Magic: Making Haitian Workers Disappear

April 14, 2010

by Joegodson and Paul

 I visited my local GAP store in Montreal yesterday. It was very clean and orderly. A couple of sales associates were assuring that all of the merchandise was folded and presented according to some display code. I began checking the labels and soon a young man kindly asked if he could help me. I told him that I was looking for any items made in Haiti.

 He had not worked there for long so he asked the store manager for advice. She said that they don’t memorize the provenance of their merchandise, but helpfully joined me in checking the labels. We worked our way around the store and around the world: Jordan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, and finally Haiti.

 I told her that I had read that, at the MAGIC apparel trade show in Las Vegas in February, the president of GAP announced the company’s intention to increase the percentage of its merchandise manufactured in Haiti. She verified that information, telling me with some pride that she had attended the show. I asked her what the event had been like and she really lit up. It had been an amazing experience. The president of GAP had spoken to them! He told them that GAP’s facilities in Haiti had survived the earthquake and, indeed, even more clothing would be stitched there in the future.

 President Obama, his Trade Representative Ronald Kirk, and Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, are working hard with the apparel industry in the United States to increase the percentage of exports coming from Haiti. Just days before the earthquake, President Preval had declared his government’s intention to double the number of assembly jobs serving the North American market. American apparel companies subcontract work to the Haitian oligarchy that then control the labour conditions in the Sonapi Industrial Park. Trade Ambassador Kirk says that the program, called Plus One for Haiti, is intended “to grow Haitian apparel exports and help Haiti’s economy for the long term.” He said the initiative “means new jobs and new opportunities for the Haitian people who so desperately need forward-looking solutions in the wake of January’s devastating earthquake.” The plans that were already laid were suddenly marketed to the public as a response to the earthquake. Clinton had been working towards this goal since his appointment as United Nations special envoy to Haiti in July of 2009. As President, he worked for the same objective (then called PRET) in the service of the apparel industry and their allies in Haiti.

 The manager of the GAP store told me that when the president of the company had reported that the operation was up and running quickly after the earthquake, the store managers, who had come from all over North America, were all relieved to hear it. Apparently they were supposed to be relieved at that point in the speech. The Senior Director of GAP was reported as saying that the company would continue to work with their Haitian vendors because, “We believe in doing good while doing well.”

 As I continued to browse the labels – we were around Vietnam by this point – I told her that I had friends in Port-au-Prince who manufactured the clothing for the multinational corporations in the Sonapi Industrial Park. She suddenly became cool and withdrew, leaving me alone for the rest of my time in the store. None of her staff offered me any more help. I had hoped that that information might open up a new direction for the conversation. But she didn’t seem to be interested in where I was headed.

 There were, in total, 100,000 people from the apparel industry assembled in Las Vegas from February 16 to 18. Clearly, they were dazzled. Their companies went to much expense to dazzle them. Keep in mind the huge sums that went into seducing the North American store managers. They are a key link in the industry that wants to make fashion glamorous. Here, I confess that my time in Haiti and my understanding of the industry has effectively immunized me to the propaganda. As we continue, remember how the people who actually make the clothing fit into the illusion created by the fashion and clothing industries.

 The trade show, hosted by the Men’s Apparel Guild in California since 1933, is called MAGIC. It makes workers disappear.

 By the way, I did find some very nice t-shirts that sell for $16.50 and $19.50 that are made in Haiti.

While I was casually browsing clothing displays in Montreal, Joegodson was looking into one of the new villages ready to receive victims of the earthquake. Canaan is a large plain near Croix-de-Bouquets north of Port-au-Prince. The newpaper Le Nouvelliste reported on February 15 that Canaan was being prepared for settlement. 

 The first squatters to arrive in Canaan claimed their land as did people in such camps all over Port-au-Prince: they placed posts at the corners of their plot or drew a border around a site with rocks. Once they had their own land, the speculators would then trace out secondary and tertiary plots that they would be able to sell to newcomers as time progressed. It was as simple as making a parcel of land look inhabited. By general agreement, that was accepted as ownership. In fact, peasants in rural Haiti have fought for centuries over the ownership of land since titles have been poorly documented. Peasants have generally recognized usage as a legitimate factor in determining ownership.

 As bulldozers flattened the fields and constructed rudimentary facilities, the speculators started to cash in. At one point, a plot of land was selling for 100 Haitian dollars, about 17.00$US. Now, they are going for ten times that price. In this new subdivision of Port-au-Prince, the plots are large enough to build small houses, approximately eight by ten metres.  However, the buyers get no deed in return for paying the speculators who simply remove the signs of occupation and welcome the newcomer to the neighbourhood. Anyone can say that he owns the land and take your money. You get no proof it was ever his, and no proof it’s now yours.

