Interview with Ray Laforest -- Haitian Trade Union Organizer

Ray Laforest is director of organizing for AFSCME, District Council 1707. He has been a labor organizer for the past twelve years, and is also very active with WBAI and Pacifica Radio Network on the national level. Johnnie Stevens of the Peoples Video Network interviewed Ray Oct. 5, 2003, for a video that is intended to be a companion to this book. -- editors
Johnnie Stevens: Ray, could you give us the history of your involvement in the movement, both in Haiti and here in the United States?

Ray Laforest: My own personal history started in Haiti. In a comfortable background, father a doctor, solid middle class. The contradictions of the country weren't obvious to me. When Papa Doc took power, I was about 10 years old. My parents supported the candidate of the bourgeoisie, Louis Déjoie. It became clear to me as I grew older that Papa Doc was indeed the "devil incarnate" but it also became clear to me that he was reacting to preexisting conditions in Haiti. So I started questioning my conditions of privileges.

I also started questioning the contradictions inside the church. As I grew older and started studying history I learned about the role of the church in pacifying people and justifying power. So my first struggle against the system had two prongs:

1. Against the temple of power that was the government and its policy of violence against the Haitian people;

2. Against my religious, moral explanation from the church for why things happened, as a justification for behavior.

I became connected to what later was called the theology of liberation and joined an organization called Haiti Progress, which had nothing to do with the newspaper of the same name [founded years later when this organization was defunct - ed.]

My family, while it did not question its privilege, did believe in a modicum of democracy and liberal justice, and I guess that is where I started from. I demanded that these principles be applied. Haiti Progress was an organization that understood we were in the grip of fascism before the left itself decided so. We tried to develop a program for the participation of the Haitian people for the benefit of the masses, from a liberal point of view, I would have to concede, and that force would have to be applied to meet the force of the government. The left decided that the time was not ripe for the people to rise up and apply force.

Johnnie Stevens: So what did you do after you joined Haiti Progress?

Ray Laforest: Haiti Progress was a paramilitary organization that functioned in clandestinity. Every individual was a member of a cell, and when they rose high enough, they became the head of the cell. The work was difficult and security was primary. You could not have open meetings. As a matter of fact, we extended our education by having someone every week read a book and reporting on political economy, world history, Haitian history, and support from other Caribbean countries, like Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

We even considered guerrilla warfare. I was a member of the paramilitary section, helped train people and took actions that put my life in danger. Most of the members were young and Catholic and as we were growing up, we were evolving. We started from the base of an engaged church, a church of action. The religion we believed in was a religion tempered by reality, a religion of social action for our brothers and sisters.

As Castro's revolution unfolded, in a country just 45 miles from Haiti, we became very involved in it, supported it, and were inspired by it. He demonstrated very clearly that it could be done, and that the notion in Haiti which Duvalier had carefully cultivated, using vodou by the way, that he was all-powerful and had spies everywhere, was false. By putting our lives on the line, we could indeed change our world. There was no greater calling than to bring the Haitian people to justice and dignity.

Most of the people around me became much more radical. I rose through the ranks and actually got to the point where I could have bilateral contacts with our organization and with other organizations. We got to the point where we had to consider overthrowing Duvalier.

Because of threats to my life, I had to leave Haiti in 1968. Before I left, PUCH -- the United Communist Party of Haiti -- was formed. It was a fusion of the two major communist parties of Haiti. Because of the fusion and the increasing strength of the left, the CIA moved in and helped Duvalier set up spies inside the PUCH. Actually, three months after I left, comrades from my cell and adjacent cells were arrested and savagely tortured

By 1969, comrades coming back from the Soviet Union and elsewhere were ready to bring the struggle to a different level and so was the other side. PUCH was infiltrated almost to the top. Within a year the forces of the PUCH were attacked and forced to disband, even though they put up a fight dying with weapons in hand.

The destruction of the left created a vacuum into which the forces of liberation theology could move. The next level of struggle took place behind the protection of the Catholic church, which was connected to the Church of Rome. Duvalier responded by expelling every foreign priest and prelate, including the head of the Haitian church, and installing Haitians who were connected to him. Still there were many active priests who discussed the theology of liberation.

This vacuum let the movement led by Father Aristide and other priests like him able to lead the contestations and struggles for justice and dignity for the mass of the Haitian people.

