Haitian Labor Group Confronts US Lavalas Backers
NEW YORK, Nov. 11 2005
Long-standing differences in the Haitian left began to emerge as an issue among US progressives this fall as the well-known Haitian labor organizing group Batay Ouvriye ("Workers' Struggle") responded to what it called a "slander" from US supporters of the Lavalas movement of deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
During an "International Tribunal on Haiti" in Washington, DC on the weekend of Sept. 23, a panelist charged that Batay Ouvriye had been funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of a program for "creating a leftist opposition" in Haiti in the months leading up to Aristide's overthrow in February 2004. The money came through the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Center and was part of a $3 million package for subverting the Haitian government, according to Jeb Sprague,
an independent journalist and a graduate student at California State University at Long Beach. Batay Ouvriye was "working with co-conspirators overthrowing a democratically elected government," Sprague said.
The tribunal was organized by several large left and solidarity groups, including International ANSWER, the International Action Center and the Latin America Solidarity Coalition. Sprague's presentation was aired in New York on Sept. 28 on WBAI-FM's popular morning program, "Wakeup Call."
Batay Ouvriye responded on Oct 1 [see below]. The group ridiculed the idea that it had been paid to be part of "an unholy alliance fabricated by the State Department." In fact, the statement said, Batay Ouvriye has a long, very public record of opposition to "the Lavalas leaders, who we certainly exposed to be reactionaries, swindlers, complete frauds, anti-popular and fundamentally anti-worker." Sprague--who claimed to have conducted 30 interviews in his research--"never once contacted our organization
for information," Batay Ouvriye charged.
Batay Ouvriye has worked with a number of international solidarity groups over the years, including the National Labor Committee and the Campaign for Labor Rights. Among its best-known campaigns were unionization drives at Grand Marnier and Cointreau plantations in northern Haitian and the recent unionization of a Dominican-owned factory in a "free trade zone" by the Dominican border in Ouanaminthe. During the Ouanaminthe struggle Batay Ouvriye received $3,500 from the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, in response to public appeals for funds to help fired workers. This was apparently the funding Sprague was referring to.
Stressing that it focuses on grassroots struggles "against the bourgeoisie concretely in the factories, sweatshops, plantations," Batay Ouvriye asked why the International Tribunal had chosen to target it rather than a number of much less militant Haitian unions that "closely resemble...the pro-imperialist and pro-bourgeois Confederation of Vene
zuelan Labor (CTV)," a major force in the 2002 US-backed effort to overthrow Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Batay Ouvriye noted that two of its supporters were killed in northern Haiti in May 2002 by goons led by a local Lavalas mayor. Aristide's government responded to the anti-union violence by arresting several Batay Ouvriye organizers and two journalists; some were held in the National Penitentiary until December 2002, when they were released following an international campaign to press the Lavalas government for their release.
The controversy between Batay Ouvriye and US supporters of Lavalas comes at a time when many US progressives are beginning to question the picture of the Haitian situation presented here by both mainstream and alternative media, including the well-known national radio and television program "Democracy Now!"
The image of Lavalas as a unified militant force on the left has been shaken recently by disarray within the movement over elections scheduled to be hel
d in December by a US-backed interim government. A number of "grassroots leaders" in Port-au-Prince neighborhoods are supporting the presidential candidacy of former president Rene Preval, a personal friend of Aristide's. Many former Lavalas office-holders, meanwhile, are backing former World Bank official Marc Bazin, a cabinet minister in the government of deposed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier ("Baby Doc") and a longtime proponent of US-backed neoliberal economic programs for Haiti. Meanwhile groups around the New York-based weekly Haiti Progres are calling for a boycott of the elections. All factions are claiming the support of the Lavalas base.
- David Wilson - Nicaragua Solidarity Network and the Grassroots Haiti Solidarity Committee
A Batay Ouvriye organizer, Yanick Etienne, will be in New York the week of Nov. 21. She will be speaking at a public forum, sponsored by the Grassroots Haiti Solidarity Committee, on Friday, Nov. 25, at 6 pm, at the Church of the Evangel at 1950 Bedfo
rd Avenue in Brooklyn. Etienne will be available for interviews during the week. Grassroots Haiti*, a New York-based group of long-time Haitian and North American activists, is also organizing a delegation of activists and independent journalists to visit Haiti in February to solidify contacts with Batay Ouvriye and other grassroots organizations.
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