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ISR Issue 59, May–June 2008


Haiti's food riots

An early-warning sign of the world food crisis

MARK SCHULLER1 reports from Haiti

IN EARLY April, Haiti was gripped by a nationwide mobilization to protest high food prices, which reached a crescendo when people burned tires and blocked national highways and city streets in Port-au-Prince as thousands took to the streets. Clashes with police and UN troops resulted in an official count of five dead. A handful of individuals also looted stores.

Mainstream media coverage tells an all too familiar story of Haiti. The UN troops broke up a demonstration with rubber bullets, and the U.S. State Department responded by issuing a warning against its citizens entering the country. And almost as quickly as it appeared on the news, Haiti disappeared, leaving the residual image of being a hopeless, violent, and dangerous place.

As awful as the loss of life, property damage, and the resulting climate of fear are, it is at the very least explainable. To understand the situation we need to look at three levels of analysis, not simply turn our attention to the most visible, the individual “rioters.” In addition to the people, there are also the Haitian government and international community.

“The overloaded donkey cannot stand still”

At the individual level, while the sale of “dirt cookies” (cookies of mud with salt and shortening) has increased over the past year, and while many individuals took to the streets and some took what they could to survive, Haiti also has a still-extant tradition of youn ede lòt —one helping the other. While foreigners may not notice, ordinary people often share what little they have with neighbors and extended kin.

Most people I know in Haiti also organize sòl—solidarity lending groups. Each pay period a group pools together funds, with one person receiving the entire amount. People also organize themselves into neighborhood associations, picking up trash, fixing potholes, and even opening community schools.

Unnoticed by mainstream accounts, this collectivist tradition in Haiti allowed people living on the margins of society (the minimum wage for the 14 percent who work in the formal sector is 70 goud, or $1.80 per day) to survive as long as possible, explained by the Kreyòl [Creole] proverb, bourik chaje pa kanpe (the overloaded donkey can’t stand still).

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. Each visit to Haiti I have observed an increase in food prices and almost invariably learn news of someone’s death from not having access to clean water, enough food, or health care. Rents in safe neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince doubled in 2004–05, forcing poor people into neighborhoods like Bel-Air or Cité Soleil where clashes between armed gangs and UN troops were regular occurrences.

Prices for staple goods such as rice, corn, beans, and cooking oil also increased dramatically, 30–40 percent over this one-year period. It has been suggested that rising gas costs is the primary reason for this increase. Undoubtedly, it is a key factor.2 However, according to the Nouvelliste, the cost of gas only went up 15 percent over this same period.

Missing from most accounts is that while Haiti is the poorest country in the hemisphere—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. Worldwide, it is second only to Namibia in income inequality, and it has the region’s most millionaires per capita.

“We’re waiting and watching the situation”

Moving up a level of analysis, Haiti’s government receives some mainstream media attention and analysis. The interim regime of Boca Raton, Fla. retiree Gérard Latortue (2004–06) took no effective measures to halt 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 granted a three-year tax exemption for large importers, Haiti’s traditional lighter-skinned merchant elite, the same group that controls Haiti’s foreign trade. In July, through a top-down, rushed process called the Cadre de Coopération Intérimaire (CCI—in English, ICF), the interim government signed off on neoliberal plans such as privatization, even lower tariffs for imported rice, and an export-oriented agricultural and industrial plan to the detriment of local production.3

Lavi chè—the high cost of living—was the focus of community mobilizations beginning in late 2004 bridging a political divide: Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas Party and leftist groups within Aristide’s opposition demanded Latortue address this problem. Latortue promised to create a commission to study the issue but ultimately took no action.
On February 7, 2006, President René Préval received the majority of votes that were cast for president, but blank ballots brought his total to just under 50 percent. As in most other Latin American countries, the Haitian Constitution stipulates a run-off of the top two contenders. According to non-governmental organization (NGO) and government sources, this was the pretext on which the international community demanded Préval form a so-called unity government with members of all six parties that gained seats in the parliament.

Préval’s government made some progress on security and stabilization. Kidnapping and homicide rates dropped. One of Préval’s first actions was to negotiate the Petro Caribe oil assistance program with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, offering lower cost oil and lower interest rate credit, and in Haiti’s case developing state-run power plants. According to Préval’s chief of staff, three such plants were scheduled to be online in April 2008. Haiti’s parliament ratified Petro Caribe in August 2006, and taptap [bus] fares immediately returned to 2004 levels of 5 goud.

