Haiti:  Real development or cheap labor haven?

The government of Haiti is indefinitely postponing the legislative elections scheduled for February 28 because the infrastructure of the country has been so thoroughly wrecked by the January 12 earthquake that it is impossible to carry out the mechanics of the poll. As occasional survivors are still being found, the recognized death toll approaches the predicted 200,000, One out of every 45 Haitians has died in the disaster. Yet Haiti is forced to think about how reconstruction is to be approached.

Now another disaster approaches: Economists.

Much lauded in “development assistance” circles and in the New York Times is a new report to the U.N. Secretary General by Paul Collier, identified as a faculty member of the Department of Economics, Oxford University (Haiti: From National Catastrophe to Economic Security)

If Collier has any knowledge of Haitian history, it is not evident. I am no expert, but even I know that Haiti’s troubles have to do with the way the island has been used, over the last 300 years, as a source of profits for various outside interests.  Yet most of the Collier report’s recommendations are based on continuing the exact same policies which have kept most Haitians poor and foreign investors rich.

Collier’s major recommendation is to turn Haiti into a center for garment manufacture by transnational corporations.  The main qualification that Haiti has for this role is plentiful “cheap labor” as Collier bluntly puts it.  Collier recommends that a number of free trade “export zones” be set up in Haiti. Takeover of land for these zones would be expedited by changes in Haitian law. Power generation would be expanded on a privatized basis to make sure the factories have a source of cheap energy. Haitian customs for these zones would also be privatized to prevent bottlenecks and other problems caused by “corruption”. The manufacturing and exporting countries would be “linked” to somebody high in the government. These export zones would be “free trade” operations. If they operate similarly to other such operations in the area, it means that workers would be paid a pittance and Haiti as a nation would get precious little out of them.

Collier would also like to see Haiti move more in the direction of producing cash crops for export (he suggests mangos) rather than subsistence agriculture. He thinks that this will help the Haitian food crisis and stop deforestation, which he attributes to overpopulation and too much people-intensive agriculture. He also suggests that to get the agricultural work done and feed the people, a system might be created for “food for work,” which means “work for food” instead of “for money.” (Also known as sharecropping.) Collier thinks that this kind of approach might reverse the serious deforestation from which Haiti suffers. To prevent food riots like those which occurred in 2008 when the prices of imported food items suddenly skyrocketed, mostly due to world market trends, Collier recommends that the Haitian government buy “food price insurance” from some private foreign company (enter the Geico caveman).

Since few people in Haiti are rich enough to provide the capital for all of this privatized development, it is assumed capital from transnational corporations will be both the source and the beneficiary of the bonanza of exported profits.

Colliers’ recommendations come from the “Washington Consensus” tool kit of neo-liberal policies: Free trade, offshore sweatshops, privatization, austerity and the suppression of protest. Although Collier presents these things as bright new ideas, Haiti for a long time has been part of this system: For example, a large proportion of the world’s baseballs are sewn in Haitian sweatshops. The extreme poverty of the Haitian workers may indeed attract manufacturing investment; the trouble is for this to continue to “benefit” Haiti, labor would have to stay cheap. The experience of the “maquiladora” industry in Mexico is instructive: Indeed foreign companies came to Mexico to take advantage of the cheap labor, but the minute they found cheaper labor elsewhere, they closed up shop, leaving Mexican workers with virtually nothing to show for their sweatshop experience. A successful “cheap labor” strategy also requires that any effort on the part of workers to improve their wages and working conditions has to be repressed. This is why Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. has called this kind of policy “the race to the bottom of the barrel.”

