Haiti: Unions Call for General Strike; Mayors Appeal for Urgent Aid

By Roger Annis

Roger Annis is a member of Haiti Solidarity BC and the Canada Haiti Action Network. He visited Haiti from August 5 to 20 as a participant in the Fondasyon Mapou/Haiti Priorities Project human rights delegation. The following are two of the first-hand reports he has posted on a blogsite hosted by the Toronto Haiti Action Committee, at http://thac.ca/blog/9.

The delegation’s visit was marred by the kidnapping on August 12 of a well-known and respected Haitian political rights fighter, Lovinsky Pierre Antoine. He had participated in many of the delegation’s activities. Its members are working hard with others to win his safe release.

Roger will speak about his visit in cities across Canada in September, beginning September 4 in Halifax. It is expected that other recent visitors to Haiti will also speak at these events. Dates and locations will be posted on his blog. Roger can be reached at rogerannis@hotmail.com.

Unions Call for General Strike in Haiti

Port Au Prince, Haiti: At a press conference here on August 17, one of Haiti’s transport unions, the Association des propriétaires et chaffeurs d’Haïti (APCH—Association of Owners and Drivers of Haiti), launched an appeal for unions and popular organizations to hold a two-day, country-wide general strike to protest the disastrous economic situation facing working people in this country.

In an interview following the press conference, the communications director of the union, Fortuné Patrice, explained that the initial appeal is supported by many trade unions, student organizations and other popular movements. The union will hold discussions with more unions and popular organizations in the coming week to broaden support for the strike, set for August 27 and 28.

“The government of René Préval is aligning itself more and more with the interests of the foreign powers in Haiti, to the detriment of the Haitian people. Conditions of life for ordinary people are deteriorating all around us and we cannot sit back and let this happen,” he said.

Fortuné says the strike will encompass the demands of transport workers, but also of the general population. Demands include:

  • A reduction in the price of fuel.
  • A compromise in the government’s demand that transport workers and owner/operators pay up for vehicle license fees that went unpaid during the three and a half years of chaos that followed the February 29, 2004 coup d’état in Haiti. The union says the de facto government provided no services during that time, so drivers or anyone else being asked to pay up should not have to pay. The APCH has offered a compromise payment from its members of half the fees owed.
  • Revision of the May 26, 2006 law that hiked various licensing and traffic fines by as much as 50 times.
  • An end to layoffs and privatisation plans for state-owned companies such as Teleco (telecommunications) and EDH (electricity).
  • Programs to improve the conditions of life for the poorest people in Haiti, such as reductions in the price of basic foods and more funding for health care and education.

The working age population in Haiti numbers 4.5 million. Of those, only 200,000 have salaried jobs, including 35,000 in government services and state-owned enterprises. There is deep and growing dissatisfaction here with the failure of the foreign occupation powers and the Préval government elected in early 2006 to make any dent in the crushing burden of unemployment and absence of public services.

The APCH organizes workers and owner/operators that run inter-city buses and transport trucks. It numbers 2,000 members. It is working hard to expand its membership, including among the 70,000 public transport (“tap tap”) drivers in Port au Prince.

The union also supports programs that provide health care and other services to its members or the general population. One such program is a mobile health service, recently launched by the 35-member Syndicat haïtien des professionnels(elles) de santé (Haitian Union of Health Professionals). (Please see this writer’s article on the exemplary work of this group of health care workers, at www.thac.ca/blog/9).

Like everyone in Haiti, members of the APCH suffer from the dysfunction of government services in Haiti and violations of basic rights at the hands of police. Fortuné Patrice told this writer of a recent case of a truck driver who spent more than two months in jail after he came upon an apparent road accident in which the driver of a single vehicle had died. Police held the driver in jail as a preventive measure, they said, because they had no one else who might have been responsible for the death. It took more than two months before the driver could appear before a judge and win a release.

In describing the social calamity facing the Haitian people, Fortuné commented on the absence of foreign aid programs needed to deliver much needed services to the Haitian people. “Haiti is the second-largest recipient of foreign aid by the government of Canada. But the population here does not see this money nor receive any services that it might provide.

“Is there any way,” he pleaded, “that aid money from Canada could be directed to the organizations that are delivering services on the ground and not get wasted by a bureaucracy that never seems to reach the people?”

President René Préval is himself voicing discontent with the foreign presence in Haiti. On August 1, during a 24-hour visit to Haiti by the UN’s new secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, Préval told reporters, “I invite the UN to reinvent MINUSTAH (the French acronym for the UN occupation force in Haiti) and make it an instrument of help to the justice system and improvement of our basic infrastructure.”

But the President also declared in June, following a two-day strike by APCH and other transport unions, that he will not yield to protests for improvements in social programs nor to other criticisms of his government.

At the press conference that called for a general strike, APCH also expressed its concern about the recent kidnapping of political rights figure Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine. The union called for the kidnappers to release Lovinsky unharmed, and for the authorities to put all necessary resources into ensuring his safe release.

Another rally by Lovinsky’s supporters will take place today (August 20) in Port au Prince in front of the presidential palace, calling for a maximum effort by government and police authorities to win his safe release. This rally is in place of one yesterday that had to be cancelled due to rains precipitated by Hurricane Dean. Port au Prince escaped heavy winds and rains from the hurricane.

