The exact number of lives lost in the cataclysmic Haiti earthquake may never be known. What is certain is that estimates will run into the hundreds of thousands. Hundreds of thousands more have been injured and many have lost limbs. Whole families are believed to have been wiped out in a matter of minutes. More children have now become orphans. Properties, large and small, are forever gone. The lives of the Haitian people will never be the same.
This earthquake has led to the most defining moment in the turbulent history of Haiti. I have visited Haiti, a country torn between violence and political turmoil, several times in the recent past and am very much aware of the flimsy buildings called homes all over the capital, Port-au-Prince, and elsewhere in the country. I can now very well imagine the devastation which has taken place there. On each visit to Haiti, I stayed at the Hotel Montana in the hills of Port-au-Prince. This once grand hotel, which afforded a beautiful, panoramic view of Port-au-Prince, now lies in ruins with an estimated 200 people, presumably dead by now, reportedly still under its rubble.
Prior to the earthquake, it was hard to overstate the problems in the western hemisphere’s poorest country where more than 70 per cent live under the poverty line and around 50 per cent in abject poverty surviving on as little as US$1 per day. More than 50 per cent of the population is illiterate and an estimated 350,000 of Haiti’s children are orphans. The number of orphans may now rise in the aftermath of the earthquake. So bad is Haiti that there are 97 deaths for every 1,000 live births and life expectancy is just around 49 years. Haiti is a country heavily dependent on the estimated US$3B in annual remittances from the US, France and other countries where Haitians live.
In 2004, the United Nations commenced peacekeeping exercises in Haiti and this was largely responsible for some amount of political stability returning to an island nation which up to then was accustomed to political conflict since its independence from the French. The economy never really took off, but investors were reported to be investing in projects and 10,000 new jobs were created in the garment industry last year. Royal Caribbean Cruises also invested US$55M in the construction of a pier and tourist destination in Haiti, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Best Western hotel chain was also in the process of constructing a luxury hotel complex in the upscale Petionville suburb of Port-au-Prince. Many other investments, large and small, had been taking place in Haiti when the earthquake struck. These were all part of the economic recovery programme for this country which newly became a member of the regional economic grouping, Caricom.
As recently as 2008, Haiti descended into anarchy when four tropical storms devastated the island and sparked food riots which destabilized the government. As one protestor candidly put it then: “If the government cannot lower the cost of living it simply has to leave. If the police and UN troops want to shoot at us, that’s OK, because in the end, if we are not killed by bullets, we’ll die of hunger.”
A significant portion of the economic, social and political predicament in Haiti can be traced to the decline of its agriculture sector. Up to about 30 years ago, Haiti was self sufficient in the production of rice, the varieties of which are believed to have been brought from Africa and are quite different from those varieties we plant in Guyana. The domestic production of this staple food of the Haitians started to decline in the mid-1980s mainly as a result of the adoption of trade liberalization policies imposed upon the country. In 1986, after the expulsion of Haitian dictator Jean Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned Haiti US$24.6M in desperately needed funds (Baby Doc had raided the treasury on the way out). But, in order to get the IMF loan, Haiti was required to reduce tariff protections for their Haitian rice and other agricultural products and some industries to open up the country’s markets to competition from outside countries. The US has by far the largest voice in decisions of the IMF.
By 1988, so much American rice had invaded the country that it became unprofitable for many Haitian farmers to continue planting. The US rice farmers were enjoying subsidies totalling around US$1B per year while those in Haiti got nothing substantial from their often puppet-like and unstable governments.
Still, in 1994, as a condition for US assistance in returning President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to continue his presidency, Haiti was forced by the US, IMF and the World Bank to open up its markets even more. Arguably, some believe Haiti’s agricultural decline can be tied to environmental degradation through the employ of unsustainable agricultural cultivation techniques that are designed to maximize crop yields with little regard for soil conservation. Soil erosion, they argue, decreased the productivity of the land.
While this may be a sound argument, the shift in trade policies was even more detrimental to Haiti’s agriculture, especially its rice industry, and this brought the sector to its knees. The trade liberalization policies allowed for a lowering of the import tariff on rice imports which has since resulted in the dumping of subsidized US rice (known locally as ‘Miami rice’) in Haiti. Haiti is now, reportedly, the US third largest buyer of rice, importing almost 300,000 metric tons per year.
This import of Miami rice in a country which once fed itself, has only served to cause the collapse of the Haitian rice industry and the displacement and pauperizing of the tens of thousands of peasants who participated in the cultivation, processing and sale of Haitian rice.
Some years ago I visited the Artibonite Valley, once a major rice hub in Haiti, with a delegation from the now dormant Caribbean Rice Association (CRA), and recall us meeting with a few hundred farmers who attended the meeting because they believed we were going to give them some form of aid. I vividly remember some of these farmers asking where are the shovels, forks and hoes that we brought.
These are farmers with ½ acre plots on which they depend for their subsistence and livelihood and the small implements are what they use for their farming. At the time of our visit, the Taiwanese were helping the Haitians to improve their productivity levels to ensure viability of the industry. This did not work out because of the continued import of the subsidized US rice, some of which was given away freely as aid. Today, most of these farmers have been forced from their little holdings and have gone is search of a life away from rural Haiti where all hope has been lost, all because Haiti remains the poorest and least trade restrictive country in the Caribbean and possibly the western hemisphere.
Many have ended up in the slums of overcrowded Port-au-Prince and other cities and towns across the island. Many have attempted to flee the island. Many have died pursuing the elusive dream of a better life through illegal migration in rickety boats. Some were fortunate to make the often deadly trip and are now settled in ‘Little Haiti’ in Miami.
In 2000, it was widely reported in the international media that several dozen impoverished rice growers and their families, deciding they could bear life in Haiti no longer, pooled their meagre savings, bought a rickety boat and headed to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Halfway into the 150 miles trip, the vessel capsized killing all 60 on board. Had the US not displaced these families from the land, they may very well be alive and planting rice in Haiti today.
Many of those who died in Port-au-Prince in the earthquake are rural folks forced from the lands because of the devastating consequences of trade liberalization imposed on Haiti. They went to Port-au-Prince, built shacks, tried to eke out a living, but died because of another devastation.
Brazilian President Lula, on a visit to Haiti in April, 2008, said that “rich countries need to reduce farms subsidies and trade barriers to allow poor countries to generate income with food exports. Either the world solves the unfair trade system, or every time there’s unrest like in Haiti, we adopt emergency measures and send a little bit of food to temporarily ease hunger.”
In the meantime, had it not been for the unfair trade liberalization policies imposed on the Haitians collectively by the US, IMF and the World Bank, many Haitians would today have been alive, residing and farming in rural Haiti and enjoying relative happiness, instead of being buried alive in rubble in Port-au-Prince and other towns and cities across the island where they sought refuge from economic hardships.
It now seems as if a perpetual darkness has enveloped the western portion of this historic island of Hispaniola.