Haiti: Hunger made in the USA

April 25, 2008

The early April food riots in Haiti were a product of decades-long neoliberal economic policies foisted on the poverty-stricken nation. Since 2007, prices for a number of essential foods, including rice, rose by about 50%.

Desperate hunger rioters attacked the presidential palace on April 8, but were driven away by UN soldiers. Four days later the senate voted to remove Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis from office and President Rene Preval's hold on power hangs in the balance.

In an article posted on Counterpunch.org on April 22 by Bill Quigley, a US lawyer and social rights activist, noted: "The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that 'Haiti, its agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself'. Unfortunately, the article did not talk at all about one of the main causes of the shortages — the fact that the US and other international financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major market for the heavily subsidized rice from US farmers …

"Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly all the rice it needed. What happened?"

The World Bank, the US government-funded aid agency USAID and International Monetary Fund began their intervention in 1986, after the overthrow of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986. The extraordinarily brutal "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son "Baby Doc" had ruled Haiti as a US semi-colony for decades.

So tightly entwined into the US economy was Haiti under the Duvaliers, that US banknotes and coins were used as the currency. Printed on Haiti's only banknote, the five Gourd note, was that it was worth US$1. One Gourd coins, minted in 1913, were still in circulation, worn down to shiny silver tokens.

The World Bank dictated legal changes and a reduction on import taxes on food and other basic goods under its "Caribbean Basin Initiative". The theory was that Haitians would get better access to cheaper and more plentiful food.

The flood of cheap goods, such as rice and poultry from subsidised US producers, displaced local producers. According to the World Bank, the former farm workers fleeing the land would work in new factories assembling cheap exports.

This converted Haiti into a cheap labour happy hunting ground for US companies.

The consequences were devastating: food production per capita declined by about a third. Particularly affected were the staple foods traditionally sold in local markets, rice, millet and beans. Starving peasants were forced into the cities to survive as best they could.

The promises of the assembly industry absorbing this labour force were never fulfilled. A barely noticeable upturn in the mid-80s created work for tens of thousands of people, according to different observers. Today only between 10,000 and 20,000 people work in the in the export-oriented factories.

These industries in the '80s produced such things as toys and electronic equipment but now almost exclusively turn out textiles. The workers in Port-au-Prince, or in the new Maribahoux industrial park on the border with the Dominican Republic, finish simple clothes for big brand companies like Levis or Hanes.

The establishment of industrial zones and the urbanisation in their vicinity has further destroyed valuable agricultural land, disrupting food production. Hundreds of Dominican peasant families moved to Maribahoux in 2002 on the promise of textile industry jobs. Of the 10,000 promised jobs, only 2000 materialised.

Working conditions in the industrial parks are miserable and payments are at minimum wage rates. The Haitian statutory minimum wage is $2 per day.

Quigley also noted that Haiti is today the third-largest importer of rice from the US. In the US, rice is a heavily subsidised, receiving $11 billion from 1995 to 2006. Not only do rice farmers in impoverished countries consequently have to compete with subsidised imports in their own country, it also works to deny them export markets.

The flood of imported staple foods from the US has not been cheaper in the long term. Starting at the end of the '80s, prices rose until inflation hit almost 40% in 2004. Since then, while the overall inflation rate in 2007 dropped to 14.4%, the prices of basic foodstuffs such as rice exploded.

This process was not inevitable — the Haitian people have struggled against this neocolonial destruction of the Haitian economy. Since the overthrow of the dictatorship, the three elected governments — in 1990, 1995 and 2000, two of them headed by the radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide — all sought to implement policies aimed at overcoming food dependency, and in doing so have expressed the popular will.

At each step of the way, the imperialist powers worked to undermine this push, with the 2004 overthrow of the elected Aristide government — orchestrated by US and other imperialist countries — a powerful example. Aristide is living in exile in South Africa and Haiti remains occupied by foreign troops.

In this context, the rise in food prices on the world market — due to growing East Asian demand, the competition with biofuel plants and futures market speculation — has Haiti helpless.

Venezuela and Brazil are delivering extensive food aid — some ten tonnes from Brazil and more than 300 tonnes from Venezuela. This will provide short-term relief. However, the only long-term solution for the Haitian people is to regain the country's capacity to produce its own food.

Preval has pointed to the medium-term need to strengthen local production and protect against the vagaries of the world market. Agrarian reform has been announced. But as long as internal Haitian politics remain dominated as it is by US interests, will make this will be impossible.

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