Let Them Eat Gruel


The track record thus far of Gerard Latortue’s puppet regime in Haiti indicates that Randall Robinson was being too generous when he referred to the U.S.-supported Prime Minster as a “buffoon.” He has praised the murderous coup leaders as “freedom fighters” and accused his opponents of being preoccupied with “black power” (something he obviously doesn’t have much use for). Energy and sanitation conditions are on a downward spiral while the cost of living is skyrocketing. The cost of rice has doubled. Latortue’s callous and arrogant solution is for Haitians to “change their dietary habits by henceforth consuming more corn gruel, cassava root and other foods seen to be less expensive and of lesser quality,” according to AHP.

Judging from his fat, pot-bellied figure, it is obvious that Mr. Latortue has not struggled with hunger in recent times. For this overfed, overpriveleged aristocrat to be lecturing a starving population about their eating habits is both callous and condescending. Even if taken seriously, his flippant suggestion is not by any means a feasible solution to the current crisis, especially in the long-term. His comments are just more evidence of his deep disconnect with the people and his general cluelessness. Many are now calling his government the “Boca Raton regime” due to the fact that many of the new officials, including Latortue, are from Boca Raton, Florida. For those unfamiliar with Boca Raton, here is how it is described on the city’s website:

“Boca Raton has been described as a cosmopolitan metropolis offering a tropical paradise lifestyle … Beautiful Atlantic beaches, world class shopping, dining for every taste and budget. There are over 40 parks maintained by the city, nature preserves, and over 30 golf courses (public & private).”

Latortue’s Florida mansion is worth $200,000 and is equipped with a $3,978 spa. In Haiti, merely having a swimming pool (much less a luxurious spa) is a symbol of status and privilege. Per capita income in Haiti is less than $400 a year, meaning a typical Haitian would have to live well over 500 years before being able to buy a house like Latortue’s. It’s unlikely that Mr. Latortue understands or even cares about the plight of ordinary Haitians. His sympathies will be with the wealthy Haitian elite and the rich countries that are propping up his rule in utter disregard for the Haitian Constitution. Article 157 of the constitution states that the Prime Minister must have resided in Haiti for the last five years, which Latortue hasn’t done. This is in addition to the obvious fact that President Aristide was forced out in a violent coup, making any subsequent government illegitimate in the first place.

Nearly all of the accomplishments of the Aristide government are being undone. A medical school founded by Aristide to help with Haiti’s desperate need for doctors is being occupied by U.S. troops, despite repeated demands by its 247 students that they be allowed to return to class. Furthermore, the contract Haiti had with Cuba in which over 500 Cuban doctors worked to treat Haiti’s poor and educate Haitian students in medicine is reportedly “under review.” The minimum wage, which Aristide doubled, is back to its original rate (not that businesses respected the raise in the first place). The ministry of literacy has been abolished. Its previous work in establishing thousands of literacy centers helped lower Haiti’s illiteracy rate from 80% to below 50%.

The government has abandoned Aristide’s call for France to repay its debt to Haiti, calling the claim “ridiculous.” The finance minister has announced that “full relations” between Haiti and the IMF will be established as soon as possible. State-owned companies will likely be privatized, which will in turn starve the government of revenue. Aristide restructured the tax system to take the burden off the poor and increased tax collection among Haiti’s elite. These reforms will be difficult to maintain due to the new government’s cozy relationship to the elite and the fact that the so-called rebels ransacked and burned customs and tax offices as they rampaged across the country, undoubtedly destroying many important documents and tax records. This is all bad news for Haiti’s poor, who are in desperate need of public assistence in terms of infastructure and public works.

Rural Haiti has been especially devastated. Recent flooding and mudslides have resulted in the deaths of almost 2,000 people in Haiti and the Dominican Republic (more on this in a moment). These deaths are in addition to the massive numbers killed by the rebels. Those who haven’t been killed are struggling with the rising price of goods. Some families are forced to remain hungry while spending all of their money on food for their pigs. Over 80% of rural households own pigs, which are large investments. Typically a pig is used as a rainy day fund. In fact, the same word is used for “pig” and “bank.” They are sold to help pay for a special occasion or an emergency. They also play an important role in keeping the soil fertile. Their economic importance has put families in a situation where they are forced to feed their pigs before they can even think about feeding their children.

