Inside Look at Haiti's Business Elites
AN INSIDE LOOK AT HAITI’S BUSINESS ELITE
An Interview with Patrick James
Patrick James is the alias of a U.S. businessperson who previously
lived and worked in Haiti. This interview was conducted prior to (Oct.
1994) the negotiated ouster of the illegal Haitian military government
and the restoration of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but it remains
relevant and timely for the insights it provides about class divisions,
power, exploitation and human rights in Haiti.
Multinational Monitor: How
would you characterize the Haitian business class as a community?
Patrick James: The interconnectedness of the Haitian
business community is amazing. I worked for a company and the guy right
across the hallway from me, one of the partners, was General Cedras’s
brother; the other was a European businessman. My company had one partner
whose sister is married to the European businessman, who’s in
business with Cedras’s brother. The elite are somehow interconnected
or related. Basically they have to work together in order to keep their
You can imagine what kind of pressure that must be when you know that
there are six million peasants that basically could rise up and tear
your house down some night, which, also, I experienced. I’ve witnessed
what they call dechoukage where they just basically firebomb, loot and
gut a house. Its a terrifying thing.
This is always in the mind of the elite Haitians. They ride around in
their armored vehicles, they have their Uzis in their house. It’s
not uncommon to hear machine gun fire when you’re in Port-au-Prince
just because there’s a thief trying to break in somewhere. And
you’d better believe these rich
people have got machine guns. (See, Small Weapons Survey:
Securing Haiti’s transition: Reviewing human insecurity and the
prospects for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, April
8, 2005. Said Report also outlines that:
1. The rich minority not the poor majority (or, as the mainstream media
indiscriminately refers to those calling for return of Aristide) not
the "bandits" own and control most weapons and small arms
in Haiti. 2. Most of the illegal arms to Haiti are from the USA and
especially Florida. The report highlights the role of US covert agencies
have played in contributing to arms proliferation in Haiti. http://www.haiti-info.com/article.php3?id_article=3530)
The poorest Haitians cannot rise up. I mean there will not be a revolution
in Haiti because you cannot fight these machine guns with sticks and
rocks and machetes. There’s only so far you can fight.
MM: Where do the U.S. businesses fit into that whole
picture economically and politically? Are they part of that elite?
James: The rich Haitian families basically run their
own empires. You have partnerships with American businessmen, European
businessmen that are very lucrative because you have a monopoly situation
in Haiti. There are only a certain amount of players, and if you can
provide something that no one else can provide, you’re in. If
you have a sister-in-law that’s, say, from Vietnam or Thailand
who has connections who can get you all the rice you want to import,
then you’re the guy that owns the rice market in Haiti.
MM: What are the leading empires?
James: There are probably a group of about
30 families, big families. Then, after that, maybe another
hundred or two hundred [at the] next level. There aren’t many
people, relative to the entire population, running the show. And, let
me tell you, the wealth is unbelievable. I know some of these people
that send their kids to private schools in Florida and Switzerland,
grammar schools where they’re paying $18,000 a year for one child’s
tuition. They are multi-, multi-millionaires. They have a monopoly on
the situation. They’re maybe importing rice, then they may export
coffee or oranges or whatever. And of course they are making their money
from the sweat and blood of the poor Haitian, who’s making maybe
$20 a month, if he’s lucky.
MM: Have the labor costs been that low for a long time?
James: Always, and the rich plan to keep it that way,
that’s how they make their money. Slavery is alive and well in
Haiti. That’s what it is, slavery. It’s even worse than
slavery, really, because at least with slavery you were offered some
fringe benefits, as far as housing. In this situation, you’re
offered hard labor and that’s it. If you get enough money to buy
a machete so you can chop down a few trees to weave together a hut and
pack mud on the side of it, good for you. If not, tough luck. They don’t
provide housing, they don’t provide food for these people, they
just use them for labor.
The first day I was at my office, one of the Haitian businessmen came
in and I said, “I can’t believe how poor these people are.”
This guy was one of the elite, light skin, blue eyes, and he said to
me: “Oh yeah, we have to keep these people tired and hungry, otherwise
they’ll rise up against us.”