Taptaps in Port-au-Prince

 Joegodson met two women on a taptap who had returned from Canaan. They initiated a lively debate among the taptap passengers. Taptaps are the main means of public transportation for the poor of Port-au-Prince. Everywhere and all day long in Port-au-Prince, random groups of Haitians are thrown together facing each other in such close proximity that it is useless to avoid conversation. (Those who pretend to be above the conversation are simply dismissed as irrelevant.) You pick up the discussion already in progress when you enter the taptap and then let it go when you leave. Rumours and news spread quickly through the capital via taptaps. Before long, you know what people are thinking about any current event. Creole is the exclusive language of the taptaps.

 The two women had just registered for a plot at Canaan. Many people in the taptap were skeptical about moving to this barren field far outside of the capital. What would life be like? The women replied that the foreign soldiers stationed there had told them that there would be security in the new village. Residents were to get bracelets identifying them as legitimate residents and there would be security guards around the perimeter of the village. Joegodson questioned the purpose of this security. From what were the poor residents to be protected? Why would foreigners have Haitians wear identity bracelets?

United Nations soldiers stand guard outside of the Sonapi Industrial Park in Port-au-Prince. The Park is home to most of the sweatshops in Port-au-Prince and to a major military base.

 Others wanted to know whatever people would do to earn a living stranded outside of Port-au-Prince. The women replied that the soldiers had told them that a factory would be built to employ the residents. For Joegodson, the penny dropped. The Sonapi Industrial Park, where the poor of Port-au-Prince work in sweatshops for North American apparel giants, is also the site of an army base. These are the same soldiers who were required to subdue the local people who supported Lavalas and its project of domestic economic development. So, the new village of Canaan began to sound like the realization of the Clinton dream. In this dream, the term ‘decentralization’ should not be confused with the empowerment of local communities, but rather the isolation of vulnerable populations subject to the degrading working conditions that already exist at the Sonapi Industrial Park and are documented on this website. Joegodson asked the taptap debaters whether the soldiers were to be stationed there to keep people out of, or in, Canaan.

 The taptap debate also revealed some of the legacy of foreign intervention in Haiti. One man cautioned the women that a ravine that passed through Canaan is dry at the moment, but that, when the heavy rains fall, the area would flood. When hurricanes strike, he said, the Canaan plain, surrounded by mountains, could be a deathtrap. The women, defending their choice to register for a plot of land, claimed that it was being organized and overseen by whites: engineers and other specialists. They were totally credulous: whites were the font of all expertise. Haitians, they were suggesting, are incapable of organizing anything effectively.

 Here, Joegodson fell into a trap, arguing that Haitians were indeed capable of planning their own future. Many people on the taptap immediately assumed that he was defending the current Preval government. Preval is seen almost universally as such an incompetent ‘leader’ that any positive reference to the government that he heads immediately discredits the debater. It has become difficult to defend the right of Haitians to self-determination in the current context.

 So, Joegodson launched into a defence of Haitian competence. Stipulating that the current government does not represent Haitians, he asked instead what the taptap riders thought of themselves as Haitian. Are Haitians not capable of controlling their own destiny if foreign powers would stop interfering? Here, the taptap moved in support of Joegodson and the ability and necessity of Haitians to control their own destiny.

 Back in Montreal, I see how the North American political class reaps the benefits of its attack on Haitian democracy. Two Haitian women are choosing to work in sweatshops producing consumer goods for the North American market in a new land of Canaan. They will make, if they are lucky, about 3.00$US a day. They have put their confidence in the whites who are organizing their future. Why? They judge their own government to be hopeless. They are not wrong. However, the Americans, Canadians, and French destroyed Haiti’s recent experiments with a vital and innovative democracy that grew out of liberation theology: the idea that Haitians should first work together towards “poverty with dignity.” The women on the taptap instead have bought into the corollary of that vision: “poverty with contempt.” They are contemptuous of themselves as Haitians and of their government that has been gutted by foreign powers and the Haitian kleptocracy.

 One painful irony of this situation is that Clinton, who, as President of the United States, played his part to enslave Haitians to North American interests and to undermine and discredit Lavalas and Aristide, is now working against the poor again in his capacity of United Nations special envoy to Haiti. It sickens me that he has credibility among elements of the Haitian poor in relation to the future of their country while those who worked with Lavalas remain sidelined in the ongoing tragedy of the reconstruction.

Clinton, ever wily, has recently admitted that the policies of his administration destroyed Haitian agricultural self-sufficiency at the expense of American agribusiness. As a result, Haitians are starving to death. One might think that he was therefore acting upon different principles now. In fact, Clinton has much more to come clean about if he wants to purge himself of his sins in the service of American imperialism.

Look at the resources that have been spent to seduce the managers of the clothing stores in North America. They were flown to Las Vegas, charmed, fed, and entertained at great expense so that they could go back to their little stores starry-eyed. They love this industry! Meanwhile, soldiers from North America are assuring that Haitians show up for work at 6:30 am and leave at 5 pm, after trying their best to achieve an unobtainable quota. They will make barely enough money in a day to visit Port-au-Prince, let alone Las Vegas.

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