Race, gender and class:
Why have a group of Caribbean women have
From: Association for Women's Rights in Development (AWID) Reposted with permission: Issue 173 Friday, April 16, 2004
An interview with Peggy Antrobus who lives in Barbados and is the past General Coordinator of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) on her thoughts about the situation in Haiti. She is a signatory to a statement against U.S. involvement in Haiti and against the removal of President Aristide. It is entitled, "Caribbean Women Denounce the US-Backed Coup in Haiti".
By Janice Duddy
AWID: Northern news agencies have become quiet on the situation in Haiti. Could you please tell us what is currently happening in Haiti?
PA: It is probably not surprising that there is very little news about Haiti. It must be a such a great embarrassment to the United States administration. This is an election year and the President is trying to project himself as a great defender of democracy and human rights. The question is: How do you square that with what they did in Haiti, with Aristide's kidnapping and continuing violence in Haiti, despite the presence of U.S.-led so-called peace keepers. I think they want to kill the story. People were predicting this long ago.
There are two stories about Haiti and now the other story is beginning to emerge, the story about the attempt to destroy Aristide and all of the hopes that lie with his presidency and the U.S.'s involvement. It is important for them to shut down the news on this particular story so people will continue to believe the mainstream story: that Aristide is a tyrannical, despotic, corrupt, and incompetent president who had to be removed in order to rescue the Haitian people. This is very similar to how they 'rescued' Iraq. I would never suggest that Aristide is as bad as Saddam but the principles are the same, you want to get rid of a president who is not in the interest of the powers that be. It is always easy to generate unrest, create chaos, and mobilize civil society for this purpose. It is an embarrassment that this other story has emerged.
AWID: Has there been increased stability in the country or is there still a lot of violence?
PA: The violence is continuing. It is more directed against the Aristide supporters; you don't hear of any actions against the thugs and criminals, the so-called 'rebels'. Aristide did create an army of supporters, his own militia. He had disbanded his army, which is a contradiction in my mind when people argue that he is a tyrant. I do not know of any tyrant that would disband an army and leave himself exposed. Having disbanded the army and not being able to trust the U.S. trained forces he turned to his own supporters in the slums. That is one of the areas where there was a lot of abuse and has contributed to the violence and the escalation of violence. Now that the Americans are there, their targets are not just the Aristide militias but all Aristide's civilian supporters, ordinary people, teachers, women, and organizers from the slums. The violence is continuing but there is no news about it.
The last bit of news I saw on BBC TV was when the new President went to Gonaïves, his home town in the North. He said that the rebels, who everybody knows are convicted criminals and death squad people, were not criminals but freedom fighters. This is a clear indication of his intention to re-instate and re-habilitate the well-armed gangs that have been creating havoc and taking over the towns in the North. A few weeks later Colin Powell tried to squash this statement. He said, the American administration does not wish to see any of these former rebels as part of a government. However, they are not going to be able to control the rebels because they are very well armed and they are not going to be willing to put down their arms, especially when they feel supported by those in control.
I think that there will be a lot of violence ahead. The best chance for the Americans to hide their involvement is to block the news. But I already see signs of conflict. The people who were against Aristide, and at least complicit in America's coming in (civil society organizations including a lot of the women's organizations) are beginning to complain about the American presence. They did not want to see the Americans as occupiers. There is a sense of betrayal on the side of these organizations who helped to create the chaos. America has installed its own government. Just as in the Iraq situation, they have picked the President and the members of his government. Some of the people in the Haitian opposition who thought that they would be rewarded for their anti-Aristide actions have found that they have been sidelined and are not very happy about this.
AWID: What did the removal of President Aristide mean for the country?
PA: It is important to note that the removal of Aristide has incensed the people of Haiti. Their sense of dignity, autonomy, and sovereignty has been completed flouted by the arrival and behaviour of the American forces. Evidently, the Americans are occupying the presidential palace and are running the show. People say that the U.S. Ambassador is the de facto head of the country.
The betrayal that came with the removal of Aristide speaks to a profound disrespect, for the majority of the people, the betrayal of their hopes for a better life. The poor people elected Aristide (the first democratically elected President of Haiti) who stood for their interests. In fact with all of the problems he has faced with the lack of support and the blocking of aid and so on, he has done a number of things to make life better for poor people. There is probably a deep sense of despair among this group which makes it very serious.
AWID: How has the conflict in Haiti served as another example of outside interference?
