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Haiti: AFL-CIO and the Batay Ouvriye

by Jeb Sprague Saturday, Nov. 19, 2005 at 2:57 PM

For many activists, academics, and labor historians in the 1980’s the AFL-CIO became referred to as the AFL-CIA. Founded in 1961 the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) was the AFL-CIO’s foreign organizing wing for Latin America and the Caribbean. Along with its counterparts in Africa, Asia, and Europe, AIFLD was used to undermine leftist trade movements, support dictators such as the Duvalier’s and back military coups in Chile and Brazil.

Haiti: AFL-CIO and t...
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Throughout the Cold War, the CIA heavily infiltrated AIFLD, as discussed in Phillip Agee’s 1984 whistle blower Inside the Company: CIA Diary. Agee fingered Serafino Romauldi as being involved in AIFLD throughout the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s as a known CIA asset heading up AIFLD at one point. In 1984, with ‘Baby Doc’ Jean-Claude Duvalier’s consent the Federation des Ouvriers Syndiques (FOS) was founded as a conservative pro-business union with the assistance of AIFLD.

Following the departure of 'Baby Doc,’ the State Department feared radical labor unrest in Haiti so it increased funding for the FOS. In June of 1986, the State Department, at a White House briefing for the chief executive officers of major corporations, requested AIFLD’s involvement in Haiti because “of the presence of radical labor unions and the high risk that other unions may become radicalized”.1 Members of Duvalier’s secret police and the Tonton Macoutes heavily infiltrated the FOS.

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) provided funding, often funneled through AIFLD, to Haitian unions such as the Conféderation Autonome des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CATH) and the FOS. According to Thomas Carothers in his 1994 article, “The Ned at 10”, the National Endowment for Democracy “believed that democracy promotion was a necessary means of fighting communism and that, given sensitivities about U.S. government intervention abroad, such work could best be done by an organization that was not part of the government.”

During the first 7 months of the Aristide administration (before the Cédras coup), CATH under the sway of Auguste Mesyeux held a campaign of demonstrations against the government known as the Vent de Tempête (Wind of the Storm). This was the first attempt to put pressure on the Aristide government, mounted by a U.S. funded union. In March of 1992, following the first coup against Aristide and a brief suspension of funding, AIFLD reactivated its 0,000 program supporting conservative unions in Haiti. Beth Sims in her 1992 policy report “Populism, Conservatism, and Civil Society in Haiti,” writes “CATH was once a militant, anti-Duvalierist federation”, but in 1990 a conservative wing took over with backing from AIFLD.

Following increasing criticism over its international organizing activities the AFL-CIO disbanded AIFLD and its counterparts, and created in their place the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), more commonly known as the Solidarity Center, in 1997, supposedly giving a new face to its international organizing campaigns. The Solidarity Center, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, was launched with the goal of “work[ing] with unions and community groups worldwide to achieve equitable, sustainable, democratic development and to help men and women everywhere stand up for their rights and improve their living and working standards.”2 Attempting to wipe away its dirty Cold War history, the AFL-CIO had grouped together its former four regional institutes, including AIFLD, under one roof.

As pointed out in Harry Kelber’s six-part series, the “AFL-CIO’s Dark Past,” the Solidarity Center employed many past AIFLD members such as Harry Kamberis, a former Department of State employee who had been involved in fighting leftist unions in South Korea and the Philippines.3 The Solidarity Center also funneled over 4,000 to the Confederation of Venezuelan Workers (CTV), a right wing union, which led a strike in 2002 attempting to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Hugo Chavez. Between 1997 and 2001 the NED provided 7,926 to the Solidarity Center. Kim Scipes, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Purdue University and a leading critique of the Solidarity Center, argues that while “considerable evidence that AFL-CIO foreign operations have worked hand in hand with the CIA, or that AFL-CIO foreign operations have benefited U.S. foreign policy as a whole or supported initiatives by the White House or the State Department” it has been a top ranking group within the AFL-CIO that have guided foreign operations, refusing to report on their operations to rank and files members.4 The murky tradition of subverting democratically elected governments during the cold war would continue on with the Solidarity Center.

