Workers in Haiti’s Holocaust

Against the Current, No. 50, May/June 1994

Cecilia Green interviews Cajuste Lexiuste & Porcenel Joachim

IN 1984 THE “Baby Doc” Duvalier government of Haiti cynically recognized some trade union rights so that Haiti could become eligible for certain benefits under the Caribbean Basin Initiative program — granting preferential access to the U.S. market. In reality, these “rights” were entirely restricted to the formal recognition of the Federation of Unionized Workers (FOS), which was formed with the assistance of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD). Other unions continued their organizing underground and were important in contributing to the anti-Duvalier uprising of late 1985-early 1986.

Following “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s decision to flee Haiti, union membership flowered. By June 1986 the White House was calling for AIFLD’s assistance in Haiti “because of the presence of radical labor unions and the high risk that other unions may become radicalized.” (See Sims, Workers of the World Undermined, Boston: South End Press, 1992, 27)

While the 1987 Haitian Constitution did provide the right to strike, a succession of fraudulent governments continued to attack workers’ rights. When Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide announced his candidacy in 1990, the popular movement overwhelmingly supported him.

Following Aristide’s inauguration, unions called for wide-ranging political rights as well as for an increase in the minimum wage, from thirty-three cents to fifty cents an hour. In fact, the coup that overthrew Aristide on September 30, 1991 “was prompted by President Aristide’s decision to raise the minimum wage.” (Free Labour World, November 1993). Of course, the United States Agency for Industrial Development (US-AID) had declared the new minimum wage bad for business and had waged an intensive propaganda campaign against it.

The savage repression unleashed by the coup against the popular movement has resulted in over 4,000 deaths. Hundreds of thousands more are in hiding. More than two years after the coup, the repression is once again on the rise. This time the paramilitary tactics include rape, the burning down of houses with people trapped inside, torture and mutilation. A sinister new element in the campaign of repression by the military is the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war against female militants and relatives of militants.

This year, on International Women’s Day, more than two dozen women from several women’s groups demonstrated in front of UNICEF’s office in the capital. But the staff refused to meet the group, locking the gates and trapping the women inside the yard for a period of time. Holding banners, the women read statements detailing the rapes, sexual assaults, beatings and murders of women.

Spokeswoman Danielle Magloire stated: “In the vicious situation of widespread repression, repression against women is even worse. There will be no democracy, no state that satisifes the demands of the people, if there is no liberation and justice for women.” (“Reign of Terror Haunts Haitian Women,” Kathie Klarreich, Latinamerica Press, 3/17/94)

The New York Times announced that “After months of struggling over how to restore democracy in Haiti, the Clinton Administration faces a stalemate.” (4/7/94) Clinton’s latest maneuver was to broker a “deal” in which Aristide would name yet another prime minister, then the military who are responsible for so much bloodshed would be given an amnesty! Details —  such as when President Aristide would return to Haiti — were left vague.

All forty members of the Congressional Black Caucus have called for tightening the embargo against Haiti, halting the interdiction and summary repatriation of Haitian refugees and the removal of the military high command. Yet U.S. trade with Haiti actually increased in 1993, with U.S. exports reaching $221 million and imports exceeding $154 million.

Despite such criticism of the ”leaky” embargo, Clinton is not eager to tighten it. As Lawrence Pezzulo, Clinton’s special adviser on Haiti, piously proclaimed, “If all you do is tighten the embargo without doing anything else, it’s not going to have an effect.” (NYT, 4/7/94)

Background to the Interview

On April 23, 1993 Cajuste Lexiuste, general secretary of the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), was arrested, tortured and imprisoned along with Fabonor St-Vil, CGT organizational secretary, and Sauveur Aurilus, CGT delegate from Gros-Morne and president of the Bas-Moulin union. They were arrested just prior to the April 26, 1993 general strike, which they were working to build.

Popular pressure forced the military to release St-Vil and Aurelus after nine days, but Lexiuste was held in a military hospital for almost a month. During that time he underwent three operations on his buttocks and arms. Currently he is in New York for a series of treatments.

Lexiuste led his union, the Union of Public Transportation Drivers for the Metropolitan Area, into the CGT in 1990, when the federation was formed. The drivers’ union represents most of the “tap-tap” drivers (who drive small and covered passenger pick-up trucks) in Port-au-Prince. The union was key to organizing for workers’ rights during the brief period Aristide was in power as well as in organizing general strikes following the coup.