PA: This is not a new story. It has happened many, many times in Haiti. But it has also happened many times all over the world. The strategy is so obvious now that it can be predicted. It is a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, civil society is mobilized against the elected leader. This is not to say that many people do/did not have problems with the governments of Aristide, Chavez, or Allende in Chile. I don't like putting these people in the same category, but in any country there is going to be some dissatisfaction. Where resources are limited you are always going to get a number of people who feel excluded, sometimes it is the majority of people and sometimes it is the minority. When you get somebody who comes into offices who represents the majority, as is the case with Aristide, Allende, and Chavez, the minority feels very threatened and they organize a resistance. Putting this into the larger context of global capitalism there are always going to be elites who are unhappy at the challenge to the status quo. They are the minority who's interests are being threatened by the arrival of a democratically elected official who represent the hopes of the majority. In this environment it is not difficult for America or its agents to encourage dissent and ferment it among civil society.
The second part of the strategy is violence. In the case of Venezuela you do not see it as obviously because the opposition is very well organized, therefore it is not necessary to bring in thugs. There is also an army.
I believe that this two-pronged strategy, on the one hand resentment and mobilization against the democratically elected government and on the other hand the instigation of violence, has happened in Haiti and in many other countries.
AWID: What has been the role of corporate media in spreading an inaccurate story of the events in Haiti?
PA: Again, this is not unique. I remember years ago in some of our discussions within the movement we stressed, "don't forget that the media is a multi-national corporation". We are continually surprised by how the media works but we would not be as surprised if we remember that it is now owned by big corporations.
In this context, I would like to highlight the importance of alternative media and especially the internet. This has been an important source of information on 'the other story', the one that is not being told by the mainstream media. This has been the case in Haiti. However, it is not just the internet but people from the grassroots organizations in Haiti. Women have been leaving the country and speaking out. There were a couple of women who came from Haiti about a month ago who really opened my eyes to what was happening. Even though I know the history of Haiti I was not really paying attention until I heard from these women. We are now trying to get their voices heard in more spaces, however this is not easy in the Caribbean in the present climate because of political pressure.
AWID: What roles have race, class, and gender played in the conflict in Haiti?
PA: You cannot understand what is happening in Haiti without an analysis of race, class, and gender. But, each of them is different. For instance, what is happening in Haiti has to first be understood in terms of class. It is the most polarized country in this region and perhaps one of the most polarized in the world. It has a very small elite and an enormous gap between the wealthy elite and the very poor masses, who make up over 80% of the population. It is not just about a disparity of income, and relative income but also the cultural identity of the elite. The elite identify themselves with Europe and the United States. They identify themselves with the "haves" of the world. What we are seeing now is the emergence of a global elite, who have more in common with each other, the "winners" of globalization. This has been happening in Haiti for many years because they were the first in the region to declare themselves independent. The black elite have a long history of privilege in the midst of terrible depravation and have never identified with the masses. I suppose this is a way of making it possible for them to sleep at night, they have to believe that they are right and the mass of people are ignorant, lazy, corrupt, violent, and are not human beings. I believe that these deep divisions of class, combined with cultural identity in Haiti, lies at the heart of the present conflict.
It is interesting to me, especially in contrast to a place like Barbados. They are both Caribbean islands, they both have histories of colonialism and plantation slavery, and there are issues of race in both countries, but one of the things that is different is you do not have as great a class polarization in Barbados. The income is much more evenly distributed than it is Haiti; and Barbadians of all classes have a strong sense of Barbadian identity. In Haiti, unlike Barbados, cultural identity is split along class lines.
There is an important thing that must be understood about race in the Caribbean, race is not just about 'blacks' and 'whites' as in the U.S. definition. Some of the people that you call black in the United States are not considered black in the Caribbean. The closer people are, in terms of skin colour and physical characteristics to a white European the more they are considered 'not black' in the Caribbean. Among the elites in Haiti there are people who would be considered black in America but in Haiti they are not considered black. They are mulattos and do not identify with black people. They may be as black as anybody else, but they do not identify racially with 'black'. In the Caribbean black means poor. Race and class identities come together very closely in the Caribbean.
The gender concept is interesting in Haiti. There is definitely a gender dimension and I think it has to do with the level of poverty in Haiti. I believe poverty has enormous gender implications. It is class interests that create poverty but once you have a class of poor people gender takes over. The reality of what it means to be poor, lack of food, shelter, healthcare, education, all of those basic needs, is a reflection of women's practical gender interests. In that sense there is feminization of poverty, I like to think of it as the engendering of poverty.