The Solidarity Center (ACILS) would approach labor organizing in Haiti from a different angle than its predecessor, AIFLD. During much of 2000 and 2001 the Solidarity Center refused to operate in Haiti. Yonnas Kefle, the labor attaché at the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, from February 2000 to October 2001, explains, “I tried to involve the Solidarity Center but they refused to work in Haiti at this time.”

With USAID funding as its primary income source for its projects in Haiti, the Solidarity Center, by 2004, had restarted operations in Haiti, cooperating with a union that had strong leftist credentials, the Batay Ouvriye.

In 2003 the Solidarity Center engaged in a NED-funded study of labor conditions in Haiti; analyzing the history of the domestic labor movement, women in the work force, rural labor codes, and the debate over reforming the aging labor codes.5 The study utilized Solidarity Center interviews with the Batay Ouvriye that predated to 1999. The study failed to critically analyze the role of USAID and the U.S. in supporting sanctions against the Haitian government in 2001, which was a prime factor for the shortfall of payments to the public workforce and leverage used towards the Free Trade Zone Initiative. The study, entitled “Unequal Equation: The Labor Code and Worker Rights in Haiti,” while putting forward many important points in regards to the antiquated labor codes, relied heavily on interviews with the Batay Ouvriye, the formerly Duvalier sponsored Federation des Ouvriers Syndiques (FOS), and the formerly AIFLD-supported Conféderation Autonome des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CATH).

Batay Ouvriye in Kreyòl translates roughly as the “worker’s struggle.” Since 1994, Batay Ouvriye has been associated with organizing sweatshop workers and others in Haiti, where some of the most exploitative and low wage garment industry jobs exist in the entire Western Hemisphere. Not a formal union, the Batay Ouvriye calls itself a “workers organization.” Originally initiated as an office space in Port-Au-Prince for organizing workers in 1994, the Batay Ouvriye Federation was founded in May of 2002.

Organized upon anarcho-syndicalist principles, the Batay Ouvriye has had a clear ideological line of advocating for the control of industry and government by federations of labor unions through the use of direct action, such as sabotage and general strikes. Ideologically opposed to working with or under any form of government, the Batay Ouvriye has focused its attention primarily on organizing workers in the garment industry. Syndicalism has long existed as a revolutionary political strain in the Caribbean as discussed in Frank Fernandez 2001 book “Cuban Anarchism.” Running contrary to it’s own ideology the Battay Ouvriye leadership in 2004 began accepting monetary aid and oversight from a foreign government, the United States, and it’s foreign labor operative, the Solidarity Center.

So what would the Solidarity Center want with a radical syndicalist union in Haiti? How could the Solidarity Center justify to its State Department and USAID oversight the funding of such an organization? The Solidarity Center’s support for the Batay Ouvriye seemed a far cry from it’s predecessor AIFLD’s approach in working with conservative unions such as the CATH and the FOS.

The Batay Ouvriye had numerous victories in organizing against multinationals, which were exploiting Haiti’s cheap labor. In the weeks before the February 2004 coup, the Solidarity Center and Batay Ouvriye’s sub-grantee Sokowa were deeply involved in a campaign against Grupo M, a company that sold to U.S.-based companies Levi Strauss and Sara Lee. In December 2004, 300 workers at the Codevi Free Trade Zone in northeastern Haiti had been out of work for six months as a result of their attempts to form a union. As Batay stated in an October 1st statement, that “amongst others….,500” was channeled to Sokowa by the Solidarity Center to help the fired workers.