Johnnie Stevens: What about the labor movement in Haiti?

Ray Laforest: After the U.S. invasion in 1915, sugar cane workers and peasants were dispersed to Cuba and the Dominican Republic because HASCO (the Haitian American Sugar Co.) got much of the best land in the country and moved sugar processing outside the country. The workers movement under the Duvaliers was very difficult, because as soon as it grew strong, the government moved brutally against it; they had to go underground; if they were caught, they were tortured. They were treated like the rest of the population.

Johnnie Stevens: What was your life like after you came to the United States in 1969?

Ray Laforest: When I came here in 1969, there was an emerging Haitian presence around Broadway in the 90s in Manhattan. As housing grew available, many of the new immigrants went to Brooklyn. As the Haitian community developed, it went through the same stages as other communities. With differences, obviously; unlike Jamaicans and Trinidadians, they spoke a different language. If a Dominican came here, he or she could speak to the whole Spanish-speaking diaspora. Haitians were much more isolated.

Also Haitians were independent in 1804, so much earlier than all the other countries in Latin America, and were very isolated. Even as recently as 10 years ago, there were many more links between the Haitian community, and Jamaicans, and other groups, even Dominicans, in New York than there were in Haiti.

The first stage was to survive, to get a job. Since I came from a more privileged background, when I got here, I had a job waiting for me. Most Haitians at that time worked factory jobs with a huge amount of overtime, without any protection from unions, or worked two jobs. A lot of the money went back home. Slowly they would bring their wife or husband, then the children. It was a difficult life.

Because of repression and the harsh economic conditions there during the '70s, very directly connected to political struggles in Haiti, even people who came here for economic reasons considered themselves as political, more than economic, refugees. They were completely turned towards Haiti and a presidential candidate Daniel Fignolé, who started his political career as head of the Mouvement Ouvrier Paysan [Worker Peasant Movement], had lived here for a while. Many other prominent political figures in Haiti were forced out by the Duvaliers and came here to live.

Haitians were so devoted to Haiti that it took the violence of the Duvaliers to drive them out of their country. They had worked in the sugar industry in Cuba and the Dominican Republic but always gone back until it grew too dangerous. Even Haitians who had lived in this country for years would say they were "Haitian" when they were asked. This cut them off from the reality around them, just working for many hours, not doing politics until the weekend.

Johnnie Stevens: When did you get involved with the labor movement as an organized activist?

Ray Laforest: It took me a while, actually. In Haiti the work force was always very small. Any contact between my organization and a workers' organization would have been done very quietly and very discretely, otherwise severe consequences, including death, would have been immediate. So personally, I had not done work with organized labor in Haiti. The Duvaliers made it clear to business owners that they would not tolerate the presence of trade unions in Haitian factories.

When I came here, my political work was organizing to get Haitians to realize that Papa Doc could be defeated, that it was in our ability and duty to do so. There was very little time spent in improving housing and employment conditions for many years. This was not just my personal position but was widespread in the Haitian community.

Johnnie Stevens: How did you do your political work in the growing Haitian community?

Ray Laforest: The Haitian community here was growing, because of economic and political repression in Haiti; people in Haiti began realizing they had another option. People started becoming taxi drivers, restaurant workers, home health care providers as their English improved.

One particularity about Haiti is that education has always been free, so you could have people from a very poor background who still could get educated. Actually Papa Doc became a physician for free, though he had to work for the government in return for his education. Some educated Haitians came here, but more went to French-speaking West Africa or Quebec, where language didn't make it harder to get professional jobs.

Migration out of Haiti has always been connected to the need to make a living, to feed your family, to survive and thrive.

When it became clear that the Cuban revolution was communist as well as nationalist, the US changed tactics and the Alliance for Progress was part of that change. It became clear that for the bourgeoisie to have a system of profitable exploitation, they couldn't have backward, semi-feudal conditions like you had in Haiti under the Duvaliers. For production, you needed to modernize and get people to absorb the ideology of capitalism, in particular, that if you produce, things will get better. When things don't work out, it's your own fault. If you run for office or you support a candidate, you nominally support democracy. When you have a dictatorship like the Duvaliers, you can control things more tightly but you also have resistance.