In this context, it is important to examine the roles of women's organizations. It is not surprising in a situation where you have such poverty that you would have many NGOs working on issues such as housing, education, health, violence, and gender-based violence, all things that accompany poverty. While women are the most exploited there is also space for organizing on their behalf in the sense of charity or good-works. The work of many organizations focusing on alleviating poverty is not reflected in their politics. In fact, many of them may be quite conservative and guided by instincts of charity and good works. It is possible for people to be very sympathetic to the poor, to do good works, and to raise money for programs but basically they do not want to change the status quo. In fact, one of the ways to maintain the status quo is to pay attention to basic needs so that you keep the lid on the pot and prevent it from erupting. In that sense, women can be used to preserve the status quo.
AWID: How have women and children been affected by the violence in Haiti?
PA: One of the things that I want to emphasis, it is important to use the broader definition of violence and link it to the whole concept of human security, which includes freedom from fear and freedom from want. There are two parts, one is the violence of poverty and deprivation and the other is the physical violence. Clearly, women and children are most affected by this if you are looking at both sides of violence.
I would like to go back to what Aristide symbolizes. To an extent he symbolized the hope of Haiti's poor, of which women and children make up the vast majority of Haiti. I would say they are now more affected of violence. They are in great jeopardy, in terms of their health, education, and livelihood, of living in a continuing state of violence. Also, the fact that grassroots women are some of Aristide's strongest supporters puts them at risk of politically motivated violence. This is a new kind of violence, not just gender-based violence but also politically based violence. People are now writing about a climate of fear in Haiti.
AWID: Is there a role that women can play in preventing violence in Haiti?
PA: I do not think women can prevent violence in Haiti any more than they were able to prevent the war in Iraq. We were not able to stop the war so it is unlikely we would be able to stop the violence. If the powerful forces are determined to use violence as a weapon then we cannot stop it. In the short-run I think that we are powerless. In fact I think that it is women's powerlessness that makes it possible to have this kind of violence. The society in which there is no violence will be a society in which women are very powerful.
However, this is in the short-run and maybe in the medium-run, but this is where my optimism re-asserts itself, I really believe that in the long-run, as we learn more about the factors that deprive the majority of people from basic needs and basic rights we have a chance of preventing violence. Learning more about those factors means understanding the links between patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. We must begin to understand the connections between race, class, and gender and be able to articulate it in a way middle-class and white women can understand that many of the things they are unhappy about have everything to do with patriarchy, capitalism, and racism. In the long run I think that we can organize to oppose those linked structures of oppression and injustice and reduce violence. Right now, there is not much sign that this is happening. I think this is partly because the women's movement has not paid a lot of attention to these interconnecting factors that impact violence.
It is important to examine the role women played in the situation in Haiti. There was a statement that came out from National Coordination for Advocacy on Women's Rights (CONAP) in Haiti [http://www.haitipolicy.org/content/1944.htm], a very strong coalition of women's organizations in Haiti. They took a leadership role among civil society organizations mobilizing against Aristide that created the climate that made it possible for the Americans to come into Haiti.
AWID: Why did they start organizing against Aristide?
PA: This is a good question. It comes back to class. In my opinion, they represent the privilege few. This situation highlighted for me how vulnerable civil society organizations are to political manipulation. Although I am identified with the women's movement and with civil society and I understand civil society is not homogeneous and includes very right-winged people, I never understood how vulnerable civil society is to political manipulation until now, as in the case of Haiti.
Many of the NGOs who are involved in the anti-Aristide mobilization have been getting a lot of US government money through USAID as well as from the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. USAID funds very legitimate things, such as health projects, reproductive rights projects, education projects. But you have to understand how USAID is used for political purposes. (it is not just the Americans that do this.). This trend is very disconcerting because many of our women's organizations depend on funding from government.
