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Haitian Food Riots Unnerving but Not Surprising
Beginning early April, Haiti was gripped by a nationwide mobilization to protest high food prices, reaching a crescendo on Thursday the 10th, as thousands of people took to the streets. Some protestors burned tires, blocking national highways and city streets in Port-au-Prince, and a few looted local stores. Clashes with police and United Nations troops resulted in an official count of five dead.
The media covered these events during the days of the crisis but offered little information to explain the protests. This superficial coverage tells an all-too-familiar story of Haiti. The media swarmed to cover the high drama of United Nations troops breaking up demonstrations with rubber bullets, and the State Department warning its citizens not to enter the country. Then, almost as quickly as it appeared on the news, Haiti disappeared, leaving the residual image of being hopeless, violent, and dangerous.
As awful as the loss of life, property damage, and the resulting climate of fear are, the "rioters" in the street are only the most visible manifestation of a crisis with deep roots. Both the Haitian government and the international community played important roles in creating the current crisis.
While some individuals chose to "riot"—and even fewer looted stores—most people in Haiti's poor majority actively help one another to survive.
While the rising sale of "dirt cookies"—biscuits made of clay, salt, and oil—and the food protests and isolated cases of looting illustrate the desperation of the hungry, Haiti also has a still-extant tradition of youn ede lòt—one helping the other. Although foreigners may not see these invisible ties, even in the crowded capital city ordinary Haitians often share what little they have with neighbors and extended kin.
Several times, I have seen a neighbor, fellow church member, coworker, friend, or cousin drop in on someone with a plate of food in hand to make sure he or she had something to eat that night.
Most people I know in Haiti also, with no outside help or guidance, organize sòl—solidarity lending groups. Each pay period a group pools together funds, with one person receiving the entire amount, usually to pay for their annual or biannual rent or to pay for their children's schooling, a quarter to a half of a minimum-wage earner's salary. People also organize in neighborhood associations, picking up trash, fixing potholes, and even opening community schools.
Unnoticed by mainstream accounts, this collectivist tradition in Haiti allows people living on the margins of society (the minimum wage for those few who work in the formal sector is 70 goud, or $1.80 per day) to survive. A Haitian proverb explains the dynamic: bourikchaje pa kanpe (the overloaded donkey can't stand still). People who are forced to deal with many problems at once can't stop, they must keep going.
Why did some take to the streets now?
Many people have been telling me for the past four years, including three weeks ago,1 that their top concern was lavi chè a— the high cost of living. Sylvie St. Fleur,2 a recently laid off factory worker in her 50's, spoke for many: "The thing that destroys the country is that you can't buy anything. This high cost of living is killing us in Haiti."
Sylvie argued, "If you used to buy a sack of rice for 1,000 goud, you have to buy it at 1,500 goud ($37.50). Only now, a cup of sugar costs 25 goud, a cup of rice costs 18 or 19 goud, a cup of beans costs 25 goud. Even if you work for 70 goud per day (minimum wage), you buy a gallon of gas for 150 goud ($3.75) … you see? Here you can work two whole days and you can't even buy a gallon of gas."
On each visit to Haiti I have observed new increases in food prices. Each visit also brings news of someone's death from not having access to clean water, enough food, or health care. Three weeks ago, colleagues at a grassroots women's organization mourned the loss of Imanne, a public health care worker in her mid-40's who had high blood pressure and diabetes—diseases we've been treating in the United States for generations. Imanne could have survived despite Haiti's lack of investment in health care if she had the means to afford privatized care. As a low-wage earner, she could not.
Rents in safe neighborhoods in Pòtoprens doubled in 2004-53 and the poor have been forced into neighborhoods like Bèlè (Bel-Air) or Sitesolèy (Cité Soleil) where clashes between armed gangs and United Nations troops are regular occurrences. Yolette Pierre explains, "In my neighborhood, in Cité Soleil, people who were able to leave, they left. People who remained, we have no choice. You sit in your house and the bullets come through the walls, inside your house."
Prices for staple goods such as rice, corn, beans, and cooking oil increased on average 30-40 percent over this one-year period. Rising gas prices explain part of these dramatic price hikes.4 However, according to the Nouvelliste , the cost of gas only went up 15 percent over this same period.5 What accounts for the rest of the increase? Sylvie St. Fleur explained, "Haiti doesn't suffer from a lack of food because there's no food, no! It is because the rich don't understand the poor."