As people started organizing, guided, or perhaps it's better to say, inspired by the Cuban revolution, the US response became more modulated. In Haiti, after Papa Doc died, the U.S. saw an opportunity to use his son Baby Doc as some one who grew up in wealth and privilege; Baby Doc had married a daughter of the traditional bourgeoisie, a marriage that was symbolic of what the U.S. wanted, a dark-skinned member of the agricultural bourgeoisie allying himself to a light-skinned member of the export-import bourgeoisie. It worked well for them, to a certain extent.

But the exploitation and violence that was occurring in the countryside, along with the land being washed down the mountainside, forced hundreds of thousands of peasants off their land, either into cities like Port-au-Prince or onto boats that took them here. As companies began to invest in Haiti, their labor force was being created as peasants were pushed into the cities.

But the tradition of struggle continued. It was centered around ideology and the activities of the Catholic Church, the base of the Church, the ti legliz, the little churches, where Aristide began. The left also functioned as best it could, mostly outside the country. Newspapers like Haïti-Progrès were founded and the resistance inside Haiti grew. Repression also grew but the people were fed up and the repression only made more people determined that Duvalier had to be removed. Finally Reagan plucked Baby Doc out in 1986. On a U.S. Air Force plane. Reagan wanted to save the Haitian army, the major tool that the U.S. used to control Haitian society.

Johnnie Stevens: Let's talk about repression here. We saw big marches, 20,000 people or more, after the attacks on Dorismond and Louima, about the same time as Seattle. What I'm asking is that as more people got here and worked, did repression follow?

Ray Laforest: Exactly. For a long time, when Haitians suffered harassment, say a taxi driver got slapped around and was told to stop talking with that funny accent, they accepted it, went home, licked their wounds and resolved to be more careful the next time. The community was so small it wasn't conscious of itself, didn't have the organizations to respond.

But as the community grew bigger and bigger, there was a sense of pride, of clarity in this achievement, so by the time we saw the reactions of the community to police brutality that you talked about or to being called AIDS carriers, the strength of the movement inculcated in Haiti became useful in the American context. As their ties grew, as their kids started going to school here, they realized that they couldn't go back to Haiti because there was no job for them there, they realized that they were living in the belly of the beast here and that there was a role for them living here.

They realized that where you are is where you are, that issues here are just as important as issues in Haiti.

One of the real successes of this movement, this organizing was when 100,000 Haitians, coming from all over on a work day, shook the Brooklyn Bridge marching on Wall Street to protest the Centers for Disease Control claiming that Haitians were AIDS carriers. What made Haitians angry was that they were the only group singled out by the CDC as a nationality, that their children were teased mercilessly in school, they were told they couldn't give blood. The police were totally surprised because this demonstration was completely organized outside the American press, yet we were able to achieve that incredible organizing just from within the Haitian community. All of the Financial District in lower Manhattan was paralyzed.

The numbers that came out against police brutality, for rights as immigrants, against abuses of our immigrant status were slightly smaller but still significant.

So like other communities, the Haitian community is maturing and realizing that they are not just Haitian, that they are Black people. Their position as an African people is a reality that they will have to attend to. This growing realization has allowed us to seek alliance with the American Black community and to appreciate the struggles that they have gone through.

Johnnie Stevens: There was a very large demonstration yesterday over attacks on immigrants. How did the Haitian community relate to that march?

Ray Laforest: Even as the community becomes adapted to the reality here, it is still impacted tremendously by what is happening in Haiti. The Haitian masses were united in getting rid of the dictatorship and the Duvaliers, a large majority supported the Lavalas movement and Aristide but they are splintered now, with people settling in and dealing with daily problems, a whole range of issues. It is much more difficult to bring out the community over specific issues.

One of the consequences for this march is that an organization like RADI, Rasanbleman ayisyen pou defann dwa imigran, [Haitian Mobilization to Defend Immigrant Rights] which was quite a radical group, is defunct. To take me as an example, I am still active in the Haitian community but I am also involved in a media struggle with WBAI and Pacifica. While this is a tool that is very necessary for progressives and working people, and would benefit every community, including the Haitian community, it keeps me from dedicating myself to the Haitian community the way I used to.

But the Haitian community is still a very radical community with a long history of struggle and it fights very strongly for change.


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