Mayors Appeal for Help to
Avert Humanitarian Disaster in Haiti

Port de Paix, Haiti: “We are one hour of heavy rainfall away from a humanitarian catastrophe here in Port de Paix,” said one of this city’s deputy mayors, Eluscane Elusme, to members of a human rights fact-finding delegation organized by the U.S.-based Fondasyon Mapou and Haiti Priorities Project. The delegation is spending four days touring northern Haiti.

Elusme and another deputy mayor, Wilter Eugene, gave a wide-ranging interview to the delegation yesterday morning. At times, it was difficult to hear each other over the clamour of the street traffic passing by on the adjacent main street.

The two mayors painted a picture of a city of 200,000 living on the edge of human survival. They consider the city uninhabitable in its present condition. There is no running water, and electricity service is provided at late night only, for four to six hours. The city lies at sea level; heavy rainfall would flood tens of thousands out of their precarious homes and overwhelm any rescue effort. The consequences of a hurricane strike is unthinkable. There would not be enough transport available to get people out of the way.

The city’s airport is getting crowded out by market vendors. People continue to migrate into the city from the surrounding countryside, but there is no room to house them. Street vending is a part of the struggle for survival—there is no work here and everyone is in the streets all day long trying to earn a few gourdes, the Haitian currency, by selling items or services.

Elusme and Eugene are part of a new city administration that took office in March. Their first act in office was to purchase eight wheelbarrows and shovels in order to remove the garbage and sewage that lines the city’s streets. The city has no motorized vehicles to do the job. They hope to double the salaries of those who work cleaning the streets. Those workers earn less than two dollars per day to shovel garbage and human waste from the street gutters in the extreme heat of Haiti’s summer. They have no protective equipment.

The newly-elected officials inherited a municipal administration that was shattered by the February 2004 coup d’etat that destroyed Haiti’s elected government. They say that matters have improved slightly since the national elections in 2006. But the city’s budget for the upcoming year is only 127,000 Haitian gourdes (US$4200), roughly the same amount at the time of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. This budget is insufficient and cannot meet the increasing demands of the city’s population which has grown exponentially since then.

One of the great challenges hindering infrastructure in Haiti is the lack of resources to set up tax collecting administration. The mayors are critical of the central government in Port au Prince for failing to respond to their urgent appeals for financial help and other resources.

Currently, the only health care services in the city are those provided by a Cuban medical contingent that has been in the region since before 2004.

The mayors are calling for two emergency measures. They want more delegations to come to Port de Paix to see the situation first hand and appeal for international aid. And they want the national government and the countries of the foreign occupation to immediately provide money and equipment to clean the city and get services such as water, electricity and health care running. Schools are supposed to open next week, but this will not be possible in the present conditions.

The mayors are also calling for all political parties in Haiti to unite in order to tackle the county’s social crisis.

Penal system a disgrace

Our delegation got a first-hand look at what passes for a justice system in Haiti when we visited a local courtroom and the office of the commissioner of the Northwest Department in Port de Paix. Haiti has ten departments (equivalent to states or provinces). Each one has a commissioner appointed by the national president.

The civil judge and his two assistant judges in Port de Paix have not been paid for more than two years. Their work is conducted in a small, noisy area sectioned off on the top floor of the municipal building.

Commissioner Michenet Balthazar granted us an interview and gave a graphic description of the lack of funding and other resources in the justice system. These problems are compounded by rampant nepotism and corruption, and bribery is an all-too common protocol.

The local prison holds slightly more than 200 prisoners in six cells. Each cell measures approximately 20 feet square. One of them held 13 women at the time of our visit. They are held in the same block as the men. Five other cells hold the men prisoners. Prisoners are given two 15 minute breaks per day in a cement courtyard with no shade for exercise, bathing and toilet. The bathrooms function poorly and there is no recreational equipment. (Our delegation bought and donated several footballs and basketballs, hoping that prison guards would not confiscate them for their own pleasure.) Several prisoners reported physical abuse from the guards. Prisoners are rationed one gallon of untreated water per day to serve drinking and washing needs.

There is a nurse in the prison who provides the only medical service. His office has a desk, a filing cabinet and a small bed. Rain floods the office through the cinderblock window. The nurse has received basic medical training but his equipment is sorely lacking. He can provide aspirin for ailments as diverse as hernias (a common condition due to physical labour and malnutrition), skin parasites, infections or chest pain. The prisoners know that this is all the medication he has. They often use the aspirin for chalk.

If a prisoner’s condition requires additional aid, he has to ask the prison director’s permission to refer the patient to a local hospital. Recent legislation requires local hospitals to treat prison inmates but relations between prisons and hospital staff are tense and uneasy.

Our brief visit to the jail discovered four prisoners being held in violation of Haiti’s constitution—a 13 year old girl, and three men held for alleged unpaid debts. When we met again with the commissioner to report our findings, he agreed to the release of the girl and one of the men. We were promised by other officials that the two other men would be released within one week. The girl’s story and the work of the delegation made national news that same day.

(Another delegation participant, Tiffany Gilmore, contributed to this report.)