Neoliberal roots of Haiti’s food crisis

May 5, 2008

Kevin Pina is an independent journalist and filmmaker and the founding editor of the Haiti Information Project, an alternative news service providing coverage and analysis of developments in Haiti. He talked to Emmanuel Santos about the roots of the food crisis in Haiti.

WHAT IS the current situation in Haiti after the April protests?

UNFORTUNATELY, IT is a return to business as usual. What I mean by that is although institutions like the United Nations, Organization of American States, International Monetary Fund and others are all talking about pouring more aid and assistance into Haiti, the root causes of poverty are still not being addressed.

All of this additional aid, funneled through the international community and a myriad of non-governmental organizations on the ground in Haiti, may help in the short term, but it will only serve to compound the existing economic problems in the long run. You cannot alleviate the problem by making Haitians more dependent upon foreign largess and handouts. More free rice will not help local production or address the larger problem of Haiti's unjust economic system that is controlled by a few wealthy families.

While it is true that a spike in world food prices precipitated the recent unrest in Haiti, it is also clear the country was left more vulnerable to such an event by virtue of the predatory economic system controlled by a few family monopolies in Haiti.

Neoliberal policies have ravaged Haiti's agricultural production and made the country subsistent on food imports, often in the form of food aid
Neoliberal policies have made Haiti subsistent on food imports, often in the form of food aid

The roots of this phenomenon lie with a fundamental shift away from local production of food products toward importation of these basic essentials and higher profits for Haiti's wealthy elite. It really began in the 1980s and coincides with the "Reagan Revolution" in the United States and a foreign policy that placed emphasis on the "private sector" as the motor of society in providing opportunities for the poor majority.

From that time on, the only way to receive U.S. foreign assistance was to embrace a dichotomy that dictated the only way to help the poor was to create more business opportunities for the wealthy. It was an export of the "trickle-down" theory and what became known as "Reaganomics," which over time became the major thrust of U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Collective solutions along with nationalization and protection of local resources and production were demonized and attacked by the proponents of this new ideology that placed profits ahead of what they called socialist and communist systems that offered any resistance. Remember this was during the Cold War and before the fall of the USSR.

What else to read

Find out more information about the Haiti Information Project and its films and articles at the project's Web site.

The project's news coverage is posted at, where you can also get more information about the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund and participate on the Haiti Action Committee Message Board.

The new issue of the International Socialist Review has extensive coverage of the food crisis in Haiti and globally, including Sharon Smith's "The revolt over rising food prices."

During that same period, a major transition occurred in Haiti. The Mevs, one of the wealthiest families in Haiti, bought the Haitian American Sugar Company, or HASCO, which had been one of the major sugar producers in the world.

The Mevs realized they would never be allowed to penetrate the U.S. market while it was controlled by the American company C&H Sugar, based in Hawaii. It made more economic sense for them to buy HASCO and sell off its equipment in exchange for positioning themselves as the major importer of sugar to Haiti.

This became the contemporary economic model for Haiti's wealthy elite that constitutes 1 percent of the population but controls more than 50 percent of Haiti's collective wealth today. Haiti's elite eventually did the same for rice, beans and corn because they realized they could maximize profits by controlling the importation of basic food products, rather than investing in national production. Controlling a monopoly on the importation of basic foodstuffs was far more profitable than investing in locally grown products.

The real hypocrisy of this system comes into play when you realize the contribution to the recent "food riots" that led to the fall of Haitian Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis by the so-called Group of Friends of Haiti, the United Nations and Haiti's elite.

Haiti has never been a free market; it's a captive market of 8.5 million who have no choice who they purchase basic staples from. There is no competition, as the few families who control the import of rice and beans have never tolerated it.

They have historically resorted to violence, coups and corruption to protect their interests. Yet these are the same families who have benefited most from the intervention of the international community since the ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004. Their profits have nearly doubled during this time period, and left the country vulnerable to the recent spike in international prices for staples such as rice and beans.

Another major impact of the Reagan Revolution was to impose the current neoliberal economic model through institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

This model of development demands that poor countries like Haiti cut back on government spending for social services such as health care and education, privatize government-owned entities such as Haiti's electric company Electricite de Haiti (EDH), and end import tariffs of goods such as rice and beans that protect local production.

Another element of hypocrisy in this system is that while countries like Haiti cannot tax imported rice and beans, Haiti's elite have partnered with large agribusinesses in places like California, Idaho and Montana--which receive large U.S. government subsidies to produce the same products at cheaper prices. So while the current system condemns import tariffs as a form of "protectionism," it allows large producers in the U.S. to receive subsidies to grow these products.