Throughout 2004, the Sokowa Union underwent a labor struggle in the Grupo M factories in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. While Sokowa sought much-needed wage increases for its workers, Groupo M threatened to close down its CODEVI free trade zone. Work stoppages were held in response and a campaign to pressure Grupo M into negotiation, in which the Workers Rights Consortium and the Solidarity Center were successful contributors. On February 5, 2005, Sokowa and Grupo M negotiated a contract. In a March 2005 report, Charles Arthur of the Haiti Support Group, a key Batay Ouvriye backer in Europe, stated, “The US Solidarity Center is co-coordinating some low-key pressure on Michael Kobori, Levi’s Global Code of Conduct director, to let him know of concerns relating to Levi’s non-action on increasing orders.”6

But for all its good work in organizing in the garment industry, one important theme separated Batay Ouvriye from the majority of popular organizations in Haiti. Batay Ouvriye was adamantly and ideologically opposed to any cooperation with the Aristide government, or for that matter any leftist or populist government that was democratically elected. With its backing for the Batay Ouvriye, the Solidarity Center was able to kill two birds with one stone. (1) The Solidarity Center was able to claim the credentials of supporting a legitimate labor struggle to organize workers in Haiti’s miserable garment industry. (2) While simultaneously supporting a group that adamantly opposed and organized against the largest and most popular party of the poor in Haiti, Fanmi Lavalas, a pariah for Haiti overseers at the U.S. Department of State.

The U.S. Department of State has oversight on all “democratic enhancement” funding, which is funneled through USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives into groups such as the Solidarity Center. Gerry Bart, head of the Haiti desk at USAID’s main office in Washington, D.C., explains that “it’s kind of a negotiation between USAID and the State Department… The democratic assistance money comes from the State Department.”

Following the 2000 elections and 2001 inauguration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Convergence Démocratique (an internationally financed and trained coalition of opposition political parties) pressured the OAS and the international donor community into engaging in sanctions against the elected government of Haiti. While the Aristide administration continually complied with OAS requests, the sanctions held, having a long lasting and harsh effect upon the national and local economies. The capability of the government to pay the wages of its public workforce and come through on many of its goals fell through.

By April, 2002, doctors from the main Port-au-Prince hospital went on strike, and by May teachers went on a one-day strike for more than 13 month’s back pay. These 13 months corresponded closely with the cut off of international aid in 2001 to the government. The Bush Administration, using its veto power on the Inter-American Development Bank (IDV) board of directors, blocked the release of already-approved loans for health care, education, and water. 0 million in development assistance and 6 million in loans for water, health, and education were cut off.

The Aristide administration, inheriting a poverty-stricken country burdened with international debt, was forced to take the blame for the effects of the austerity measures that had been pressured, and some would argue imposed, upon it. Emerging economies, such as Argentina’s, suffered tremendously from the institution of economic reforms backed by the international financial community. This was a common theme in neo-liberal economic reforms carried out during the 90’s, with long lasting effects on much of the developing world. While the Lavalas government was able to resist many of the “reforms” which were being forced on it, this became increasingly difficult in 2001 with the discontinuance of foreign aid to the government, which had long depended on aid for much of its budget.

While the capability of the Haitian government to function properly declined because of these cuts, social unrest increased and international groups such as the Solidarity Center and others began to criticize the Haitian government on a number of issues. Many of the accusations that Solidarity Center made against the Haitian government were problems that stemmed from the actions of their own funding source, USAID and the United States government. Through collecting on out-dated debts to past dictators, pressuring the Haitian government towards the maintenance of low wages, privatization, the firing of half of Haiti’s civil servants, and then pushing for the cut-off of nearly all international aid to the Haitian government, the United States and institutions such as the World Bank subjugated the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to what it called “financial responsibility” and “fiscal austerity measures.”

While it was not uncommon for leftists to criticize Aristide, Preval, or Lavalas for cooperating with international reforms, Batay was different in that they refused to coalesce behind the elected government when it faced an openly coordinated and heavily financed campaign of political destabilization led by the U.S. government and other international donors. The international donor community, along with the United States, heavily financed the opposition to Aristide’s government, most notably organizations within the Convergence Démocratique and Group 184.

At “training sessions,” funded and organized by the International Republican Institute (IRI) in the Dominican Republic throughout 2002, 2003, and early 2004, an opposition to Aristide's government was coordinated and formulated plans to organize, protest, and campaign against the government. Meanwhile a small group of rebels, with connections to the Group 184, CIA, and the death-squad Front pour l’Avancement et le Progrés Haïtien (FRAPH), came out of the Dominican Republic to invade Haiti in January of 2004. With the sovereignty of Haiti under attack, soon after the 2004 coup, the Batay Ouvriye was itself on the U.S. bank roll.