Currently all leaders of the CGT are in hiding or in exile.

The interview with Cajuste Lexiuste and Porcenel Joachim, the CGT’s assistant secretary and president of the metalworkers union, took place last February when Lexiuste and Joachim were in Detroit on a speaking tour. Cecilia Green, who is active in the Haiti Solidarity Group of Ann Arbor, interviewed them. She wishes to thank Professor Jean-Claude Dutès of Michigan State University for his help with the translation from Creole.

Cecilia Green: I was amazed at how the unions, especially the CGT, were able to carry out organized actions after the coup. How were you able to organize?

CL & PJ: The Haitian people have a tradition of continuing political struggle while underground — we refer to it as “marronage” (pronounced in Haitian Creole, “mawonaj”). This is the tradition of runaway slaves who used to form hidden communities outside the plantations.

Of course, after the coup came we could no longer sleep in our homes at night. But we continued to organize. We had to keep changing houses every night, never staying in one place for too long, never sleeping with our families….

CG: I understand that many of the assembly industries closed down and left the country after the coup and thousands of workers lost their jobs. How were you able to keep organizing workers who were unemployed?

CL & PJ: That was the very objective of the coup d’etat, to put people out of work and make them desperate enough to say, “Down with democracy,” “Down with President Aristide.”

The workers themselves — the most intelligent among them — turned to trading(1) and organized themselves in small groups to sell what they could in order to survive and fight the coup d’etat. That is why the coup leaders themselves were constantly complaining about the embargo while the majority of Haitian people were never heard to complain.

We were in constant contact with the workers who formed a network of small traders. They continued to be members of the union and the union continued to organize them.

CG: We heard about a number of successful general strikes that were organized after the coup. How were you able to organize general strikes at a time of so much repression?

CL & PJ: Well, it is true that we were able to organize a number of successful general strikes, but those cost the movement dearly.

You know about the severe beating that nearly killed Cajuste, from which he is still suffering the after-effects. Other CGT leaders were beaten and many killed.

When the small traders (“petits marchands”) would take part in a general strike, the military would come the next day and beat them up, destroy their merchandise and generally wreak havoc. They suffered greatly for their loyalty and determination.

After Comrade Cajuste came out of prison on the 21st of May [1993], we calculated that if we planned a strike for the 24th of June it was likely to be successful.

In spite of all the injuries sustained by Cajuste and the two other CGT leaders, they felt obliged to call a press conference just after they had been released from prison, to convey a sense of strength and confidence to the people. The participation of Cajuste in particular was meant to show the political resilience of the union.

The strike took place on the 24th of June. It was about ninety percent successful. Many people were amazed that despite the risk and the inevitable repression to follow, the Haitian workers were willing to stay at home to ensure success.

However, we need to consider the consequences of this mass participation in the strike. The next day, the small traders bore the brunt of the army’s vengeance. All the small traders in all the marketplaces and sidewalks of Port-au-Prince were attacked by the military. The military would beat them, arrest them, torture them. They would seize or smash their goods, leaving them strewn all over the streets. These are the forms of repression that the people are forced to endure for participating in national strikes.

CG: The CGT is one of the major organizations that publicly opposed the negotiations being forced on President Aristide. You also opposed the privatization of state industries. What are your political ideas?

CL & PJ: We see ourselves as a labor confederation whose main goal is to defend the working class, the poor and their interests. We are against privatization of the state enterprises first and foremost because it is part of the plan of the imperialists represented by the IMF and the World Bank. It is being carried out for their benefit only and is not in the interest of the average Haitian.

The objective of privatization of the public enterprises was to undermine local production and to build favorable conditions for contraband trade and the importation of goods that can easily be produced in Haiti.

During the seven months of President Aristide’s government, the state enterprises were becoming profitable and were starting to benefit the government tremendously. The Haitian economy was beginning to expand because internal production relies on internal consumption and the state enterprises were major buyers and suppliers of domestic products. If you no longer have state enterprises, the national state will to some extent cease to exist and become instead an institution representative of the imperialist countries.

CG: What led to the formation of the CGT?

