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Aristide/Michel government defends neo-liberalism despite growing protest

From This Week in Haiti,
Vol. 13, no. 23. August 30-September 5 1995

Ignoring widespread opposition, the government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide pushed ahead this month with a sweeping World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) that will further devastate the already precarious social and economic situation of most Haitians.

We know in all countries, SAPs cause damage, conceded Prime Minister Smarck Michel in a press conference earlier this month. But, he added, we have something that makes us different from the other countries because 3 years of the coup d'etat already did 60% of the adjustment. Nevertheless, the Aristide/Michel government intends to administer the remaining 40% of adjustments, starting with the privatization or complete abolition of public institutions, in accordance with the Paris Accord of August 1994. That document, negotiated by the World Bank and the IMF with the Aristide government, called for the drastic reduction of tariffs and import controls, an open foreign investment policy, aid to the export sector, massive retrenchment in the public sector, the elimination of price controls, wage restraint, and privatization.

In an Aug. 10 press conference, Prime Minister Smarck Michel outlined some of the first state-run industries to be democratized. He said that Haiti's state-owned flour mill and cement plant -- two key factories in Haiti -- will be reopened and privatized, either through outright sale or through a management sub-contract. Michel said that out of the 667 flour mill workers, only 150 would remain. He also announced that Teleco (the telephone company), EDH (the electrical authority), and the ports and airports will also be privatized.

The union representing workers at the National Airport Authority (AAN) denounced the cavalier and irresponsible attitude of the prime minister. We've inherited a bad administration that we are in the process of correcting, noted Henry Michel, head of the airport workers union, adding that the state should not be getting rid of an important source of income. Responding to criticism, Prime Minister Michel warned that the Haitian government had no choice but to pursue privatization. If this structural adjustment does not succeed...the government will face enormous budgetary problems whose consequences are incalculable as much on the economic as on the social level, he said, alluding to the possibility of a complete cut-off of international financial backing should the government not implement the SAP. As it is, Michel said about half of the government's budget of 4 billion gourdes (about US$267 million) comes from international sources, and most of that in the form of balance of payments loans and loans to pay off the principal on Haiti's debt. (To be sure, very little of the much trumpeted $1.2 billion package of loans and aid promised by the international community has arrived and, as usual, the loans which have come, immediately return to the coffers of Western banks.)

Meanwhile, on Aug. 28, several hundred students and teachers marched through Port-au-Prince to protest the government's plans to bring austerity measures to the state university system. Down with privatization! Long live free quality public education! the demonstrators chanted. The immediate target of the students ire was a 4-day Symposium, to start on Aug. 29, organized by Education Minister Emmanuel Buteau to discuss his proposals for the university system's modernization, a code word, similar to democratization, meaning privatization.

The essence of Buteau's immediate reforms is to give 25% of the government's budget for higher education to Haiti's 56 private universities (38 of which are in the capital), while making the students of the State University pay 20% of their school's budget. The result would be, for example, that a student at the College of Sciences would pay $1,088 (Haitian) instead of the present $30, an increase of 3,627%. Medical students would pay $900 instead of their present $50. Agronomy students, who were entitled completely free education, would now pay $1,559.

The large and spirited student demonstration forced postponement of the symposium, according to Buteau, to give more time for consultations and debate for the construction of this democratic state to which we all aspire.

Student protests also forced the resignation of the State University's embattled provisional executive council, composed of intellectuals Roger Gaillard, Marie Carmelle Austin, and Michel Hector. Student groups are calling for the formation of 33 member council formed of 11 students, 11 professors, and 11 deans.

Such unrest has pushed Aristide to hold an Aug. 24 meeting with about 50 popular organizations at the National Palace. Many groups have begun to question and criticize Aristide's supposed unawareness of the march of privatization in Haiti.

At the closed door meeting, Aristide revealed that he was not as out-of-touch as he feigned. We realized that the Haitian state did not have enough money to finance the functioning of certain public enterprises and that it was necessary to open them to an injection of private capital, both Haitian and foreign.

Of course, the injection will be more of an extraction and it will be above all foreign, especially with the World Bank overseeing the democratization of the 9 Haitian state industries on the auction block.

But Aristide is feeling the glare of popular organizations and the heat of protest, and even spoke about the demonstration last Aug. 7 in Costa Rica, where 100,000 people took to the streets to protest against the neo-liberal reforms being implemented there.

To govern is to foresee, Aristide said of Costa Rica, meaning that he wants to prevent such protests in his own country. But it is surely to late. In addition to the college students, six popular organizations issued an Aug. 29 statement which condemned the government's privatization push as a measure which would turn the Haitian people into an reserve army of unemployed for the international bourgeoisie. The statement also noted that privatizing a country with a private sector which would rather make a coup d'etat than pay their taxes, and close their factories to bring in contraband, that is like replacing your intestines with hay.

Meanwhile the Collective for Mobilization Against the IMF said that the accords signed in Paris and Washington governing Haiti's economic and political future in no way engages the Haitian people as President Aristide would like to make believe. Aristide, feeling such challenges to his authority, declared at the Aug. 24 meeting: The head of state is me and me alone for the moment.

In fact, the head of state Aristide is trying to pass the buck to the head of government Smarck Michel. When the sale of the flour mill and cement plant was announced this month, Aristide claimed ignorance and tried to distance himself from Smarck Michel's privatization push. I don't have a problem with the fact that the president does 'political management' while I handle the 'administrative management, Michel said on Aug. 15. Michel made it clear that Aristide was just posturing and pointed out that he is simply following the Paris Plan which was agreed to before he became prime minister.

As protest mounts, however, it is becoming clear that the Aristide/Michel good cop/bad cop routine will not dupe the Haitian people for long.