Missing from most media accounts is that while Haiti is the "poorest country in the hemisphere" by economic measures—80 percent live on less than $2 per day, and around half have an income of $1 or less—it is also the most unequal. It is second only to Namibia in income inequality (Jadotte 2006), and has the most millionaires per capita in the region. Margarethe Thenusla, a 34-year-old factory worker and mother of two said, "When they ask for aid for the needy, you hear that they release thousands of dollars for aid in Haiti. But when it comes you can't see anything that they did with the food aid. You see it in the market, they're selling it. Us poor people don't see it."
'We're Waiting and Watching the Situation'
The role Haiti's government has been playing in this deteriorating economy receives some attention and analysis, but much less than the hit-and-run accounts that reinforce the country's bad image. The interim regime of United Nations retiree Gérard Latortue (2004-6) took no effective measures to halt the rising prices in rent, food, and transport. On the contrary, his government's words and actions likely contributed to their increase.
In his first month as Interim Prime Minister, Latortue withdrew Aristide's $22 billion demand for restitution from France, severed diplomatic ties with CARICOM (the Caribbean community), hailed Aristide's armed opposition as "freedom fighters," and granted a three-year tax exemption for the large importers—traditionally an elite made up of lighter-skinned people—who control the country's foreign trade.
Through a top-down, rushed process called the Cadre de Coopération Intérimaire (C.C.I.—in English, I.C.F.),6 the interim government signed off on neoliberal plans such as privatization of state-run enterprises, lower tariffs for imported rice, and an export-oriented agricultural and industrial plan to the detriment of local production.
People have been talking about lavichè a—the high cost of living—for years. In addition to being what most people cited as their top concern, many Kanaval, Rasin, and even the typically apolitical, light-hearted konpa songs decry lavi chè a.
This common cause bridged the political divide: members of Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party demanded Latortue address the problem, while leftist groups in opposition to Aristide, including PAPDA,7 and student organizations organized sit-ins to demand lower prices for staple goods. Latortue promised to create a commission to study the issue. Ultimately no action was taken.
When it came time to hold elections, the international community stalled the elections process and USAID attempted to influence the outcome by funding Gallop polls that noted a steady decline in support for former president Rene Préval. Nonetheless Préval was voters' clear favorite in elections finally held on Feb. 7, 2006. Préval received the majority of votes that were cast for the office, but blank ballots brought his total to just under 50 percent. Like most other Latin American countries, the Haitian Constitution stipulates a run-off of the top two contenders. According to non-governmental and government sources I spoke with at the time and again a month ago, this was the stage on which the international community demanded that Préval form a so-called "unity government" made up of members of all six parties that gained seats in the Parliament.8
Préval's government made some progress on security and stabilization; kidnapping and homicide rates dropped. Responding to mobilizations noted above, one of Préval's first actions was to negotiate Petro Caribé with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Petro Caribé is a bilateral agreement offering lower-cost oil and credit at reduced interest rates. In Haiti's case, the agreement also included developing state-run power plants. According to Préval's chief of staff, three such plants were scheduled to be on-line this month. Haiti's parliament ratified Petro Caribé in August 2006, and taptap (public transit "bus") fares immediately returned to pre-coup levels of five goud.
However, many people told me, "se tann nap tann" or "se swiv nap swiv." ("We're waiting," "we're following the situation closely.") While Préval is generally well-regarded for his honesty and sincerity, behind closed doors people from all classes I spoke with—day laborers, street vendors, factory workers, N.G.O. employees, and other middle-class professionals—complained about his apparent lack of leadership and unwillingness to address the public. To many observers, while his relative silence may have contributed to keeping his "unity government" together, government inaction led to the return of violence and lavi chè.
The events of early April demonstrated that the people's patience had finally worn out. Vilner Chery, a peasant farmer who with his neighbors blockaded Route National No. 2 outside of Les Cayes, decried, "Our children are hungry and we can't feed them. We know we have a president in this country. So we're forced to get out on the street and cry for help to the people who have the capacity to do something for us. That's why we put up the barricades to block the cars. The president must do something about this."
The mobilization by Chery and others in the South was peaceful and apolitical, led by local peasants. Journalist Reed Lindsay quotes a small farmer, Jeff Desrosier: "We don't block roads to destroy vehicles and cause disorder. We only need Préval to come to talk to us, so that the price of rice goes down. There are eight people here who have died from hunger."
