Rich nations hold poor ones in plight
By William A. COLLINS
U.S. media outlets tend to report Haiti strictly as a land of tragedy. Its hapless citizens seem endlessly beset with earthquakes, floods, cholera, hunger, and bad government. Unfortunately, our press isn’t making that up.
But what the media fails to explain are the underlying causes of that devastation. Awkwardly, it has much to do with Uncle Sam — although France, Canada, and the International Monetary Fund have all pitched in.
Haiti twice enjoyed a moment of decent leadership under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But after his first election, we soon supported the Haitian army in overthrowing him. Later, in a brief about-face under Bill Clinton, we gave him a hand in running a second time. After Aristide won that election, and disbanded the army, we quickly soured and sent in our own troops to remove him from office once more. Since then, we have backed each successive, submissive government in disallowing him from ever even running again. We recently went so far as to unsuccessfully oppose his return from foreign exile.
All this mucking around in Haiti’s affairs hasn’t helped its economy either. Thanks to reporters writing in the Nation after finding secret State Department cables revealed by WikiLeaks, we know that Washington used its political and business influence to hold Haiti’s minimum wage for workers at export-oriented assembly factories at $3.13 per day. American apparel companies like Fruit of the Loom, Hanes, and Levi’s lobbied hard to prevent the workers employed by their garment manufacturing contractors from getting a raise that boosted the rest of the country’s minimum wage to a “high five bucks per day from the previous — and unbelievably measly — $1.75 per day rate.”
U.S. rice exporters love Haiti too. In the 1980s, our government muscled the ruling junta to lower tariffs on U.S. products. Soon America’s cheaper, subsidized rice dominated the market, driving many local producers out of business.
The 2010 earthquake helped our farmers too. USAID bought shiploads of U.S. rice, which it sent to Haiti as “food aid.” This glut of rice is driving many Haitian farmers into bankruptcy.
The most valuable assistance to Haiti, both before and after the earthquake, has come from Venezuela. Following the big earthquake, Caracas increased its shipments of oil and helped reopen damaged power plants.
In contrast, Washington shipped in soldiers — 20,000 of them — along with an armada of the same shady contractors who contributed to the messes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These basic economic and political realities, writ so large in Haiti, merely reprise two phenomena the world has come to call neocolonialism and neoliberalism.
They work like this: The International Monetary Fund and Western nations pressure poor (often corrupt) governments to squeeze small farmers and manufacturers by cutting tariffs on imports, thus allowing their markets to be flooded by foreign products.
Foreign-owned plantations and sweatshops get incentives, such as tax-free zones, to produce cheap goods for Western consumption. Efforts to make the local economy more sustainable and self-sufficient get short shrift. These rules are enforced by the local military, which the United States trains and subsidizes.
And Haiti is a particularly extreme example of this malevolent system.
OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.