The big industrial park near the international airport north of Port-au-Prince actually does look like a nature park. Thousands of Haitians may be inside the complex’s 47 buildings hurriedly stitching tens of thousands of T-shirts for the North American market, but the wide, tree-lined streets between the factory seem peaceful when you drive along them in mid-morning on a workday. It’s as if you were in a gated community in the United States, a thousand miles from the noisy chaos of the Haitian capital.
As in many gated communities, there’s a security force at the Metropolitan Industrial Park, which is identified in Haiti as SONAPI, the acronym for Société Nationale des Parcs Industriels, the semi-governmental agency that runs the park. Haitian guards check you out before they allow you to enter, and once inside you find the grounds patrolled by a white car with a big “UN” painted in black on the side.
The patrol car is operated by police agents from a Brazilian-led international “peacekeeping force” MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The mission has been in Haiti since June 2004, with its mandate renewed each year since in mid-October. Under the current mandate, approved by the UN Security Council on October 12, 2012, MINUSTAH deploys up to 6,270 soldiers and up to 2,601 police agents in Haiti. Its cost for this fiscal year, July 2012 through June 2013, is about $677 million.
The mission has 140 police agents occupying two buildings in SONAPI, according to MINUSTAH deputy spokesperson Vincenzo Pugliese.
A “Threat to the Peace”?
The UN Security Council established MINUSTAH in the tense months following the February 2004 forced removal of former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office and the occupation of the country by U.S. troops. The council justified the move by citing Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which treats “action with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression.” Specifically, the council’s Resolution 1542 determined that with the “challenges to the political, social and economic stability of Haiti,” the situation there “continues to constitute a threat to international peace and security in the region.”
Many Haitians have questioned the idea that the instability and violence in parts of Haiti in early 2004 could somehow have spilled over into neighboring countries like Cuba, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic, but even people who accept the Security Council’s rationale might wonder why an international police force would be guarding factories that mainly produce T-shirts and work uniforms.
“Our presence in SONAPI follows a request from the Government of Haiti (GoH) since the beginning of the Mission in 2004,” MINUSTAH spokesperson Pugliese explained in an email in early December, “considering that a number of industries in the park had been looted prior to the establishment of the mission.” Pugliese added that during elections the UN police presence helps secure the tabulation center and electoral material warehouse, which are located in SONAPI. He admitted that “[n]o incidents of violence or crime have been registered recently” in the park.
Protecting the Big Companies
Organizers for the leftist group Batay Ouvriye, which is active in the capital’s apparel assembly plants, have another explanation.
Wages and working conditions are a major issue for the 29,000 Haitians who work long hours in garment factories for about $5 a day. Anger over the situation erupted in August 2009, when thousands of SONAPI workers shut down their machines and marched into the center of Port-au-Prince to demand an increase in the minimum wage. Batay Ouvriye organizers say MINUSTAH began stepping up its presence in the park after the protests.
MINUSTAH has been criticized both in Haiti and internationally for a series of abuses—for civilian casualties, for rapes and other sexual crimes, for the cholera that has killed 8,000 Haitians to date and has sickened a half million others—but there has been less discussion of the mission’s purpose, and who stands to gain from it.
For decades Haitian leftists have argued that the U.S. government’s goal in Haiti is to provide a supply of cheap labor for the benefit of North American manufacturers and retailers. Maintaining a police force in the country’s industrial zones certainly would seem to fit into this program. And for all the insistence on MINUSTAH’s international composition, the United States clearly has a big role in the UN’s Haiti operations, with former U.S. president Bill Clinton serving as the UN’s special envoy to the country.
Haitian attorney Mario Joseph is a respected human rights advocate whose work on behalf of abuse victims has earned him international awards—and anonymous death threats. He is blunt when asked the purpose of the UN troops. “They do the job for the imperialist countries, like America, France, Canada,” he said during an interview last October at his office in the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in downtown Port-au-Prince. And the UN police in SONAPI? “They are there to protect the internationals, the big companies,” Joseph answered.
“Forty Cameras and iPads”
The U.S. presence in MINUSTAH was evident at a small protest several grassroots organizations held on October 15 outside the UN Logistics Base at the airport, just a few blocks east of SONAPI.
The protest was billed as a “sit-in” against the renewal of MINUSTAH mandate three days earlier. The 20 or so Haitian protesters didn’t actually sit in; instead they stood in the base’s entry road for about 30 minutes, sometimes blocking it completely with a huge Batay Ouvriye banner reading: “Aba Okipasyon” (“Down With the Occupation”). A massive traffic jam developed, and the blare of car horns accompanied the protesters as they chanted: “MINUSTAH, kolera, se marasa” (“MINUSTAH and cholera are twins”) and “Aba MINUSTAH, kolera, kadejakè” (“Down with MINUSTAH, cholera, rapists”).
There was a mix of Haitian and UN police, some from the United States, guarding the entrance. It wasn’t clear whether Jeffrey Aguirre of UN Site Security was the agent in charge, but he was certainly the loudest—and the angriest. With a shaved head and a distinct Southern accent, Aguirre was involved in the only two incidents of violence during the protest. In the first, Aguirre ended up with a reporter’s iPad after a brief scuffle; he denied he’d seized the device, but then eventually he returned it.
In the second incident, the officer grabbed an activist who had been spray-painting “Aba” around the “UN” on one of the white cars stalled in traffic. Other protesters managed to free the activist, but Aguirre held on to the spray-paint canister. “This is our country,” a Haitian protester yelled in English. “You can’t destroy property,” Aguirre lectured. “How about our sovereignty?” the Haitian protester asked.
During a lull in the action, Aguirre was overheard talking on his cell phone. “They’re here at street level blocking a government office, completely blocking everything,” he said. He seemed especially concerned about the presence of reporters and five U.S. solidarity activists. “They’re here with about 40 cameras and iPads,” he complained, with considerable exaggeration. “They talk about the cholera, but they don’t talk about the $8 million a year the UN brings to the economy,” he added when he noticed a reporter listening in.
David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, Monthly Review Press, July 2007. He also co-edits Weekly News Update on the Americas, a summary of news from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Photos courtesy of Marty Goodman/Socialist Action.