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Haiti’s food crisis: Imposing hunger on the people of Haiti

August 10, 2008
Village children plant beans in Mare Rouge, northwest Haiti. Haiti is so fertile, it was the world’s most profitable colony. That’s why Napoleon fought so viciously to stop the enslaved African workers from claiming it as their own and, knowing that Haitians are fully capable of growing all the food they need, why the U.S. and other imperial powers fight so viciously today to punish them for their independence and destroy their self-sufficiency.
by Pierre Labossiere

In Haiti, they have a name for hunger. It’s called Clorox hunger – meaning something that eats you from the inside. But, my friends tell me, now it’s no longer called Clorox; it’s now called Battery Acid. That’s how bad the suffering is in Haiti.

When the corporate media talk about Haiti’s food crisis, it’s as if it’s an act of God. It just happens. But, let me tell you, it is manufactured. It’s an imposed hunger, an imposed starvation on the people of Haiti. It has a history. It has a history going way back.

To begin with, in 1804 after Haiti became independent, France and the slave-owning nations imposed a debt on Haiti. They demanded that Haiti pay reparations to the slaveholders for the loss of their slaves. That was money that should have gone to our ancestors, the former slaves, to build the country, to the farmers to provide the tools to irrigate and cultivate the land.

Instead that money went to France, from 1826 until 1947, when Haiti finished paying the last installment on the debt. That shows you right there one of the reasons why Haiti is poor. They say we are the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But I like to say we are the most impoverished people or, as one of my friends so beautifully puts it, Haiti is the most robbed nation in the Western Hemisphere.

What does this have to do with imposed hunger? Haitians began their independence without having the tools to work the land while being forced to pay incredible taxes. Many times I challenge people who talk about the debt issue as if it began with post-independent African nations in the ‘60s. The Haitian people say, wait a minute – this started with us when we won our independence.

There is a pattern that emerges. People fight for their freedom; the former enslaved people, enslaved Africans, they break the chains of slavery. Their land has been robbed of their natural resources. Yet we are the ones who still owe the people who made us work from “can’t see” in the morning to “can’t see” at night!

You see, there is a pattern. And that is why, with respect to this whole issue of debt, the people of Haiti and Brother Aristide demanded that France return the money that was paid in reparations. President Aristide said, look, it’s very hard to calculate reparations. It is possible, but it will take some time to calculate the reparations that should be paid to Haiti. So let’s talk first about restitution, to pay us what we know we gave you. We gave France $21 billion in today’s currency. So pay us that. And then the next bill that will come will be for reparations.

In the 1980s, under the Reagan regime, Haiti, along with many other Caribbean countries, was presented with the Caribbean Basin Initiative. At that time, I was active as a steward in ILWU and I told my fellow union brothers and sisters, they are starting with us, but they will come after everyone. Next thing we knew, there was NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], which was just another name for the Caribbean Basin Initiative.

What they were doing was imposing what they call the neo-liberal plan, which basically tells governments, “Don’t invest in education. Let the market take care of business. We want you to reduce tariffs – any tax you have on imported items in order to protect your own people’s products – and we want you to open up your markets.” They have all these euphemisms, all those tricky words.

And Reagan, at the same time, was imposing the same thing here, calling it trickle down economics or Reaganomics. But it was the same thing. Then they moved it beyond the Caribbean so they had NAFTA, now they have CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement]. When Bush said the New World Order, he was putting a new name on the same old process, imperialism: “I’ll take your resources, I don’t want you to invest in your people, and you are going to open your markets so that we can flood it with our imports.”

The 1970s was when Baby Doc [Haiti's dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier] officially signed off on allowing sweatshops to come into Haiti duty-free. That meant that any corporation that moved to Haiti would be exempt from paying taxes. With the existence of the Tonton Macoutes [Duvalier's death squads], no labor union would be tolerated. So they were free to pay whatever little they wanted.

That started the process. But in Haiti, they needed to have a work force, people who were willing to accept any kind of wage. Because of the history of struggle by the Haitian peasantry, many Haitians had their own small plots of land on which they independently cultivated food for their families and provided for the local market.

So Haitians were pretty much self sufficient in food production. I’m not saying there was no poverty, but there wasn’t the kind of hunger we see today. We had the technology, the food processing. We had our cassava, we had the way people processed corn – we put it in banana leaves in order to preserve the food – and so many other dishes, so many ways that people do things because we have been on this earth for a long, long time. And we managed to survive without refrigerators. When I was growing up, we didn’t have one at home and I never missed it.

By the 1980s, the Haitian peasantry began to come under direct attack. One of the attacks was against the pig population. Haiti is mostly an agricultural country. You have a large population of mostly peasants – about 80 percent at that time – and they depended on the land. So they invested in livestock – in goats, cattle and pigs. Various sectors of this livestock production were wiped out, but the most concrete example is the pig population. USAID claimed that in order to protect Haitian agriculture from swine fever, the entire pig population had to be wiped out. In one year, all the pigs were destroyed. In 1982, this conservatively represented about $600 million in losses for Haitian peasants.

They promised to send replacement livestock, but they didn’t. Those few pigs that came were called “four-footed princes” because you had to put them on a concrete floor, and you had to have a roof for them. You had to feed them a high-protein diet, which the Haitian peasants couldn’t afford. And they had to go to the doctor. The Haitian peasants didn’t have doctors for themselves, let alone for their pigs.