In September 2005, Mario Pierre, a representative of the Batay Ouvriye in New York City, explained that he knew nothing about U.S. funding for his organization. He stated: “The Batay Ouvriye does not receive any funding from the U.S. government.” When asked if the Batay Ouvriye might have a leadership or a group of organizers that made these decisions and could be questioned about them, he stated: “The Batay Ouvriye has nothing like that. We have no leaders.”

Batay Ouvriye has presented itself as a utopian worker’s alternative to Famni Lavalas, the majority political party of the poor in Haiti. Utilizing the example of the Free Trade Zone constructed along Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, Batay Ouvriye argues, as have others, that the Aristide administration sold out, betraying the popular movements that had voted it into power. As Haïti-Progrès stated in July 2003, the first of seventeen free trade zones was being constructed “near Haiti's northeastern border town of Ouanaminthe, development of what was once the most precious farmland in this barren, hungry corner of the country.”

Few observers realized the immense constraints the international community had placed on Haiti in the Debt-For-Development Initiative that was being pushed hard by the U.S. Department of State. The only alternative the government of Haiti had was to continue on, with an unadjusted sky rocketing debt. World Bank officials have explained that the government’s inability to pay was compounded by the withdrawal of international aid to the government. While the “international community” ripped apart Haiti like a wild pack of cheetahs, the Aristide government came under increasing domestic criticism.

An underlining dichotomy in Batay’s message was their claim at being a democratic organization, representing “small workshops, shantytowns, and peasants,” yet opposing all elected government and all elections. A mystery has been the role of its leadership. While its members claim to have no leadership or central structure, from numerous communiqués and interviews, it is obvious that a central leadership does exist within Batay Ouvriye, although an unelected and arguably unaccountable leadership.

In a March 2004 meeting held in Port-au-Prince between Batay Ouvriye and a group of journalists and NGO representatives, a de facto leadership of the Batay emerged. Speaking primarily was Didier Dominique, alias Paul Philomé, a prominent spokesperson, and Yvonne Castera, alias Yannick Etienne, a frequent traveler to the United States. A third unnamed spokesperson from Batay Ouvriye stated that he was “close with Evans Paul.” Evans Paul a leading figure of the Convergence Démocratique and a founder of the Konvansyon Inite Demokratik (KID), was a prime backer of the ouster of the Aristide government in February 2004. Batay Ouvriye’s “workers” who sat in on the meeting, according to a member of the Quixote Centre Delegation “were not permitted to speak to us one-on-one nor voice their opinions independently of Batay's supervision or prompting during the meeting.” Overseeing the meeting was a representative of the Solidarity Center, a U.S. citizen, Jeff Hermanson.

The Batay Ouvriye, while claiming to be a workers movement, has always stood against elections and the democratic process. Much like the Convergence, the Batay Ouvriye, instead of waiting for elections, chose to call for the resignation and downfall of the Lavalas government. While the Aristide administration won the vote overwhelmingly in the 2000 election, Batay Ouvriye claimed that the Lavalas administration was an “occupation” government and that the “elections were one step backward.” In explaining their opposition to the Lavalas government, Philomé stated in the March 2004 meeting that “we had worked to denounce all of the plans that the Fanmi Lavalas government had, we denounced them and fought to make sure those plans were not successful, and we also took positions so the government can leave the country because we felt that the Aristide government was a government that accepted impunity for the factory owners, and they also were accepting and signing all sorts of contracts even though it was bad for the country.”

Either by mistake or by design, the Batay Ouvriye played a role in destabilizing the elected government in Haiti and, following the coup, helped to facilitate the creation of a fractured left. Many of their low-level organizers, like Mario Pierre, were not aware until September 2005 of the U.S. funding for their organization.