The demands were familiar, shared by poor Port-au-Prince women like Linda, who asked pointedly, "Did the cost of living go up for the government? Because the people, we are suffering and the government isn't. They act like the cost of living hasn't gone up." Lindsay quoted the demands of Cavaillon community organizer Frantz Thelusma, "First, we demand the government get rid of its neoliberal plan. We will not accept this death plan. Second, the government needs to regulate the market and lower the price of basic goods."
People in Port-au-Prince, especially the self-named "political class" including the Senate, only became involved later. According to Lindsay, the Port-au-Prince protests were larger, but differed from the original protests outside the capital in that they had different motivations and sectors of society involved. Often-conflicting political motives and people's sheer desperation and relative anonymity lent a more violent character to the later protests.
Some reports imply political motives behind the "riots." Carol Williams wrote in an April 13 L.A. Times story that priest and close Aristide ally Gérard Jean-Juste was seen leading some of the rallies. The implication was that Lavalas—the most popular party among Haiti's poor majority—was unhappy with the unity government's inaction and demanded its attention, threatening a split.
On Saturday, April 12, the Senate recalled Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis by 16 votes, with the 10 members of Préval's Lespwa party abstaining. Rightist opposition leader Youri Latortue led the recall effort. Latortue said that Alexis' removal, plus Préval's negotiation with local business leaders and international agencies to lower the price of foreign rice from $51 to $43,9 "would satisfy the people." Some people I spoke with from citizen organizations and the government saw Alexis as neoliberalism's champion, being behind moves to privatize the phone company, Teleco, laying off thousands of workers.
Pointing to the fact that Lespwa sat out the vote, others disagree with this interpretation, directly questioning Latortue's motives in this effort. Alexis may have promoted neoliberalism, these analysts point out, but Latortue's ousting him could usher in a more rightist prime minister. Some commentators have even speculated that the interests of the economic elite and the Army seek to destabilize the government.
For even the best mainstream news coverage, the analysis usually stops here, at the state level.
'Politics of the Stomach'
The food riots in Haiti were also a result of policies and actions of the international community. Haiti has lost its food sovereignty as a result of decades of foreign-imposed neoliberal measures. This is a concrete example of what longtime Haiti advocate Paul Farmer calls "structural violence"—the long-term underdevelopment and inequalities in the world system.
Many people in Haiti point to the first trigger being the USAID eradication of the Haitian pig population following an outbreak of swine fever. Peasants counted on pigs as "bank accounts" (Diederich 1985) so the action amounted to Haiti's "great stock market crash" (Smith 2001:29), contributing to Duvalier's ouster on Feb. 7, 1986. Under United States military supervision, Duvalier was replaced by an army junta, the C.N.G., whose finance minister Delatour imposed a series of neoliberal measures, including currency devaluation, trade liberalization, and opening Haiti's agricultural markets to United States producers. Today, Haiti is the most "open" economy in the hemisphere.10
In the 1990's, responding to humanitarian crises following the violent 1991-4 coup period, USAID gave millions of dollars in direct food aid (PL-480). The implementation of this aid weakened Haiti's economy, with free or heavily subsidized United States rice underselling the local peasantry; with the grains and the food-for-work programs arriving during the peak of harvest season, when farmers sold their crops and needed hired help the most; and with conditionalities such as still lower tariffs and further trade advantages for United States businesses (Richardson 1997).
While it can be argued that Haitian governments can choose to refuse this aid, the majority of their funding comes from international institutions.11 People in Haiti call this dependency on foreign aid a "politics of the stomach" (e.g., Fatton 2004). Not surprisingly, United States assistance to Haiti is still laced with conditionalities that benefit United States corporate interests. For example, the HOPE Act passed in December 2006 was designed to create jobs and cut tariffs on sub-contracted textile productions. While the estimates are way lower than projections, 2,000-3,000 instead of 50,000 jobs according to an industry lobbyist, the rationale is that saving $1.50 on a pair of pants spurs foreign investment, sorely lacking in Haiti.12 Nonetheless, the strings attached to HOPE give even more benefits to United States business. HOPE contains a condition that Haiti must not "engage in activities that undermine United States national security or foreign policy interests"—Section (d)(2). In order for private, often foreign, companies to receive tax benefits in the bill, the Haitian government must establish or make progress toward "elimination of barriers to United States trade and investment."
