Thursday, March 4, 2010

The United States and Haiti

The United States and Haiti.

There are three important facts about Haiti. Two of those are well known. The third one is not. But the first two cannot be understood without taking the third one seriously.

Fact number one. The earthquake in Haiti was much more damaging because of Haiti's incredible poverty. Where people are not quite as poor, as for instance in Chile, their houses are likely to be constructed more solidly. Infrastructure is in better shape, etc. People have more resources in case of disasters.

Fact number two. US citizens have poured out incredible amounts of money and energy to help the victims of the Haiti earthquake.

Fact number three. The US government and US business there are seriously responsibility for the poverty of Haiti.

I referred to this in a recent blog: in the 1950s a US project built a dam in Haiti that flooded valuable farmland and provided irrigation for agribusinesses not owned by Haitians. While Haitian farmers lost fertile land, foreign companies profited; their profits were sent to the US and Europe instead of benefiting Haiti. Wealth created in Haiti was sent abroad.

I want to cite two more, recent stories about Haitian poverty.

The first has to do with the price of rice: “Not long ago, Haiti was self-sufficient in rice. . . Haitian rice production kept pace with its population growth over the years. The Duvalier governments kept the Haitian market more or less protected. Only one port, Port-au-Prince, was open, allowing control of imports and keeping the level of contraband down. Imported rice sold for about the same price as Haitian rice up through Jean-Claude Duvalier's flight in 1986.

In the seventies, however, the destucturation of Haitian rice began when the government imported tons of U.S. rice following a drought. With a shortage of food and an exodus of hungry peasants to the capital to look for work, the government feared unrest.

Despite the increased imports, in 1987 Haiti still produced three- quarters of its rice needs, but the Henri Namphy regime, under heavy US pressure, . . . moved to liberalize the country by slashing tariffs, and opening all the ports.

U.S. rice has an artificially low price, since the U.S. protects its rice (and sugar beet and other) farmers with multitudes of programs, so U.S. farmers produce rice for less than Haitian farmers thanks to massive subsidies totalling literally hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars. The U.S. regularly produces hundreds of tons more than it needs. . . Contrary to its clarion call of free trade, the U.S. protects its own while it wrenches open the borders of nearby countries in order to market its over-production.

In addition to legally imported and smuggled rice, food aid (corn meal, beans, soy, oil) also undermined and continues to undermine local products by driving all prices down. Tons of aid makes its way onto the market, legally or illegally, and is sold, thus competing with local products.” (

The United States, in spite of its public veneration of the free market, subsidizes its rice farmers. The subsidies encourage increased production and the rice, and other food stuffs, not consumed in the US need to be exported. We then prevail on foreign countries like Haiti to import our excess food. Our food exports to countries like Haiti are much cheaper than the local product because they are subsidized by the US government. These subsidies benefit US Rice producers but they destroy indigenous agriculture. It puts farmers in Haiti out of work and thus increases poverty. Poverty in the Haitian countryside is the result of US agricultural policy.

Here is another story: “Currently, the minimum wage in Haiti for garment workers who produce for the US consumer market is $3.09 a day. Last year, the Haitian Parliament passed legislation to raise the minimum wage for all workers from $1.72 a day to $5 a day. But factory owners in the export sector producing for the US consumer market complained to Haitian President Preval, and he refused to implement the law. A compromise was reached: the minimum wage is now $5, except for the garment workers; they get $3.09 a day.

The AP gave the example of Jordanie Pinquie Rebeca, a garment worker:

Rebeca ... guides a piece of suit-jacket wool and its silky lining into a sewing machine ... If she does this for eight hours, she will earn $3.09. Her boss will ship the pinstriped suit she helped make to the United States, tariff-free. There a shopper will buy it from JoS. A. Bank Clothiers for $550.

The AP said that even the factory owners concede that garment-industry wages are too low to feed, clothe and house workers and their families.

As for Rebeca:

Rebeca ... sleeps on the street and barely eats. With a day's pay she can buy a cupful of rice and transport via group taxi, and pay down debt on her now-destroyed apartment. Anything left over goes to cell phone minutes to call her boyfriend, who was evacuated to the Dominican Republic with a leg fracture sustained in the quake, or her 4-year-old son, Mike, whom she sent to live with relatives in the countryside.” (

The United States is heavily involved in driving country folk off the land into the cities. There they are either unemployed or, if they're lucky, they get a job, like Rebeca in the story, making goods that get sold for a lot of money in United States,while they literally go hungry. American companies enrich themselves at the expense of Haitians who earn starvation wages.

These stories could be replicated indefinitely. The complicity of the United States governments and enterprises in Haitian poverty suggests a different interpretation of the second fact. The outpouring of help for Haiti is indeed a demonstration of American generosity but such generosity can barely scratch the surface of the reparations we should be offering Haiti for the damages our government's policies have done it.