CL & PJ: We both used to be part of the Autonomous Central of Haitian Workers (CATH). I was the president of the drivers’ union and Porcenel was the president of the machinists’ union. Before and after 1986, CATH was the strongest and most militant labor union in Haiti. But a struggle developed within CATH. Some of us noticed that there was a section of the leadership who were leaning more towards the ANDP [a coalition of groups supporting Marc Bazin, a candidate for the 1990 elections who was Washington’s favorite — Bazin was a former World Bank official(2) — ed.]. This was the origin of the split within CATH.

Before 1990, we heard the message Aristide was delivering from his pulpit at St. Jean Bosco Church. We saw how he identified with the struggle of the people. At the time of the election campaign, we threw our weight behind the candidacy of Father Aristide, but others within CATH wanted to go with ANDP and Marc Bazin.

During this period there was an organization called the Common Front Against Repression, of which CATH was a part. We organized a press conference to launch Father Aristide as an alternative to General Avril (the leader of the military government at that time). But a section of CATH opposed to Aristide’s candidacy sent a group of thugs to smash up the press conference. At the press conference, workers asked the ANDP supporters in CATH why they were attempting to sabotage the conference and why they were against the people who had a mandate to rally behind Aristide. Jean Auguste Mesyeus [a leader of the pro-ANDP forces within CATH] told them that no one was going to accept Aristide as president.

Pro-ANDP forces under the leadership of Mesyeus organized a general assembly of about 450 workers to launch an attack against those of us who had held the press conference. At that point, workers in CATH realized that the ANDP faction within the union was not in solidarity with them. They were going to have to find another way to change the direction in which the pro-ANDP forces were trying to lead the union.

Subsequently, there was a general assembly at which the majority of workers decided to expel the pro-ANDP leadership from the union. This decision was not immediately implemented. The leadership, which had tight connections with the existing government, defied the vote. However the workers stood firm and eventually we formed the CGT.

CG: How do you distinguish yourselves ideologically from CATH?

CL & PJ: The fundamental difference is that the old CATH aligned itself with a series of reactionary political parties (MIDH, ANDP, PANPRA, MNP 28). We ourselves always held a consistent political position against the ANDP. From the very beginning we saw it as representing imperialism and the Macoute sector. We kept the same position when we helped to launch Aristide as an alternative to Avril.

We supported the progressive initiatives of the government throughout and continued to support Aristide after the coup d’etat. We supported him before the elections, after the elections, after the coup d’etat. We were not among those going along with negotiations to find a compromise solution that would accommodate the current military government.

To be precise, the CGT is behind Aristide, not because he is the president, but because his main political objectives are consistent with those of the CGT.

CG: How do the various unions settle the question of membership of workers in the assembly industries?

CL & PJ: All the unions have membership from all the industries in Haiti. But workers have become very vigilant, very discriminating, about which union most effectively represents their interests.

There are six centrals [labor confederations(3)] in Haiti, all have agents who distribute literature and talk to workers in an attempt to recruit them into the unions. Between 1986-88 there was a great expansion of efforts to mobilize workers and educate them in the principles of trade unionism.

From 1988-91 things shifted somewhat. There was now more of an ideological competition, which presented the workers with an opportunity to select the organization whose language and position best reflected their own. Many who had been affiliated with other centrals left to join our organization.

CG: How many workers belonged to the CGT?

CL &PJ: The CGT had about 25,000 members before the coup. In May 1991, while President Aristide was still in office, we were forced to stop subscriptions to the CGT. The concern at that time was infiltration — were the workers joining because of ideological conviction or were some of them joining because they thought membership in the union would get them on the inside?

Some of them felt that the CGT had a special relationship with the government and that being on the inside would make it easier for them to sabotage the work of the union and of the government.

Women Workers

CG: Women make up a majority of the assembly workers. What did the CGT do to encourage union participation among women?

CL &PJ: The owners of the assembly companies felt that men were more likely to be involved in forming and participating in unions than women. Consequently, they fired more of the men and began to hire more women.

At that point we had to come up with a new strategy to integrate women more closely into the movement. We began to recruit more women into the union.

We used various ways of gaining the confidence of women. For example, we would befriend them and render them assistance — provide them transportation — and then talk to them about the importance of the role of the union.

Women are always more reticent than men about becoming involved in union activities. Because of this we had to use special tactics to help them understand the importance of women’s role in the struggle for democracy.

