Free Zones on the Haiti/Dominican Republic Border:
Kowtowing to the Multinationals, 3 June 2002
The Haitian government recently decided to create industrial free zones (IFZs), along the border with the Dominican Republic. Unhappy, the population naturally intends to resist the establishment of these industrial areas.
Starting in the early Sixties, many industrial free zones were created in developing countries. Many American, European and Japanese companies moved their manufacturing operations to these deregulated, tax-free areas to take advantage of the ridiculously low production costs. IFZs make it possible for foreign investors to profit from many tax breaks and low labour costs thanks to the lack of social legislation.
The Haitian government proposes to establish an area extending along the border with the Dominican Republic from the Atlantic to the Caribbean. It hopes to attract major textile companies and says the initiative will promote job creation.
The Minister of Trade declared in public that "the public and private sectors have a great interest in this kind of infrastructure."
In Complete Secrecy
It was during the official inauguration of the IFZs, which took place a few weeks ago in Port-au-Prince, that the Haitian public was informed of the decision to create them. No discussion nor consultation took place and almost all of the scant information available prior to the official announcement appeared in the Dominican press. Civil society was presented with a done deal. "Why should they need to hide if, as the government says, the project responds to the needs of the public?" asks Jean-Harry Clerveau, a union member of the Plate-forme haïtienne de plaidoyer pour un développement alternatif (Haitian Platform Advocating Alternative Development - PAPDA). He worries about the secretive nature of the decision and speaks of a "serious lack of democracy." Elected officials were not consulted even though the Constitution states that any project or agreement must be debated and voted for by Parliament.
"The government wants to create jobs, but at what price?" wonders Clerveau of PAPDA. As the factories to be built in the IFZs will not be subject to any laws, workers’ rights will be nonexistent.
As already is the case in many parts of the world, Clerveau fears that these factories will have nothing to offer but starvation wages and dreadful working conditions. In Mexican maquila-doras, he points out, employees work 12 hours a day, have only a few minutes for their breaks and no way of demanding their rights. "These are a far cry from quality jobs," says the Haitian activist, describing the IFZs as a "new form of slavery".
Peasant organisations actively contest the creation of the IFZs, which will be concentrated in the Maribaroux area. Close to the border with the Dominican Republic, this region contains the most fertile lands in Haiti, where rice, bananas and sugar cane are grown.
Arable land is scarce in Haiti. Establishing IFZs in the area means that at least 80 hectares of Haiti’s best land will be devastated; hundreds of families will be deprived of their main source of income. To Jean-Harry Clerveau, the choice of location means that "the creation of free zones will only contribute to the destruction of the local economy."
Clerveau says that the choice of a fertile region as a location for the IFZs says a lot about the Haitian government’s strategy. "There are arid lands on the border. Why not use those? The government prefers to destroy local agricultural production, which will increase Haiti’s dependence on imports, most of which come from the U.S. This decision confirms that the Haitian state submits to the neoliberal policies promoted by Western countries."
The PADPA demands that the free zones be located in semi-urban areas and calls upon the Haitian Government to support farmers, who are already major exporters of local products to the Dominican Republic. "These activities should be encouraged, not destroyed, as the creation of the IFZs suggests."
The farmers of the Maribaroux region are very close to their land. Often, it is all they have. They are very unhappy with the Government’s decision and firmly intend to resist. Huguette Charles of Solidarité frontalière (Border Solidarity) said on a Radio Haïti Inter program that the farmers are prepared to die to defend their land and have no intention of giving them up to profit the multinationals.
"The authorities promise to pay us for the land. But what use would the money be? We know that a day’s pay will be 36 gourdes ($ 2.50 Canadian) in the factories. What good is that money when it comes to covering our daily expenses? Even if the free zone were to create 10,000 jobs, we don’t need them. All we want is our land. If we have to shed our blood to keep it, we will," she said.
Everything seems to indicate that an armed intervention will be organised to evict the farmers. The Haitian public expects a strong attack. Clerveau of the PAPDA fears the worst: "The farmers are preparing for war."