There has also been a trend, or a political agenda, focused on downsizing government. Private sector and civil society are part of the whole political agenda to undermine the legitimacy of governments. We are being invited to believe that our states are corrupt, powerless, and we should stop looking to the state for anything. This leaves the state at the mercy of the private sector. You can contrast people-friendly states and market-friendly states. The people-friendly states existed in many places where states were accountable to people and they pushed through agendas that were pro-people, pro-poor, and pro-women. There has now been a shift toward the market-friendly state. One talks of the marketization of governance, governments are now like corporations and have to function like corporations, they are concerned with efficiency, etc. We are encouraged to no longer expect our governments to do any kind of redistributive justice, to protect people's rights, or to stand between the interests of their own people and those of other countries. You are even encouraged to organize yourself in civil society organizations in order to fulfill functions that should be the responsibility of the state. I think what is going on in Haiti is all part of this. In this context it is very problematic that civil society organizations are taking large amounts of money from the U.S. government. As women's organizations we really need to be alert to this. One thing I want women's organization to be aware of, in the context of Haiti, is how easily we can be co-opted.
AWID: How can the global women's movements support the Haitian people?
PA: This issue of being aware of co-option is where the global women's movement can help. The national and even the regional women's movement may be tied down at the moment. We can not do very much. If women's organization in Haiti want to break out of CONAP because they see the American's intentions it would be very difficult for them to do so. They would be threatened in all sorts of ways. Taking away their money would be the simplest thing, but their good name could also be taken away, there are all sorts of ways to destroy people and organizations.
The global women's movement can help because they can say things and raise issues. However, it is very tricky because you don't want to be in a situation where you split the women's movement. In fact, that is exactly what is happening in the Caribbean now. You have CONAP on the one hand and then the signatories of the statement by Caribbean women outside of Haiti condemning the U.S.'s actions on the other. This could happen globally too. That is why it is so important to share information.
Some people make a distinction being made between feminists, who are looking at a broader agenda for social justice and women's rights advocates. I do not consider this a legitimate distinction. Many women working on women's issues feel that women, like myself, who are talking about class, race, and imperialism, are not focused on women's issues. I want to acknowledge that there is a tension in the global women's movement and in women's movements everywhere between those who want to stick to a very narrow agenda of women's rights and those who feel it is essential to place women in a larger context and history.
AWID: What impact has the situation in Haiti had on the Caribbean region?
PA: The implications for the Caribbean are really horrendous. In the first instance the U.S. government has shown disrespect and contempt for the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). CARICOM governments were trying to, and in fact had reached an agreement, in which Aristide would share power with the opposition and Haiti would hold early elections. The next thing you know the opposition is backing out this agreement. Why did they do that? Why didn't the U.S. government say that they were backing CARICOM as they had agreed? Why did they not put pressure on the Haitian opposition? The Haitian opposition would not have gone against the agreement if it had been supported by the U.S. government. This is the kind of back and forth that is going on. The Americans say one thing and then behind the scenes they encourage the opposition not to play the game. They have really disrespected, disregarded, and sidelined CARICOM. Now they are trying to put pressure on CARICOM in order to get CARICOM to fall in line.
This has terrible implications, there is no reason why what happened in Haiti could not happen any where else in the Caribbean. This is one of the ways Caribbean governments are reading the situation in Haiti: if the Americans want to they could they could oust any other leader from power. The Americans are now dividing us and it is creating a lot of tensions between governments who are committed to working together. It is having a very negative impact political, economically, and socially for the Caribbean region, just at the point when we were are trying to work more closely with Haiti (Haiti has just recently become part of CARICOM).
There is much debate about the current situation in Haiti.
One group of Caribbean women signed a declaration against U.S. involvement in Haiti and condemning the removal of President Aristide. You can read the declaration here:
"Caribbean Women Denounce the US-Backed Coup in Haiti". March 2, 2004. http://www.iacenter.org/haiti_carib-women.htm.
This statement was responded to by the National Coordination for Advocacy on Women's Rights (CONAP), a coalition of women's organizations in Haiti. They argue that Aristide was not democratically elected and has brought violence to the country. You can read this response here:
National Coordination for Advocacy on Women's Rights (CONAP). "A Direct Affront to the Principles of Feminist Practice". Mar. 7, 2004. http://www.haitipolicy.org/content/1944.htm
You can read reports from a variety of points of view at:
"Full Coverage Haiti". OneWorld.net.
MADRE. "Insurrection in the Making: A MADRE Backgrounder on the Crisis in Haiti". Feb. 2004. http://www.madre.org/country_haiti_crisis.html
The Haitian Lawyers Leadership. "The post-February 29, 2004 bloodbath in Haiti and human rights violation". Mar. 19, 2004. http://www.margueritelaurent.com/pressclips/concerns.html