Haiti used to have a profitable rice industry, which both fed the people and provided an export crop. Starting in the mid 1980s, Haiti, under pressure to lower import tariffs, began to import more rice, mostly from the United States. By the early to mid 1990s, huge rice imports, subsidized by U.S. taxpayers, had so undercut the Haitian rice farmers that thousands of them were driven from the land and into the capital of Port au Prince in search of jobs. According to the Inter Press Service, citing 2008 figures, “of the 420,000 tonnes of rice Haitians consume yearly, 340,000 tonnes are imported.  Of the 31 million eggs the Haitian population eats monthly, 30 million are imported from the Dominican Republic. About 80 percent of farmers earn less than 135 dollars a year.”

As for the deforestation, a problem which Haiti shares with many other poor countries, it is in part the result of people needing more land to farm, and in part of people cutting firewood because they are too poor to buy kerosene or other fuels. Colliers’ idea of growing mangos for export instead of food crops for home consumption is not going to solve the problem. 

What other choice does the Haitian government actually have right now?  Before the earthquake, President Rene Preval had been coming increasingly close to the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) group of Latin American and Caribbean states. ALBA, which includes Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Nicaragua and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is a trade, aid and political bloc whose purpose is to diminish the dominant control of the United States over the region by stimulating horizontal economic integration among its members and neighboring states. Preval had already hooked Haiti into PETROCARIBE, an ALBA instrument which provides petroleum on good credit terms. Further integration with ALBA would provide Haiti with trade, credit and aid opportunities more generous than what the United States and other wealthy countries are willing to offer. Integration of Bolivia, the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest country after Haiti, into ALBA is already producing very positive results.

However, two things that have happened that may impede further Haitian connections with the ALBA nations.  First is the coup d’etat in Honduras, which has sent the message that poor countries that try to escape from U.S. hegemony via ALBA face reprisals. (Mauricio Funes, president of El Salvador, has angered his left-wing supporters by announcing that he is not going to bring his country into ALBA for fear of jeopardizing relations with the United States.) Second is the earthquake, which makes it hard for Haiti to turn away any helping hand, no matter what ulterior motives may lurk. Haiti is in no position to antagonize the United States, France, Canada and other wealthy nations, and likely will feel constrained to remain within the “Washington consensus” for the rebuilding period.

Progressives in the United States need to be conscious of these things and prepared to push for some policies that really will help the Haitian people without tying them down to the failed exploitative policies of the past.  These include:

• Legalization of undocumented Haitian immigrants in the United States. Haiti depends on remittances sent by its citizens abroad for much of its foreign exchange money. If the 200,000 or more Haitian immigrants estimated to be living without papers in the United States were given legal status, which they would be under the Ortiz-Gutierrez Bill, HR 4321, these remittances could be increased because legal workers are able to earn more.  If, on the other hand, these immigrants are deported, it would be like another severe aftershock. The Obama administration has extended Temporary Protected Status to Haitian undocumented immigrants, but it may only last 18 months.

• Fair trade for Haiti: Cut or stop the subsidization of U.S. based agribusiness transnationals such as Riceland Foods Inc. of Stuttgart, Arkansas, and other companies which engage in the dumping which has helped to undermine Haitian agriculture. These subsidies benefit mostly corporate agribusiness, not American small farmers, and are the source major complaints by farmers in many poorer countries.

• Cancel all Haiti’s foreign debts. Venezuela, which has its own economic problems and can ill afford to do so, has canceled Haiti’s debt for oil and natural gas.  President Chavez says that this is in recognition of Haiti’s key role in the liberation of all of South America at the beginning of the 1800s. We should join the Jubilee movement in fighting for all Haiti’s foreign debts to be canceled (See www.lawg.org for more details.)

• Aid should be in the form of grants not loans, so that the debt problem does not recur.

Haiti owes the United States absolutely nothing in exchange for current aid. On the contrary, since Haiti gained independence in 1804, the United States has collaborated with France and other wealthy countries to keep Haiti poor and indebted. We should continue to send material aid and volunteers to help the earthquake victims, but also take care of the political side by fighting for justice for Haiti.

Photo: Reforesting a Haitian mountainside, 2009. http://www.flickr.com/photos/plant-trees/ / CC BY 2.0





Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.