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28067: Fenton: An interview with Haitian labor leader Benissoit Duclos (fwd)
From: Anthony Fenton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Journeying in the struggle together: An interview with Haitian labor
leader Benissoit Duclos
by Wanda Sabir
Benissoit Duclos, left, founder of the Haiti Transportation
Federation, speaks at the Bang4Change Human and Civil Rights Festival
in front of San Francisco City Hall Saturday as Pierre Labossiere,
founder of the Haiti Action Committee, translates.
Photo: Bill Hackwell
Dessalines, the first emperor of Haiti, who is reported to have been
born in Guinea, while other reports place him in Haiti, has a lot in
common with the first president of the West African nation, Ahmed
Sékou Touré. Both men used culture as a means to validate indigenous
arts, revitalize their nations and promote unity among the various
In a recent interview with labor leader Benissoit Duclos, who's been
in exile since President Aristide was ousted in 2004, we discussed
the role of culture in revolutionary movements and how African
liberation is Pan African in scope.
Wanda Sabir: Culture is a better means of domination than the gun.
Ahmed Sékou Touré, first president of Guinea, said something I think
Jean-Jacques Dessalines would have agreed with.
There seem to be parallels between what Guinea's first post-colonial
president said and what Haiti's first general, Jean-Jacques
Dessalines, supposedly descended from Guinea, did when he removed the
stigma attached to indigenous language, music, religion and other
At the union hall in Oakland, members of Amalgamated Transit Union
Local 192 met with Haitian union leader Benissoit Duclos. He is
standing at the center of this photo beside Yvonne Williams (with
glasses), president of Local 192.
Photo: Dave Welsh
Benissoit Duclos: I don't know in detail too much about his polices
in Guinea, but Dessalines I know about and what Dessalines was trying
WS: Even if you don't know a lot about Sékou Touré directly, one of
the ways he worked to establish a cohesive society after colonial
rule - the same with Ghanaian president, Kwame Nkrumah - was to look
at culture as a way to unify a society.
BD: What remains a mystery is the actual place for Dessalines'
birthplace. Many historians claim he was born in Guinea, Africa.
Others claim he was born in the North of Haiti. What's interesting
(is) they all agree on the same birth date: 1758.
It's very clear that whether Dessalines was born in Africa or Haiti,
he knew certainly the history of his people, of his family, the land
of his grandfather, the land of his father and mother, his
grandmother. This affected his thinking, shifted and modeled his
Dessalines clearly knew his culture. Sékou Touré is a man of Africa,
so it's very possible (both men) used the same tactics or tools, and
the same (values) motivated and mobilized them.
One thing Dessalines was very clear on as well was his people would
have a better life, and he was vehemently committed to making this
happen and to resist colonialists who (tried to take control) through
conspiracies with mulattos, freedmen who had land, poor whites who
were hoping to get the land within the old system, and Blacks who
were greedy and wanted to become the new masters. These (factions)
conspired against Dessalines and assassinated him on Oct. 17, 1806
(200 years ago).
It is clear Sékou Touré was motivated by (similar) things. There are
connections regarding their methods, (so) the spirit of struggle
united both of them.
WS: Though Dessalines predated Sékou Touré by hundreds of years, he
was looking at Umoja, African unity - Haiti as a place of sanctuary
for African people who were enslaved who were free if they could make
it to the Caribbean Island.
BD: You hit the nail on the head there.
WS: Dessalines is the one who tore the white out of the middle of the
French flag and put the two sides, blue and red together, and said
Haiti is an African nation and everyone is a Black person.
In 1990, you helped create the Action Nationale de Chauffeurs (the
National Action for Drivers) when Aristide came to power. I believe
this was the same time when the union was negotiating for a higher
minimum wage which led to a coup and Aristide's ouster?
BD: Aristide wasn't in power yet; he was a candidate at the time. It
was in Aug. 9, 1990, that ANC was created.
WS: Were you influenced or encouraged by African liberation struggles
elsewhere like in South Africa with the ANC? Ironically, this is the
country which welcomed the deposed president and his family in 2004.
BD: The struggle that was going on in Haiti had been going on for a
long time, so we cannot say that it started because of the ANC
struggle in South Africa; however, our particular union, Action
Nationale de Chauffeurs, we took the name really as a tribute to the
African National Congress. That's why the organization has that
acronym; it was a tribute to the struggle of the brothers and sisters
in South Africa at the time which led to the liberation of Nelson
WS: Why did the union want to pay tribute to South Africa and Nelson
BD: We did that in recognition of the brothers and sisters of South
Africa; there are so many things they have suffered from Apartheid.
After their leader, who'd spent (27) years in (prison), was finally
freed, they were talking about him becoming president of the country,
so that was significant also (insofar as) what a liberation struggle
could accomplish. We took the name as a tribute but also as a way to
motivate the drivers to (see that with) perseverance, they also could
WS: Were you also aware of what was going on in the United States
with the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movements? Did
Black Americans encourage Haitians who wanted to resist Duvalier's
regime and other repressive governments in place before
democratically elected presidents Aristide and Préval renewed
strength in struggle?
