An old debate over ‘how to fix Haiti’ renewed

The debate over the proper way of “fixing” Haiti is once again in full swing.

The protagonists have been here before: those who believe that even an underdeveloped country like Haiti can benefit from lowering its tariffs and opening up its economy, and those who call this a “Neoliberal” abomination. The anti-Neoliberals — many living abroad — now have a specific new target: the South Korean-funded project to build a garment industry in Caracol, a village on Haiti’s north coast.

So, if the South Koreans are building the factory, the European Union the roads that will access it, the Inter-American Development Bank the generators that will provide the electricity and the U.S. Congress has voted duty-free access to the U.S. market, what is there to object to?

Horrors, they bought 600 acres from 357 local peasants to set up the factory and support structures. Beyond the fact that this was not an expropriation but a well-compensated deal, a simple bit of math is revealing: 357 farmers on 600 acres is 1.628 acres per farmer. This is in fact the norm for Haitian peasant holdings, hardly enough to feed a family, much less to advance in any way.

Can any reasonable person want this desperate poverty to persist? Well, to the anti-Neoliberal such calculations are little more than a vulgar materialist and capitalist ploy since it leaves out the critical fact that what was involved was a frontal attack on the peasants’ “way of life.” Framed in these terms, their arguments augur images of that ever-present theme of Haitian history, the heroic peasant rising to destroy not merely an unjust colonial system but the very industry which sustained it: the plantation.

The emotional charge of this true history cannot be underestimated. The prize for the ex-slave was not just an independent black nation but ownership of a piece of land to cultivate, to build a house on and in which to bury their loved ones. The result was a subsistence agriculture so romanticized by anti-Neoliberals.

Arguably the sharpest arrow in the anti-Neoliberal’s philosophical quiver is the charge that it was Neoliberal reforms which encouraged the importation of cheaper U.S. rice, which in turn destroyed the self-sufficiency provided by the native rice industry. Even former President Bill Clinton believed their arguments and publicly regretted U.S. actions. But, is the story true?

After admitting that few countries can compete with the production and price of the U.S. agro-industry, there is much more to tell. As early as 1886, the British Ambassador to Haiti, Sir Spenser St. John, reported that the peasants “produce some rice and Indian corn, but they do not do so in sufficient quantities to supply the market.” In 1931, Arthur C. Millspaugh of the World Peace Foundation, after commenting that the farming techniques of the peasants had “not greatly changed since 1804,” noted that the importation of rice went from an average of 675,744 kilos in the period 1916-1921 to 6,894,258 in 1928-1929.

In 1980, Haitians consumed 60,000 metric tons of rice; in 2010 they consumed 400,000 but native production had remained stagnant at 60,000 metric tons.

Haiti, like all the islands in the Caribbean, cannot escape the cruel march of changing man-land relations, urbanization and increasing urban tastes. While population grows exponentially, agricultural land is less than fixed — it is in fact shrinking because of deforestation and erosion. In 1938 Haiti had 540,000 hectares of arable land; by 1980 it had 225,750.

It is an extraordinary fact that the density of population per square mile in Haiti is greater than it is in either India or China. Nothing reveals this dramatic situation more poignantly than the growth of Port-au-Prince. In 1950, the city’s inhabitants numbered 152,000; in 1980, 720,000; and today, perhaps four million. Like all urban residents, they demonstrate a growing appetite for that staple: rice

The ideal would be a peasantry that is educated and knows how to increase production. Since this is clearly not the case, it is ridiculous for anti-Neoliberals to continue opposing projects such as that of the South Koreans.

Anthony P. Maingot is professor emeritus of sociology at Florida International University.