In addition to bilateral aid, international agencies also imposed neoliberal conditions on Haiti through negotiations on foreign debt. By 1991, when Aristide—Haiti's first democratically elected president—took office, the official debt was $785 million (International Monetary Fund 2005b:27-28), more than half of what was claimed in 2006 of $1.463 billion (I.M.F. 2007:73).
Debt drains resources that could otherwise be invested in national production. For example, in 2003, Haiti's scheduled debt service was $57.4 million, whereas total foreign pledges for education, health care, environment, and transportation added up to $39.21 million (I.M.F. 2005a:88; World Bank 2002:vii). The scheduled debt service for 2009 is $78.7 million.13 Debt also is the leverage for imposing what used to be called "structural adjustment programs" (S.A.P.'s),14 including privatization, trade liberalization, and forced reduction in services such as health care, education, or rural credit.
Some argue that competition and free trade bring prosperity to all. In this logic, barriers to trade such as protective tariffs need to be removed. Many of the proposals to respond to the crisis still depart from this logic.
But Haitian peasants cannot "compete" with the United States under a free trade system. First of all, under the United States Farm Bill, United States agribusiness and some individual farmers15 received $13.4 billion in subsidies in 2006, a total of $177 billion over the previous decade.16 At the same time, the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.) repeatedly strikes down tariffs and other subsidies in Southern countries as "impediments to free trade." Even without the subsidies, the average United States farm—individual or corporate—benefits from what we now take for granted as public responsibilities: building and maintaining roads, irrigation canals, water treatment, pumps and pipelines, and federally insured credit, etc. These public investments cost money, which high debt payments and reduction in social spending mandated by structural adjustment programs have prevented in Haiti.17
Occasionally, international institutions directly contribute to the increase in prices, as in January 2003, when the I.M.F. demanded that the government stop subsidizing the cost for fuel, triggering immediate hikes in taptap fares as well as protests. Very efficient in economic terms because timachann (street vendors) operate on very slim profit margins, the informal market immediately saw a rise in prices for staple goods as a result.
As a result of all these factors, Haiti is almost entirely dependent on foreign food production. Once an exporter of rice, now Haiti imports an estimated 82% of total consumption, $200,000,000 per year (MOREPLA [Mouvman Revandikatif Peyizan Latibonit—in English, The Peasant's Movement for Justice in the Artibonite] and PAPDA 2004). Haiti has lost its food security and food sovereignty. As Préval recently stated in his effort to calm the populace: "In 1987, when rice began being imported at a cheap price, many people applauded. But cheap imported rice destroyed [locally grown] rice. Today, imported rice has become expensive, and our national production is in ruins. That's why subsidizing imported food is not the answer."
It is therefore not surprising that prices for basic foodstuffs in Haiti are tied to the global market where rising petroleum costs and inflation in grain prices because of its increasing use as biofuel have driven up prices. Thirty-seven-year-old community leader and timachann Linda Thibault explains, "You have to buy Miami rice. Do the math: if a bag of Haitian rice costs 150 goud, and a bag of U.S. rice costs 65 goud, I can buy two bags of U.S. rice and still have money left over for the cost of one bag of Haitian rice. I am forced to fill my body with U.S. rice. My children can eat more."
The question remains, why now? And, what does this mean for Haiti? The answer depends on the level of analysis.
It is possible that the people were simply tired and fed up, not unlike the dechoukaj—uprooting—following Duvalier's ouster in 1986, and that recent mobilizations were spontaneous and grassroots, as Lindsay reported was the case in Cavaillon where peasant associations organized peaceful demonstrations calling upon the government and the United Nations to end neoliberalism and lower prices for rice. The mobilization across the "Aristide divide" might generate a productive reconciliation between Lavalas party leaders and leftist N.G.O.'s: for example, unions such as Batay Ouvriye (an outspoken critic of Aristide) and C.A.T.H. ([Centrale Autonome des Travailleurs Haïtiens—in English, Autonomous Central of Haitian Workers] with ties to Lavalas) are both pressuring for a substantial increase in Haiti's minimum wage.