MM: Do you think people would rise up if they had more
James: No doubt about it. That’s the thing the
[elite] Haitians are so afraid of.
When there’s a mob mentality, anything can happen. I remember
the night of the coup, I was asleep in bed. At about one o’clock
in the morning I heard loud explosions, gunfire, chanting, screaming.
I got up and looked out of my bedroom window. I was up on the side of
a mountain and I could look down over the whole city. I saw different
places on fire and I could tell there was something wrong. So I went
outside to ask the night watchman what was going on. He was listening
to the radio and said something happened to Aristide. I asked myself,
“Am I the good guy or the bad guy?” I didn’t know.
I didn’t know if the average Haitian would look at me as a white,
a blanc, as the enemy, or if I was just someone that was not involved
in the situation so they wouldn’t even bother me. I didn’t
know what to do and I heard people chanting, coming up the side of the
mountain. I could see different places on fire already on the mountainside.
So I turned around and went back to my house. I went back into my room
and packed my backpack and I took the machete from under my bed and
I went back outside to the night watchman. I asked him what we should
do, and he said he didn’t know. So we hid. It was a bright moonlit
night and we hid in the garage. I could see now there was a crowd out
in front of the house, probably 200 people, flaming torches and machetes,
and of course I start sweating bullets. They started chopping down the
fence and the night watchman said, “We have to go out, otherwise
they’re going to come in here.” So I just kind of took a
deep breath, and the two of us walked into the moonlight and held our
machetes. And I just remember looking up and at that point I could hear
them yelling “Blancs, blancs, blancs restent ici,” meaning,
“Whites stay here, whites live here.” And then, one by one,
they started running away.
I spent the next two or three nights crawling around on my hands and
knees on the floor listening to bullets whizzing by, and to gunfire.
During one of those days, I went over to a hotel where a bunch of my
friends lived. I was sitting on the terrace of the hotel with the owner
of the hotel, drinking coffee, talking about the situation, and all
of a sudden I hear some screaming and I hear a truck winding up the
mountainside. Suddenly, they let the back of the truck down and all
the soldiers pile out and start chasing people around the hotel shooting
MM: Who were they chasing?
James: Just average Haitians. So the owner of the hotel
and I wondered what the hell was going on. The two of us just stood
up and went out and stood on the veranda with our hands on our hips
watching this. And these guys went around and actually shot people,
and went up on the side of the mountain, burned down people’s
huts, and basically terrorized people.
MM: Why were they doing that?
James: Just to scare them. To let them know that the
military is here; we’re in charge again; the Aristide movement
is over; don’t even think about rising up or trying to get any
power. What could I do? They acted as if the owner of the hotel and
I weren’t even there. I was just a bystander.
MM: You were safe. They weren’t going to attack
James: No. At this point I started to realize, well,
there’s something going on here that I don’t understand.
MM: What was that?
James: Well, that’s when I realized that the
military was on the side of the rich and that, as an American,
I had nothing to worry about. And that was the case most of the time
MM: Does the U.S. business community fear an uprising?
James: I don’t think the American business community
has to worry about it as much, because they have got less to lose, they’ve
got a place they can fly away to. It’s the Haitian business community
that basically keeps the system in place.
Of course, if you’re an American businessman and you’re
offered to become a part of this system where your risks are much lower
than they are for the average Haitian businessperson but your profits
are equal, of course you’re going to buy into the system.
It’s a good deal. In Haiti, I was making
about $800,000 or $900,000 a year. I lived in the lap of luxury,
with a huge estate with gardens, gardeners, maids, cooks, laundry women.
It was a lifestyle that would take me a lot more work to accomplish
in the United States.
MM: How profitable are the U.S. companies that
have assembly operations in Haiti?
James: These companies benefit from Caribbean Basin
Initiative tax incentives for companies that import materials from the
United States and then process them in Haiti and send them back. And
of course being able to take advantage of the labor costs in Haiti is
very advantageous. As far as the profits they take out, I would only
The problem for these companies is the political situation and the instability.
Companies are not willing to invest a lot in setting up a manufacturing
plant in Haiti for the very reason that happened a couple years ago.