A few families that control a monopoly on the import market then buy and sell food staples such as rice and beans at a price local farmers can't possible compete with. This has created a system where a few middlemen get wealthier, while destroying local production--thus making Haitians more dependent upon imports to meet their needs.

It is a vicious practice that has decimated local production in Haiti while solidifying the grip of a few families on the economy.

This is exactly what left Haiti vulnerable to the recent spike in world food prices and resulted in the population taking to the streets last April in angry protests. Haiti's elite controls a captive market of 8.5 million people, who depend on them for the importation of basic food products without competition.

We also have to realize that there is very little wealth and surplus being created in Haiti, and consequently, only a small percentage of the population is gainfully employed. The majority is able to survive because their hardworking families and friends living abroad are sending them remittances of over $1.5 billion a year. That's only the money sent through wire transfer services and banks, and doesn't include the large number of Haitians who bring cash on their persons to hand out when they return for a visit.

So in reality, these so-called free-market capitalists are really competing over their share of these remittances, and not new wealth being generated in Haiti. Money that comes from thousands of Haitians living primarily in the U.S., Canada and Europe is then redistributed into the hands of a few families that control a monopoly on the importation of food, especially rice and beans.

Another tenet of the neoliberal system is that the free movement of capital must remain unfettered. The Haitian elite's profits, from controlling this captive market and a monopoly on imports, don't stay in Haiti. Haiti's elite, as a rule, rarely reinvests in infrastructure, pays its taxes or creates new businesses that might result in more employment for decent wages.

Instead, they reinvest their profits back from where they originated--back to the United States, Canada and Europe, where they are used to buy luxury properties, start offshore businesses or sit in a bank collecting interest. It is also used to pay for lawyers and lobbyists in Washington D.C., New York, Ottawa, Paris and Brussels, to insure this profit machine remains intact for as long as possible.

What the United Nations and international community have done in Haiti is to institutionalize this system of doing business. Rather than placing emphasis on real competition and the creation of small- and medium-size businesses in Haiti, they continue to work with the country's wealthy elite, which is part of the larger problem. This fundamental question of Haiti's economy isn't resolved by any means, and can only lead to further unrest in the future.

For this analysis, I really have to acknowledge Antoine Izmery, a Haitian businessman who was considered by the elite to be a traitor to his class, and the Catholic priest Jean-Marie Vincent. They were both assassinated in the mid-1990s for criticizing Haiti's elite and the international community's support for them over the interests of the poor majority.

Vincent referred to Haiti's elite as predatory monopolists who have always resorted to violence and corruption as a means of maintaining the power and privilege of their class. Izmery urged the poor to create worker and consumer collectives to start their own businesses and challenge the power of the wealthy elite. Although much has changed since their murder, much has also largely remained the same.

FORMER PRIME Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis was forced to resign after the protests spread nationwide. How does this change the political landscape, and what impact will it have on the ground?

ALL BETS are off at this moment. There is great incertitude given that Haiti's president René Préval, was elected to end the repression against former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas movement.

Several elements of Aristide's Lavalas movement were co-opted into the Alexis-Préval government. They are now left out in the cold. Remember that Préval and his Lespwa party never really had their own base of support for the election of 2006. The major support for Préval and Lespwa came from the same poor majority that elected Aristide in November 2000 and opposed his ouster in February 2004.

There has always been a tenuous compromise between the factions supported by the right and backed by the U.S., France and Canada, and these co-opted elements of Aristide's movement. The government has been touted as a "coalition government," which remained plausible as long as the international community is willing to buy and pay for Haiti's political reality.

Following Aristide's ouster, the United States, Canada and France--the real powers behind the coup--have made sure that Haiti can only continue to function as a state as long as they provide the funding. Every cabinet minister, every judge, every policeman and every member of a special presidential commission is on their payroll in one form or another.

I say this because Haiti's ability to continue functioning as a state is not really based on its own tax base. It isn't being paid for by Haitians in the interests of Haitians; it's strictly determined by the international community based upon their priorities. What taxes are collected are used to service Haiti's debt.

This is a largely a foreign-funded experiment in social engineering, led by so-called technical experts and non-governmental organizations that seek to reshape Haiti in their own image. The irony is that it is based on the fundamental belief that Haitians are incapable of running their own affairs, after having their house turned upside down by a foreign-sponsored coup in 2004.