It is also possible that this could represent a fissure in Préval's "unity" government, with Lavalas—and by extension the majority of people who voted for him—demanding a greater say and role. Préval's rare public statement outlines an alternative to the neoliberal vision of development embodied by many donors, outlining national production as a priority. This—with the 364 tons of food aid Chávez provided, in addition to the power plants coming on line—might foretell a progressive turn for the Préval government. An early sign would be Préval's nomination of Alexis's successor, not named as this article went to press. It is also possible that Latortue—who has made several public statements in favor of returning the army that Aristide disbanded for its role in perpetuating human rights violations—is intentionally destabilizing the government as a pretext for promoting a rightist agenda.
It is also possible to see the food riots as a reaction to the United Nations Security General Ban-ki Moon's April 2 remarks, in which he said that Haiti's economy was better than it had been in the past decade—a complete denial of the realities of people like Sylvie or Yolette who saw their minimum wage of 70 goud ($1.80) buy less and less on the market. His speech also argued that the 9,000 United Nations troops in Haiti remain past their current October mandate. Many people in Haiti, spanning political ideology and socioeconomic status, share resentment of the United Nations presence and view it as an insult to Haiti's sovereignty.
Some, particularly low-income residents of places like Bèlè and Sitesolèy, see the United Nations as a threat since United Nations troops have shot and killed many neighbors. Others, including progressive N.G.O.'s, see the United Nations troops as establishing and maintaining a situation of a leta restavèk—a "servant" government, referring to the practice of forced child servitude. The United Nations shooting of the protesters and public statements of support for Préval from Ban-ki Moon and individual governments like Canada could foretell a division between Haiti's people supported by a tenuous coalition of formerly bitter enemies—and Haiti's government, supported by the international community.
As the many people in Haiti I talked with last week told me, Se swiv nap swiv—time will tell.
Most importantly, the events of the week before last in Haiti need to be viewed in context and not simply as "Haitian exceptionalism" (e.g., Trouillot 1994) based on the stereotypic narrative of Haitians being violent, unruly, ungodly, and dangerous.
Rather, Haiti needs to be seen as an early warning. Haiti's geopolitical position—especially its close proximity to the United States and level of dependence on foreign aid—highlights the contradictions and flaws in the system of international aid and growing global food crisis. The World Food Program noted that costs for basic foodstuffs have risen 70 percent over the past year worldwide, 40% since last summer (W.F.P. 2008). Before Haiti there were riots in several countries, including Cameroon, Egypt, Bolivia, and Indonesia. These so-called "food riots" are really the first flares shot up to signal the need for significant changes to the economic model.
Cut the Strings
What is to be done? First, take heed. Second, take action. Long-term solutions will have to address both our dependence on oil and the inequalities in distribution within the world system.
One action we can take is to pass the Jubilee Act—which would be a complete, immediate cancellation of the debts of 67 southern countries, of which Haiti is one, without conditionalities—that passed the House of Representatives on April 16 by a vote of 285 to 132. There was a Senate hearing on April 24. Debt cancellation would free up resources—$80 million per year in Haiti—as well as relieve the pressure of neoliberalism, empowering southern civil societies and governments to define their own priorities, like national production.
To unravel the inequalities of this contemporary neoliberal world system, it is best to start with the thread that is already loose.
Mark Schuller teaches anthropology at Vassar College and SUNY-New Paltz. For a fuller analysis readers can consult Schuller's chapter in a recently published book, Capitalizing on Catastrophe: Neoliberal Strategies in Disaster Reconstruction. He is a collaborator with the C.I.P. Americas Policy Program.
Bellegarde-Smith, Patrick, Race, Class, and Ideology: Haitian Ideologies for Underdevelopment, 1806-1934, New York, N.Y.: American Institute for Marxist Studies, 1982.
Diederich, Bernard, "Swine Fever Ironies: The Slaughter of the Haitian Black Pig," Caribbean Review 14(1):16-17, 41, 1985.
Farmer, Paul, "An Anthropology of Structural Violence," Current Anthropology 45(3):305-325, 2004.
Fatton, Robert, "The Haitian Authoritarian Habitus and the Contradictory Legacy of 1804," Journal of Haitian Studies 10(1):22-43, 2004.
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Trouillot, Michel-Rolph, "Haiti's Nightmare and the Lessons of History," North American Congress on Latin America (N.A.C.L.A.) Report on the Americas XXVII(4): 46-52, 1994.
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