Things might be different had it not been for the fact that international agencies ordered the mass extermination of indigenous Creole pigs in 1982. The U.S. feared that an alleged outbreak of African Swine Fever among Haitian pigs would spread to other countries. Two years after the Creole pigs were nearly eliminated, they were replaced by new pigs from Iowa. The new pigs required food, shelter, and clean water (unavailable to most people in Haiti). The peasants dubbed them “four-footed princes.” The Creole pigs were adapted to Haiti’s climate and conditions and could eat almost anything. The failure of the repopulation program has resulted in as much as $600 million in losses and a massive decapitalization of the peasant economy, as well as further deterioration of soil quality.

The politics of “free trade” have also devastated the Haitian economy. Since Latortue will undoubtedly develop Haiti’s economy along neoliberal lines, it is worth looking back at what “free trade” has done to Haiti in the past few decades:

- In the 1980s Haiti was compelled to lower tariffs on rice, the country’s main staple food. At the same time, the United States increased rice subsidies to the point that they accounted for 40% of the profits. Haiti’s markets were flooded with cheap rice. Imports increased from 7000 tons in 1986 to 200,000 tons in 2003. With no money to subsidize its own producers, rice farming in Haiti was essentially destroyed.

- Increasing U.S. demand for chicken left American producers with a surplus of dark meat and chicken parts. Unwilling to let it go to waste, the chicken scraps were dumped in to poor countries. Haiti’s low tariffs made it a prime target for dumping. The cheap frozen chicken from the U.S. undermined what was once a growing industry in Haiti. In 1991 Haiti had almost 300 broiler farms producing about 300,000 broilers a month. All of the farms are closed today, resulting in a loss of about 10,000 jobs in poultry and related industries such as poultry-feed production. Canada, Mexico, and even Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, have put tariffs on U.S. chicken parts to protect their own poultry industries. Haiti was not allowed any such luxury.

- Despite a dramatic decrease in production, sugar was still Haiti’s second leading cash crop in the mid 1980s. In 1987 the Haitian government was compelled to privatize its sugar processing facilities. The new owners, realizing there was more money to be made from importing sugar, immediately closed the plant and laid off all the workers. The imported sugar was sold at a higher price than local sugar, resulting in higher prices for all sugar-based commodities. For example, citrus farmers found it difficult to sell citrus juice drops due to the increased price of sweetener. U.S. sugar producers are heavily subsidized by the government, which also places a hefty tariff on sugar imports.

The result of these reforms as well as various local factors has been a dramatic increase in rural poverty. Agricultural production fell from 50 percent of GDP to 25 percent between the 1970s and 1990s, despite the fact that almost 70% of the population still depends on the agricultural sector. Many young people are moving to the cities and creating overcrowded slums. As a last resort for money, many Haitians are forced to cut down trees to use or sell as charcoal. Seventy percent of the population relies on charcoal to cook food.

Selling charcoal gives short-term economic benefit to peasants, but in the long run it results in massive deforestation. Many of Haiti’s numerous mountains that were once covered with lush vegetation and trees are now almost completely barren. This causes heavy erosion when it rains, washing away the topsoil and making the land even more infertile. A good deal of silt flows in to the sea, killing most of the fish and depriving Haitians of yet another increasingly rare resource. The heavy rains also cause mudslides like the ones that we are witnessing now that have killed hundreds of Haitians.

Follow the neoliberal bouncing ball: unfair trade increases rural poverty, desperate peasants are forced to cut down trees for charcoal, the subsequent deforestation results in massive mudslides during heavy rains which end up killing people.

No wonder they call it the “death plan.”

Justin Felux is a writer and activist based in San Antonio, Texas. He can be contacted at justins@alacrityisp.net

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