We used the symbol of Henriette de St. Marc, who had played a central role in the Haitian Revolution. We used her as an example of a woman who had been a leader in the struggle in order to convince them of their own capabilities. We had to convince them that the struggle for democracy could not be successful without the participation of women.

CG: Did women come forward as leaders?

CL & PJ: There were two women members of the CGT executive. The majority of the assembly industry locals were run by women. In each local there were executive committees of seven, nine, thirteen or fifteen people, and then there was the base membership. We always created the conditions or influenced the workers to have a maximum number of women on the executive committees. For one, it has been our experience that whenever there are women on the negotiating team in any kind of negotiations with the boss, the union very rarely loses.

CG: What is the situation with those women who did become leaders? There have been reports of beatings, torture, rape.

CL & PL: Some of them are still in Haiti struggling, some are in political exile. A number of them are in hiding in Haiti, others are in jail. In the current situation, women are the ones who transmit information within the movement; the most reliable and up-to-date information that is critically needed by the movement comes from women. The majority of the “ti-marchands” — mostly women — support the struggle for democracy.

CG: What about repression against women in particular? We understand that rape is being used as a weapon of terror in Haiti today.

CL & PJ: Yes, we think that rape is being used both systematically and selectively in Haiti. The torture and rape of women occur at night always. Most of the women who have been raped have been in the movement as labor or political activists. These women are especially targeted.

Women, of course, are always the most vulnerable victims of social exploitation. Sexual exploitation of women is institutionalized in Haiti.

Those who apply for jobs in the assembly industries or elsewhere are often forced to sleep with the supervisor in order to get the job and have to continue to do so in order to keep it. Women who don’t have jobs in Haiti are often forced to turn to prostitution.

Many men, knowing that these women do not have access to jobs, take advantage of the situation to abuse women. This is one of the things that has to stop in Haiti.

CG: Is there equal pay for equal work in Haiti?

CL & PJ: Yes there is, but that means nothing, either for women or for men. They are both making fourteen cents an hour in Haiti today.


  1. Small trading – the buying and selling of foodstuffs, handicrafts and light consumer manufacturers by individual retailers/vendors who ply their trade from trays or makeshift stalls in the marketplaces and on the sidewalks of Port-au-Prince — is the primary occupation of workers in the “informal sector” or “secondary economy.” The latter reportedly absorbs 60% of economically active persons in the Port-au-Prince area, the majority of participants being women.
    back to text
  2. ANDP — the Alliance Nationale pour la Démocratic et la Progrès (National Alliance for Democracy and Progress) — is a coalition of three parties which supported Marc Bazin as a presidential candidate in the 1990 elections. The three parties are: Mouvement pour l’ Instauration de la Démocratie en Haiti (MIDH), a pro-IMF neo-liberal party headed by Bazin himself; the recycled Duvalierists of Mouvement Nationale Patriotique 28 Juillet (MNP 28) haded by Déjean Bélizaire; and PANPRA, a “social democratic” party and member of the Socialist International, headed by Serges Gilles.
    back to text
  3. The six are: Fédération des Ouvriers Syndiqués (FOS) — Federation of Unionized Workers, closely affiliated with AIFLD, although current leadership is more independent than in the past; Centrale Autonome des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CATH) — Autonomous Central of Haitian Workers, split from CATH-CLAT, social-democratic connections locally and internationally, backed Bazin and ANDP in 1990 elections, causing a new split, which led to the formation of the CGT; Centrale des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH)-Haitian Workers’ Central, previously CATH-CLAT, affiliated with Christian-Democratic or Social-Christian CLAT/WCL group of unions, the only union to publicly denounce Aristide and support the Vatican’s present position in Haiti; Organisation Générale Indépendante des Travailleurs, Haïtiens (OGITH) — Independent General Organization of Haitian Workers, also funded by AFLD, but claims independence; Centrale Générale des Travailleurs (CGT) General Confederation of Workers, formed in 1990 as a result of a split within CATH, backed Aristide in the 1990 elections, militantly anti-imperialist and critical of U.S. policy in Haiti; Confédération Nationale des Enseignants Haïtiens (CNEH) – National Confederation of Haitian Teachers, the only single-occupation labor confederation in Haiti. Most of the confederations have between 3,000-10,000 members. Before its split, CATH had 100,000 members. At the height of its recruitment drive, the CGT claimed a membership of 25,000.
    back to text

ATC 50, May-June 1994