Harvest of Hunger: The United States in Haiti
Today the Clinton administration touts as a major foreign policy success the U.S. role in returning former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and ousting the coup leaders Raoul Cedras and company. But as the "price" for his return the Clinton administration in conjunction with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund demanded then President Aristide sign agreements which continue a long U.S. tradition of pushing policies which undermining Haiti's national and Haitians' household food security.
These neoliberal economic policies are an instant replay of the neoliberal export driven policies in Africa and Central America Food First discussed in our last News and Views and our last Backgrounder, "Anatomy of a Disaster." Haiti is being asked to eliminate the jobs of half its civil servants, massively privatize public services, dramatically slash tariffs and import restrictions, get rid of price and foreign exchange controls, grant "emergency" aid to the export sector, reinforce an "open foreign investment policy," create special corporate courts where "judges are more aware of the implications of their decisions for economic efficiency," rewrite its corporate laws, limit the scope of state activity and regulation and diminish the power of the executive branch in favor of the traditionally more conservative Parliament.
If the government of newly elected President Rene PrŽval accepts these policy directions, it has been promised $770 million in desperately needed financing, $80 million of which goes immediately to pay the debt accrued to foreign banks during the three years following the 1991 coup. Although the United States has historically allowed corrupt Haitian leaders to siphon off millions of dollars in foreign aid, this time very little of this aid will be administered by the first genuinely democratically elected Haitian governments. "U.S. officials acknowledge that they will have direct control over most of the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of aid which will bypass Aristide's team and the central government altogether" reported the Haitian Information Bureau. The aid will instead be funneled directly to an array of organizations and individuals linked to the U.S. government through such organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
Shocking though they may appear, the latest round of impoverishing policies are part of a historical continuum in Haiti. Indeed, the presence of U.S. troops in Haiti is not new. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines into what turned out to be a nineteen year occupation. Both the 1915 and the 1994 U.S. invasions were ostensibly about restoring democracy and stability. But both were in typical U.S. fashion very much about U.S. geopolitical and economic interests. The interests of Haiti's poor majority have consistently been damaged by U.S. military intervention and by U.S.aid programs.
The 1915-1934 U.S. occupation, for example, saw Haiti's constitution rewritten to allow, for the first time in the Republic's history, foreign ownership of land. Many U.S. companies successfully leased large tracts. Historian Suzy Carter has documented the concession of 266,000 acres of Haitian land to North American firms. Writing in a Haitian academic journal in 1929, Haitian scholar Georges Sejourne estimated that 50,000 peasants were displaced the north alone.
Since the time of the 1915 occupation, U.S. support for Haiti's military and U.S. economic strategies have resulted in ever increasing dependency on the United States and ever decreasing national and household food security. The ultimate outcome of U.S. military and economic involvement in Haiti has been a harvest of hunger.
HUNGER IN HAITI
In line with the agreement reached with the Nixon administration and with the Reagan administration's Caribbean Basin Initiative to boost production in the region by offering access to U.S. markets, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) helped establish-with U.S. taxpayers' money - promotional offices in the Caribbean to lure investors to the region.
This initiative concentrated on boosting assembly operations. The strategy produced the intended results. By 1987, manufactured goods rivaled agricultural exports in value. Assembly-industry exports averaged $53.9 million yearly between 1980 and 1984, while coffee, a major export crop-earned $53.2 million. U.S. investment represented 90 percent of total foreign investment in Haiti as of 1992; 95 percent of the county's light manufacturing exports were destined for U.S. markets.
Urban household food insecurity is directly tied to the high level of
unemployment related to and the low wages paid in this sector of Haiti's economy. The legal minimum wage in Haiti is three Haitian dollars, or U.S. $1.85 per day, 23 cents an hour. But workers told a New York City based National Labor Committee investigative team that they actually make the equivalent of US $ 1.11 per day or 14 cents an hour. Even these meager wages have been falling in recent years. During the last decade, Haitian wages dropped by 56 percent. In the meantime, Haitian exports to the U.S. doubled. With 70 percent of the workforce unemployed, each assembly job must now feed five to seven people. That works out to 39 cents per person per week, or six cents per day. It is impossible to meet even minimum food, clothing, and shelter-much less healthier and education-expenses on wages this low.
In Haiti U.S.food aid plays the same detrimental roles Food First has pointed out in books such as Betraying the National Interest that it plays in other countries. In 1994 USAID claimed it was feeding upwards of 70,000 Haitians per day. It insists U.S. food aid is not competing with Haitian production because the food provided is not grown in Haiti. But Haitian and U.S. researchers have concluded what Food First has argued for years - that U.S. food aid is undermining local production. Massive increases in U.S. food aid drove down the prices of Haitian agricultural goods in local markets. Rice production dropped 35 percent in 1991-1992. The U.S. owned Rice Corporation of Haiti's parent company has a virtual monopoly on rice imports to Haiti. [SEE INSET] Similarly, bean production dropped 20 percent; roots and tubers 15 percent, and sorghum 10 percent.
In addition to undercutting prices for locally produced food, U.S. food aid is encouraging shifts in domestic consumption patterns. Historically corn meal was more the everyday food and rice was reserved for special occasions. When the glut of "Miami rice" imports made rice cheaper in the 1980s, in addition to rice increasingly replacing corn in the diet, Haitians came to prefer the higher quality imported rice over the locally grown product. These changes are, in sum, proving ruinous for a country where 70 percent of the population still depends on agriculture for their livelihood.
The United States dominance and the neoliberal strategy it and the World Bank and IMF insist upon are not going unchallenged. Food First is working with one of many Haitian research and activist organizations fully committed to reversing the tide of program and policies impoverishing the Haitian majority. The Haitian Advocacy Platform for an Alternative Development (PAPDA) is a collaborative organization dominated by small scale farmers' groups. It carries out detailed research on the impacts of neoliberal policies; disseminates that information to Haitian activists and to associations of small scale producers; makes the case against U.S. dominance and neoliberal policies in the Haitian and Western countries' media, and most important-works with activists, workers, and farmers to identify and advocate for alternative strategies. In addition to providing PAPDA with Food First materials, Food First will be facilitating the dissemination of their work in the U.S. We also plan to establish exchange programs with PAPDA members and our partners in Cuba and Africa.
Food First has now joined our efforts with those of a number of U.S. organizations-50 Years is Enough, Global Exchange, Grassroots International, the National Labor Committee, Oxfam America, Partners in Health, and the Washington Office on Haiti among others-trying to reverse U.S. policies causing hunger and poverty in Haiti.
Institute for Food and Development Policy Backgrounder
Fall 1996, Vol.3, No. 3