For those who refused to be bought, this project is ultimately enforced by a foreign military occupation that is led by armies who have a history of political repression in their own countries, namely; Brazil, Chile and Argentina among others.

PRIOR TO the recent popular uprisings, there were massive protests in Haiti against the UN-backed occupation. What is the state of the anti-imperialist movement in Haiti, and what role does the left play in it?

SINCE THE ouster of Aristide in February 2004, there have been regular protests demanding his return. They have never stopped, and I venture to say they will never stop. Foremost is the fact that this is the only Haitian president to truly resist the international system that began with Ronald Reagan.

Another tenet of Reaganomics and U.S. foreign policy was that governments had to divest themselves of state-run companies and allow their elites along with foreign business partners to buy them up. We've all heard the famous allegations that Aristide was involved in corruption. Following the allegation, we have to ask why? I lived in Haiti during that period and was perhaps the only foreign journalist to focus on this question from the people's perspective.

Aristide refused to privatize Haiti's two largest industries owned by the state, the electric company EDH and the telephone company, Telecommunications d'Haiti or TELECO. Instead, Aristide took profits from both companies and invested them in a universal literacy program and feeding program for the poor. Any adult between the age of 30 and 60 could go to a free literacy class, modeled after the Cuban literacy system successfully used in Nicaragua.

In addition, there were what was called the "literacy restaurants." At the height of the program, more than 2 million people per month received a hot meal, with more than 300,000 of them being children who were given vitamin supplements free of charge.

It was exactly this program that served as a safety net for the poor which was dismantled after Aristide's ouster, and which could have served as a buffer to events in April 2008.

The international community and the UN have proved they have different priorities and a different model for development in Haiti. This is why their forces, despite the propaganda, are largely reviled among the poor in Haiti today.

Haiti's poor majority has seen more than $2 billion pumped into the country over the past three years, and yet there has been no discernable alleviation of the poverty and misery they are forced to endure. It has been insult added to injury after having the right to choose a government not to the liking of the international community taken away from them in February 2004.

YOU HAVE written extensively on the brutal repression and destructive violence inflicted on poor neighborhoods by the occupying forces. The Brazilian military has played a leading role in this respect. What are some of the military tactics the Brazilians use to enforce the occupation?

THE BRAZILIAN military is by its own nature and history a repressive force. One need not look further then its own history to confirm this. The Brazilians serve much the same role they play in their own country to repress the favelas. The only difference is that they use Haiti to whitewash their own brutal historical image internationally.

In Haiti, the Brazilians always shoot first, and detain without cause or warrant. Yet they wash their hands of responsibility for arresting thousands of Haitians, most of them incarcerated for political reasons without ever seeing a judge.

The conditions in Haiti's main penitentiary demand we work to free them by any means necessary. I'm serious--even if it means confronting the UN directly on the ground in Haiti. Prisoners in Haiti cannot be allowed to suffer under these conditions without a directed and durable response.

Most of the prisoners are there without seeing a judge for more than a year and remain imprisoned for their political beliefs. Otherwise, the burden of proof lies with Haiti's occupation force--namely the United States and their surrogates such as Brazil.

RECENTLY, THE Economist and the head of the UN hailed the occupation of Haiti as a success story. But just like the U.S. occupation in Iraq, the opposite is the case. What do the world ruling elites mean when they say that the occupation has been a success?

I HAVE to use a benchmark to qualify your question. For me, the benchmark was the recent protests on February 29, 2008 that marked the fourth anniversary of Aristide's ouster. More than 10,000 people took to the streets throughout Haiti to demand his return from exile.

Given your earlier questions, you might now begin to understand why. Haiti's occupation after his ouster has been a complete failure. There has been no discernable improvement in the lot of the average Haitian--quite the contrary, their lot has descended into more poverty and misery.

Again, this is because the priority has shifted away from programs for the poor and a safety net for the most vulnerable to creating more business opportunities for the wealthy elite and their foreign partners.

WHAT CAN people in the U.S. and elsewhere do to support the resistance movement against the occupation?

I KNOW of projects on the ground that folks can support. The best alternative at this moment is the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund or HERF.

The most important act of solidarity is choosing whom you work with. They most closely reflect my own experiences and values for working in solidarity with grassroots organizations that are working to rebuild their lives following the ouster of Aristide and the brutal years of repression that followed. It is about creating an alternative to the NGO model of social engineering that allows for Haitians to lead in their own communities for sovereignty and economic and social justice.

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