So that was a complete failure. But it was calculated to reduce the capacity of the people to feed themselves. When we look at the history of the Native Americans in this country, one of the ways to subjugate a people is to attack their food source. When I read about the ruthless slaughter of the buffalo, what comes to mind is what happened to the Haitian pig.

Also in Haiti at that time, we had a thriving sugar industry which produced sugar for local consumption. A large sugar mill used to be a major employer in my own hometown. But sugar was privatized and the next thing you know, it was shut down and the entire sugar industry was completely wiped out. Now Haitians have to rely on the Dominican Republic for sugar.

The same thing happened with rice. Until the 1980s, Haiti was self sufficient in rice production. But with the lowering of tariffs, again Haitians got what we call “Miami” rice. Haiti was flooded with cheap rice imports and Haitian peasants couldn’t compete.

This rice wasn’t grown by small farmers. This was subsidized rice made by powerful corporations that receive a lot of U.S. government money. They could afford to bring rice to Haiti at a much lower price so they could destroy local production. Now that there is no competition on the ground in Haiti, rice prices have skyrocketed.

The Lavalas movement grew out of a spirit of resistance to this neo-liberal plan, what people in Haiti call “plan lanmo,” or the death plan. Haitians saw it is a plan to kill off our people. So they resisted. And so you have the development of this powerful grassroots movement that got rid of Baby Doc Duvalier. It got rid of a number of other governments from 1986-1990. The people were clear what they wanted.

That’s where the Lavalas movement comes from and that’s exactly where Lavalas is today. It is a platform to retake Haiti, to stop this death plan from crushing our brothers and sisters, to invest Haitian resources in Haiti. Haiti has numerous resources. Haiti has iridium, copper and numerous shipwrecks off the coast that are loaded with gold. And they know this.

One of the powerful spokespersons of that movement was a young priest called Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide. And Aristide said to them, if you want those resources, you negotiate. We can negotiate a fair price, but you are not coming to take it. Hence the coup d’états that took place, the continued assault to destroy the movement, the resistance of the people.

The United Nations you see in Haiti today is a part of this agenda to impose neo-liberalism on Haiti, no different than what Pinochet did in Chile. That was exactly why the coup took place in Chile – in order to impose what they call the neo-liberal plan to destroy any kind of social programs, education, to open it to market forces. We are talking about imposing a monopolistic, predatory agenda on a people – either they accept it or, if not, they starve.

What is possible? The Lavalas government of President Aristide put into place some models of development. For instance, the Aristide Foundation was addressing this problem by investing in infrastructure, road construction, sources of water so that the peasants could once again have the tools in their hands to plant, to increase food production and to renew the agriculture of Haiti.

That is why they asked for loans from the Inter-American Bank for Development. But the U.S. government actually blocked those loans from being disbursed. And Partners in Health and the Robert F. Kennedy Center just reported that, to this day, those loans have not been released.

Now the United Nations is in Haiti. They have a budget of $575 million a year for their 10,000 personnel in Haiti. And they are not addressing any of these issues. The U.S., France and Canada are there. They’ve been there for four years. And yet we have the worst food crisis ever in Haiti on their watch. And these are the experts!

I see the infrastructure that’s put in place in California. When the farmers produce their food, it is preserved and distributed quickly. They know how to make this work efficiently, yet with every Haitian progressive government from 1991 to 2004, they have blocked them, overthrown them and prevented them from developing Haiti’s infrastructure.

It’s one thing to produce the food, but you have to be able to preserve and distribute it very quickly. When Jesse Helms blocked the money that was going to road construction, he knew exactly what he was doing. When they blocked the money going into developing sources of water, for clean drinking water for the health of our people and also for irrigation, they knew what they are doing. It’s no different than what they’ve done before – using food as a weapon to crush the peoples’ movement.

I want to appeal to you. There are things we can do. One is to dispel this myth that Haitians cannot do for themselves. People anywhere in the world can do for themselves. It makes me laugh – but it’s an angry laughter – when I see people go to Haiti bringing rice to do a photo op with some hungry child. I’m not opposed to people providing some food, and I encourage all of you who are members of organizations who want to work with the people of Haiti who are facing starvation. However, we cannot just stop at giving somebody a bit of rice, taking a picture, showing how beautiful we are, and attracting more money for our own aggrandizement. You’ve got to enter into the struggle of our people for liberation.

Haitians are not trying to get a bit of rice as a handout. They want a government of the people to enact a program for the development of the country. They want to be respected. You’ve got to take it a step beyond just providing a little food. Accompany them, be with the brothers and sisters in their struggle, fight with them so they can take over the reins of their own government, so that their priorities count, so the resources of the country can be put at their disposal, so they can develop and govern their own country.

My dad used to tell me that when he was a boy, in the early 1900s, Haitians used to send money to China. People would collect funds in the schools to send to China. At the time, China was looked down upon. Later, every time he heard China was a world power, he was astounded. So Haiti used to send food and money to China! What happened? Well, what happened was China rose up, had a revolution and started saying these are our priorities, this is what we want, these are the priorities of our people.

In Haiti today, people are fighting once again to take the reins, to be in control of their own destiny. In that way, Haitians will control our country, build schools and healthcare centers and feed our children.

Excerpted from a presentation at La Pena Cultural Center, June 26, 2008. Pierre Labossiere is a Haitian activist and co-founder of Haiti Action Committee. He can be reached at pierre@haitiaction.org.

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