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January 25th, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: Why Haiti is so desperately poor

Freethought San Marcos: A column

The devastating earthquake in Haiti has led to an outpouring of assistance from around the world. Numerous aid organizations were already working in Haiti at the time of the earthquake. About 400 doctors and medical personnel from Cuba were already there and Cuba has been training Haitians in the medical arts for several years. Along with the outpouring of disaster assistance from countries around the world has come an outpouring of information about Haiti, how it came to be, and why.

Some of that information has been entirely bogus or self-serving, as was the case with Pat Robertson’s assertion that God is angry at Haitians for practicing voodoo. But some historians, commentators, and analysts are helping fill in the gaps in our knowledge base, while others are continuing to propound myths.

With few exceptions, America’s media have not told the story of why Haiti is the poorest country in this hemisphere. Knowing its history of exploitation and economic abuse helps give perspective to the turmoil we have witnessed in television reports of the relief effort that has followed the earthquake of January 12. One of those few exceptions is the weekday news program Democracy Now!, which has reported in depth on Haiti for the last ten years. Since the earthquake, its reporting about Haiti has expanded dramatically.

Six years ago, Amy Goodman, co-host and creator of Democracy Now!, reported that “Since winning independence from the French 200 years ago through a revolutionary slave revolt, Haiti has seen 33 military coups.” After Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected president of Haiti in 1990 in a surprise upset, Noam Chomsky explained how his election happened: “A lot of large-scale effective organizing among some of the poorest, most miserable people in the world and grassroots movements had developed with nobody paying any attention.”

Chomsky described what happened next: “The U.S.(supported) candidate got 14% of the vote and Aristide, President Aristide won by a very large majority, which shocked everybody. The United States instantly turned to overthrowing the government. It withdrew … desperately needed support from the government and not because the government was inefficient, it was getting very good marks from the international lending institutions and so on, but because it had broken the rules.” The US government feared that Aristide would not follow policies that were in America’s interests. Haitians had found a way to actually participate in the democratic process and elect someone concerned with their interests, a circumstance the elites in both Haiti and America could not accept.

When Aristide was overthrown in 1991 by a military coup, the Organization of American States called for an embargo to put pressure on the coup leaders. The embargo was disregarded by then-President George H. W. Bush, who permitted U.S. firms to break the embargo, to continue providing aid, and to engage in commerce with the military junta and its rich backers. This action was reported at the time by the New York Times. When Clinton was elected president, the trading with coup-led Haiti was continued and expanded.

Rice is the most important food in the Haitian diet and was adequately supplied by Haitian farmers for 200 years. What happened to the rice market illustrates how American policy can completely undermine another country’s economy and culture. In 2008, Amy Goodman reported, “Thirty years ago, Haiti had all the rice it needed. Then in 1986, Haiti turned to the IMF (the International Monetary Fund) for a loan. Now, after cutting tariff protections on local rice (at the IMF’s insistence), Haiti imports most of its rice from the United States, which in turn remains heavily subsidized. US rice farmers get one billion dollars a year in government subsidies. Meanwhile in Haiti, hungry people are rioting in the streets because they cannot afford to buy (imported) rice.”

Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who has studied the economic problems in Haiti, explained that “thirty years ago, Haiti imported almost no rice, was an exporter of sugar and other things. Today, Haiti imports nearly all of its rice. It even imports sugar, even though it was the sugar-growing capital of the Caribbean. And the reason is (that) in order to get these loans, which they need desperately to be able to survive, … they had to open up their markets to competition.” Of course, as Quigley explained, the US does not follow the same policy. Haiti is the third biggest customer for US-grown rice, exporting over 200 million metric tons of rice every year to Haiti. Because US rice is heavily subsidized by the US government, our rice is cheaper than the rice Haitians could grow themselves.

In a 2008 interview, Quigley said, “A billion dollars a year of taxpayer money goes to rice farmers in the United States … . We have three different subsidies, three different programs that do that, plus we have a tariff that adds between three and 24 percent protection for our rice farmers. And as a result, the rich and powerful country of the United States, along with other rich and powerful countries in the world, have just really bullied these small countries into accepting our rice. And as the rice from the United States came in—they even called it “Miami rice” and some call it the invasion of Miami rice—that rice flooded in at low or below cost … and destroyed the ability of farmers in Haiti to be able to grow rice. And as a consequence, the country now depends totally on imported rice.”

The effects of such policies are apparent in Haiti’s moribund economy, lack of infrastructure, its inadequate building practices, and the dismal poverty of most of its people. Quigley described the bind faced by ordinary Haitians: “Over half the people in Haiti live on a dollar a day. And when they get up in the morning, they don’t know where they are going to find the money to be able to eat. So it’s not as if they can turn off the air conditioning. They don’t have electricity. They can’t cut back on running water. They don’t have running water. That dollar a day is for food. And so, if food which used to cost ninety cents now costs a buck-eighty or two-something, they don’t have enough food to feed their family today and tomorrow and the day after and the day after that.” Now that local farmers have been driven out of the rice market by subsidized US rice, Haitians must pay whatever US rice producers want to charge, and Haitian farmers are further marginalized and impoverished.

A second cause of the precipitous drop in rice production in Haiti is environmental degradation. Under international pressures, Haitian farmers were pushed into adopting unsustainable agricultural cultivation techniques aimed at the export market. Such techniques maximized crop yields, but sacrificed soil conservation, which made local rice harvests poorer and poorer over the years. While other factors, such as bauxite mining, contributed to deforestation and soil erosion, the role of the IMF and the World Bank in pushing Haiti into dropping tariffs on imported food have been major causes of Haiti’s inability to feed its population.

What Quigley was describing was life in Haiti before the earthquake. For the 1.2 million people living in and around Port-au-Prince, the area most affected by the earthquake, life has become as close to hell on earth as most of us can imagine. It appears that about 1/6 of that population was killed by the earthquake and its aftermath.

If you would like to make a donation to help ease the suffering in Haiti caused by the earthquake, just Google “Haiti relief” and you will find numerous sources through which you can channel your assistance.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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