BD: The Haitian struggle for the abolition of slavery paid a large
role in motivating brothers and sisters from throughout the world and
inspired many struggles throughout the (African Diaspora) toward post-
colonial liberation. By the same token, the struggles by the brothers
and sisters here in the U.S. also motivated us in Haiti to continue
to struggle against Duvalier and the system. As we all struggle (or)
journey in this struggle together, our struggle taking place in
different parts of the world motivated and encouraged each other to
keep going at different moments.
Some people feel that Black people or people from Africa don't have
the kind of mental capacity that (Europeans have). (Yet), when we
look at the pyramids of Egypt, in particular the Great Pyramid at
Giza (built by Snefru's son, Khufu, known as Cheops), proves not only
are we capable, we have evidence to show what we are capable of
accomplishing as a people.
They do call us a minority. In the U.S., they say Blacks are a
minority, but that doesn't mean anything, because you can be a
minority in terms of numerical population, but you are not a minority
in your mind in terms of your capability, in terms of brain power.
This is what the Haitian revolution, the struggles of brothers and
sisters in the U.S. and the struggles of brothers and sisters in
South Africa - all of those have served to make this example very
clear that our mind power or brain power is not in the minority at all.
WS: It sounds like you're saying that the movement is still Pan
African in scope and that Haiti's liberation is tied to the
liberation of all African people everywhere. You know the saying all
of us or none of us?
BD: I'd drop the "none of us," because it has to be all of us winning.
WS: (The morning before his return to New York, Benissoit Duclos met
with the union which represents AC Transit drivers. It's headed by an
African American woman, Yvonne Williams.)
How did your meeting go this morning with the Amalgamated Transit
Union Local 192, and why did you want to meet with them?
BD: We discussed the situation before and after the recent coup
d'état. I wanted to meet the leaders of the transportation union
here, because I am a leader in the transportation union in Haiti.
WS: Are you going to be working together?
BD: We talked about how we can develop support for the transport
workers in Haiti similar to what (you) have here in the United States.
WS: It seems as if unions in Haiti have more power than they have
here in the U.S., especially post-9/11, but even before that. I think
it might be more beneficial for Amalgamated to see what some of the
strategies Action Nationale de Chauffeurs is using.
BD: The Haitian unions have a long history, since the American
occupation from 1915 to 1934. In Haiti, the trade unions are in
struggle with democracy. From what I've seen in the U.S., (some)
unions seem to have more money and perhaps less will for democratic
struggle than others.
The 1934 General Strike in San Francisco, that spirit or struggle is
what is still going on in Haiti.
(Benissoit Duclos helped found, in 1990, and leads the Haiti
Transportation Federation of 32 unions. Recently he decided to get
some training to better serve the needs of his constituency. This
study was interrupted by the recent coup, but not before he had his
undergraduate degree in business management. He was completing his
graduate studies in diplomacy at the Centre d'Études Diplomatiques
Internationales before he had to leave the country.)
BD: I still am a supporter of Lavalas. When France and the United
States got together in the European Union and tried to slow the
development and destabilize the economy, the people said no (during
Aristide's presidency and before).
This is evident in the coup which followed Aristide's attempt to
raise the minimum wage from 15 gourdes (50 cents) to 36 gourdes in
1991. When he came back in 1994, the unions demanded another raise,
but it didn't happen until 2001 when he came back and his government
agreed with the unions that the minimum wage go from 36 to 108
gourdes, but the business elite threatened to close all their
factories and relocate. After a three-day lockout by the business
elite, the minimum wage was then set at 7 gourdes.
(It was during the last coup d'état that Duclos had to flee when he
saw himself on TV in an anti-Lavalas film, then heard his name on a
right wing radio station. Just a day after he left his home and went
into hiding, his house was trashed, everything destroyed. Also
completely destroyed were 110 new Haitian Public Transportation
Federation buses, while other buses were vandalized. These buses had
been serving towns across the country.)
WS: As president of the federation, why are you so threatening that
there are those who want you killed?
BD: The people who stick their necks out, vocal resisters, were
targeted first. I was one of those people. I was opposed to any kind
of strikes called by bosses. Unless called by labor, I told consumers
to ignore the other "strikes." (Big business and national forces)
didn't like this.
WS: Now that President René Préval is back as head of L'Espwa (The
Hope) party, what would you like to see happen?
BD: (The president's) philosophy is one of encouraging organizations
to flourish, to create a space for organizations, the labor unions in
particular, to organize themselves to work with government to address
their concerns. As people change, life changes, things change, but I
am very hopeful Préval has good will - that his heart is in the right
One of the things I'm really concerned about is the reactionary
infiltration into the transportation unions. They want to persuade
President Préval to withdraw support for the unions and the working
people, which is why writers and supporters of Haiti need to continue
to cover the situation there to keep the pressure on to keep the
reactionaries in check as the (new president implements his programs).
Email Wanda at email@example.com.
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