You have a coup, and all of a sudden you don’t know whether there’s
going to be an embargo placed on you or what. If you have orders to
fill, people don’t like to hear that you’re in Haiti, because
if they’re going to make a contract to sell these certain products,
they want to make sure you’re going to be able to deliver. So
this is a big problem for Haiti and a big obstacle as far as having
any long-term investment in manufacturing.
MM: So most of the foreign investment has been
for light assembly that goes in and out?
James: They have made a very low investment because
they have portable machinery that they can pack up and pull out any
time things start to get a little hot.
The U.S. Agency for International Development [USAID] did a report a
few years ago where it talked about the importance of the low wages
as a big advantage for U.S. companies. How can you beat $5 a day in
MM: Do you think the U.S. firms feel they have
a stake in maintaining that system?
James: I would imagine that there are reasons why the
Americans would want to keep that system in place. One being the cost
advantage. Another that they provide fruits and other commodities at
very low prices. If their wage costs start rising, then the costs of
their products are going to start rising and all of a sudden mangoes
cost a lot more money in Florida.
MM: Do you think the U.S. government fears a possible
James: An uprising of the peasant majority? There’s
no way that the Haitian peasants can rise up. You have one section of
the black population which is now aligned with and making money with
the rich. Not much, but more than they could make as a farmer cutting
mangoes. So now they have a gun and are in control. They’re making
a few bucks. The rich tell them to go out and take down some
village, shoot up a couple of people, chop their face off, leave them
in the street, and they’ll do it.
MM: How might U.S. intervention work to keep a
lid on the situation?
James: Whether or not the United States wants to prevent
the Haitian population from rising up, I think they should align themselves,
or at least work with, the military. Try to separate the police force
from the military so that there is some type of civilian protection.
They should try not to go in as the aggressors who are trying to wipe
out the military, but to go in and say “we’re here to retrain
the army; we’re here to work with the army.”
MM: Did you have a sense of how the U.S. embassy
or U.S. business people felt about Aristide’s coming to power,
and the whole popular movement?
James: I think there was worry about how far Aristide
was pushing, especially for a minimum wage, trying to set up a social
security system, things like this.
When Aristide first came in he said, “There’s going to be
a mandatory $5 minimum [daily] wage, everybody has got to do it.”
It was just so outlandish that nobody even took it seriously. You figure
the average Haitian probably makes about 20 dollars a month, so you’re
talking about five dollars a week to five dollars a day!
MM: What impact would that have on the way the
Haitian economy works?
James: For the average worker, it would have increased
their wages, so income would have increased. The effect on the economy
would have been inflationary because the businessman is not going to
settle for not making enough money. All prices would increase relative
to the currency exchange. It would have balanced out ultimately, but
the initial impact would have been a strain on the businessman.
MM: What kind of profits do local business people
James: I would say the average retailer will make something
like a 60 percent profit. As far as importing and then distributing,
a lot depends on the currency exchange. Right now [during the embargo],
profits may be as high as 400 percent — that’s just the
law of supply and demand. When you have sanctions that are limiting
the supply, of course your prices are going to increase.
So Aristide, I think, had some ideal things he wanted to accomplish,
but he just moved too fast. He didn’t consider the establishment
that had been in place for 200 years, and out of his frustration he
started making very passionate and radical speeches about how to break
down the economic system that was in place. And, unfortunately, he pushed
MM: What was the overall business objection to
James: My own personal fear was that I didn’t
know how long this government would last, so I didn’t want to
start putting money into a fund that could disappear and then wonder
who’s getting all the money when the next coup takes place. I
told government officials who asked for social security payments that
I wasn’t going to pay into it, that I’d rather give my workers
extra money every week.
MM: Did many businesses react that way?
James: I think there were probably some that had more
pressure on them than I did, especially if they were Haitian run. Because
I was an American, because I was white — it sounds pretty arrogant
— I could basically call whatever shots I wanted just because
of the color of my skin and my eyes. I could say: “No, I’m
not doing it.”
MM: Even when it comes to paying a tax?
James: Yes, yes, and I didn’t do it. n