USAID is the primary funding source for the Solidarity Centers activities in Haiti. As Sasha Kramer pointed out in her October 2005 article, “The Friendly Face of U.S. Imperialism: USAID and Haiti,” supporting alternatives to Lavalas is an important first step in further destabilizing the popular movement’s widespread support. Through its sponsored camps, Kramer documents how USAID has worked to “undermine existing community programs in an attempt to de-legitimize the demands of the Lavalas movement in the eyes of the international community. This strategy is exemplified by USAID's description of their activities in Petit Place Cazeau.”7

The assault upon Lavalas and the popular movements in Haiti, movements now rooted in the history and folk songs of the Haitian poor, was a long-term encirclement. It holds significant similarities to what happened prior to the first coup against Aristide in the early 90’s and late 80’s. The ubiquitous web of funding, grantees, and sub-grantees, while often aimed at legitimate problems in Haiti, has had the obscured role of reinstating the rule of the elite over the island nation. Aid funding is ambiguous by nature, having multiple goals and outcomes. By propping up and supporting small sectarian movements, the USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) and the U.S Department of State, which has oversight on all “democratic enhancement” funding at USAID, aims to destabilize the larger popular movement as a whole.

Following the February 2004 coup, while the Batay Ouvriye inked a money arrangement with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, unions that backed the ousted government such as the FAENNE and worker’s from the bus drivers union were forced into hiding, being murdered and assassinated by the death squads of the newly U.S.-installed de facto government of Gérard Latortue.

In a July 2005 statement, the Batay Ouvriye attempted to justify its working with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, while openly acknowledging the AFL-CIO’s murky past. The authorless statement from the Batay Ouvriye explained that the AFL-CIO’s funding “apparatus is controlled, in the final analysis, by the ruling classes in the United States... Since these ‘solidarity’ practices have reached the point of developing relations with grassroots workers organizations, we are faced with the obligation of managing them, while they inevitably attempt to manipulate these relations variously in order to recuperate them. So, it is up to us to correctly handle these relations in the working class’ interest and on a permanent basis.”8 Somehow the Batay Ouvriye’s leadership felt that only it could best manage U.S. labor funding.

The Batay Ouvriye has failed to respond to questions concerning its U.S. funding source and relationship with the Solidarity Center. In an attempt to control the damage done by the uncovering of its relationship with a Department of State and USAID funded organization, David Wilson, an organizer for Batay Ouvriye’s U.S. backer “The Grassroots Haiti Solidarity Committee”, released an article on November 11th, 2005.9 Wilson’s article continues to ignore the refusal of the Solidarity Center and Batay Ouvriye to account for all the funding that has been provided. A website and a November public forum in New York City have since been organized by the Batay leadership and it’s supporters to continue the cover up of this funding relationship. Paul Philomé, a leader of the Batay, also recently signed up using his alias, Didier Dominique, to speak at the 2006 World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela, undoubtedly to continue Batays attempts at portraying itself as a “revolutionary” force in Haiti.

When asked why the Solidarity Center did not work with pro-Lavalas unions, a member of the Solidarity Center, who wished to go unnamed, used the term “revolutionary ideologues” to describe the unions who backed the democratically elected government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Ben Davis, head of the Solidarity Center’s operations in the Caribbean and Latin America during the February 2004 coup, refused to comment. Currently he is working as an ‘in country representative” for the Solidarity Center in Mexico City.

Currently the Senior Program Officer for the Americas at the Solidarity Center is Samantha Tate, a National Security Education fellow and a Fulbright fellow from 1999-2001, who researched Indonesian child labor and media organizations following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship. Refusing public accountability, Tate, along with the Solidarity Center’s grant management department, will not comment on the amount of funding provided to the Batay Ouvriye or when and how their relationship began.

In September 2005, Tate, an employee of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, contacted my academic department chair at California State University of Long Beach, attempting to isolate and discredit this research.

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Jeb Sprague is a freelance journalist and a graduate student in History at California State University of Long Beach. An expanded and footnoted version of this article will appear in his thesis covering the destabilization and overthrow of democracy in Haiti, 2000-2004. Contact him at





5 Unequal Equation: The Labor Code and Worker Rights in Haiti



8 Sur l’AFL-CIO, Son Rôle Nationalement et Internationalement, la Crise Actuelle par rapport aux Intérêts de la Classe Ouvrière

9 David Wislon, “Haitian Labor Group Confronts US Lavalas Backers”
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