffin onto a pick-up truck and drove it to a university building. Students burned cars and piles of tyres, and threw rocks at approaching police.
Estimates of the number of dead killed in the violence between opposition groups and government supporters since September 2003 varies from 25 to 45. Both sides blame each other for the violence, and (according to some reports) groups of the poorest shanty-town dwellers are willing to support and fight for whoever pays them.
On Thursday 8 and Friday 9 January, most banks, schools, gas stations and large businesses in Haiti were closed during opposition action. The opposition had called a general strike. The pro-government press, which refers to the opposition as "the bourgeoisie", claims that the action was not a workers' strike but a bosses' action, closing up businesses which the opposition leaders own.
A government also says the strike was not indicative of public opinion and did not affect state enterprises or small businesses.
Strike organiser Jean Henold Buteau, a doctor, said all 20 doctors in his clinic were observing the strike, as were non-emergency physicians at Port-au-Prince hospitals. "The strike is not 100 percent because small merchants cannot afford to strike," he said.
Charles Arthur of the British-based Haiti Support Group comments, "What has been happening in Haiti is that the employers - banks, assembly factories, private schools, large shops, offices of medium to large companies - have shut down their operations in support of opposition calls for a 'strike' against the government. Workers have no choice about whether they work or not - they are effectively locked out. While some workers undoubtedly hate the government - it has been no friend of workers or of workers' organisations, it is impossible to know how many would have respected a genuine strike call."
The opposition in Haiti is hoping that international attention on Haiti around the 200th anniversary of its independence from France will help them topple the Aristide regime.
The main opposition is a coalition known as the "Group of 184".
Three of the main leaders of the Group of 184 are:
- Andre Apaid junior, a businessman who runs textile assembly factories employing 4,000 workers;
- Charles Henri Baker, a businessman who also runs textile assembly operations (aka sweatshops), and who is vice-president of the sweatshop owners group, the Manufacturers' Association of Haiti (ADIH);
- Hans Tippenhauer, who is a member of the Washington-based think-tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies Caribbean Leadership Group, and has previously been associated with the National Association of Producers (APRONA) and the Manufacturers' Association of Haiti (ADIH).
Aristide's Lavalas Party took more than 80% of the local and parliamentary seats in 2000, but observers condemned the elections as not free or fair and foreign aid was frozen. After the elections the opposition boycotted the Congress, and refused to co-operate in any government initiatives. There is currently deadlock over legislative elections due this year - there has been no agreement on who should be appointed to the electoral council charged with running them.
The opposition refuse to participate in new elections unless Aristide resigns. Aristide has promised to hold parliamentary elections this year, and states he will serve out his term until 2006.
For years Haiti was notorious for the brutal dictatorships of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude, or "Baby Doc".
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a radical Roman Catholic priest. During the 1980s he championed the poor, advocated democracy and campaigned against "Baby Doc's" dictatorship. He was the target of several assassination attempts. His political activities were unpopular with church officials, he was expelled from his religious order in 1988 and left the priesthood in 1994.
Aristide became Haiti's first democratically-elected president in 1990, with great popular support. Months later he was overthrown in a bloody military coup, but returned to power in 1994 after the new rulers were forced to step down under international pressure and with the help of US troops.
Haiti's economic situation - always desperately poor - has deteriorated still further in the past few years. Traditional exports of coffee, rum and other agricultural products having diminished almost to zero. The country's infrastructure has almost completely collapsed, and drug-trafficking has corrupted both the judicial system and the police force.
Haiti has a huge wealth gap between the impoverished Creole-speaking black majority and the French-speaking elite, 1% who own nearly half the country's wealth.
Adult literacy is 53%, infant mortality stands at 76 deaths per 1,000 births, and life expectancy is around 50 years due to the AIDS crisis.
Two-thirds of the population live from subsistence agriculture. New Free Trade Zones are operating, offering transnational corporations labour at minimal wage rates.
Ecologically, the countryside is on the verge of collapse. In the last 50 years Haiti's forest cover has shrunk from 20% to just 2% of the land mass. The result has been a surge to the cities, which are crumbling under the weight of the sheer number of people who live in appalling conditions in shanty towns and on the streets.