However, many people told me, “se tann nap tann” or “se swiv nap swiv”— we’re waiting, and/or we’re following the situation closely. While Préval is generally well regarded for his honesty and sincerity, day laborers, street vendors, factory workers, NGO employees, and other middle-class professionals often complained about Préval’s apparent lack of leadership and unwillingness to address the public. To many, while his relative silence contributed to this goodwill and keeping his “unity government” together, official government inaction led to the return of violence and lavi chè.

The events of early April demonstrated among other things that the people’s patience had ultimately worn out. An April 10 AP story by Jonathan Katz quoted a protestor, “I voted Préval to hold on until Aristide comes back.” Carol Williams wrote in an April 13 Los Angeles Times story that 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 its fissure.

On Saturday, April 12, the Senate recalled Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis by sixteen votes, with the ten members of Préval’s Lespwa Party abstaining. Rightist opposition leader Youri Latortue led the recall effort, saying that Alexis’s removal, plus Préval’s negotiation with local business leaders and international agencies to lower the price of foreign rice from $51 to $43, “would satisfy the people.”

For even the best 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.

Many people in Haiti argue that the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) eradication of the Haitian pig population, Haiti’s “great stock market crash,” was the first trigger, eventually contributing to the ouster of longtime dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier on February 7, 1986. Under U.S. military supervision, an army junta took over. Its finance minister, Leslie Delatour, imposed a series of neoliberal measures, including currency devaluation, trade liberalization, and lowering Haiti’s tariffs. Today, Haiti is the most “open” economy in the hemisphere.3

In the 1990s, USAID gave hundreds of millions of dollars in direct food aid. The implementation of this aid weakened Haiti’s economy, with free or heavily subsidized U.S. rice underselling the local peasantry; food-for-work programs arriving during harvest when farmers needed hired help the most; and conditionalities such as even lower tariffs and further trade advantages for U.S. businesses.

While it can be argued that Haitian governments can choose to refuse this aid, the majority of their funding comes from international institutions,4 a situation Haitians call “politics of the stomach.” Not surprisingly, U.S. assistance to Haiti is still laced with conditionalities that benefit U.S. corporate interests. For example, the HOPE Act, passed in December 2006 to create jobs, benefits U.S. business interests. The act stipulates that Haiti must establish or make progress towards “elimination of barriers to United States trade and investment” (Section (d)(1)(C)).

In addition to bilateral aid, neoliberalism was also imposed through Haiti’s debt. By 1991, when Aristide—Haiti’s first democratically-elected president—took office, the official debt was $785 million, more than half of what was claimed in 2006 (nearly $1.5 billion). 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 the entire foreign pledges for education, health care, environment, and transportation combined was $39.21 million. Debt also is the leverage for imposing what used to be called “structural adjustment programs” (SAPs), including privatization, trade liberalization, and forced reduction in services such as health care, education, or rural credit. The scheduled debt service for 2009 is $78.7 million.

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 percent of total consumption, $200 million per year. Haiti has therefore lost its food security and food sovereignty. As Préval stated in April, “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.”

Prices for basic foodstuffs are tied to the global market. These have risen because of increased petroleum costs and inflation in grain prices because of grain’s increasing use as biofuel. What remains to be analyzed is the trigger.

Why now?

The question remains, why are the riots happening now? And, what does this mean for Haiti? The answer is, it depends on the level of analysis. This article has presented a tripartite analysis, looking at the level of the people, the government, and the international community.

It is possible that the people were simply tired and fed up, that recent mobilizations were spontaneous and grass roots, as journalist Reed Lindsay reported was the case in the southern town Cavaillon. According to Lindsay, this protest organized by local peasants associations was peaceful and apolitical, calling upon both the government and the UN to end neoliberalism and lower rice prices. The mobilization across the “Aristide divide” might generate a reconciliation between Lavalas Party leaders and leftist NGOs: unions such as Batay Ouvriye (an outspoken critic of Aristide) and CATH (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 statement outlines an alternative to the neoliberal vision of development embodied by many donors, prioritizing national production. This might foretell a progressive turn for the Préval government. An early sign would be Préval’s nomination of Alexis’s successor, not yet named as of press time. It is also possible that Latortue—who has made several public statements in favor of reviving the army that Aristide disbanded for its human rights violations—is intentionally destabilizing the government as a pretext for promoting a rightist agenda.

It is also possible to see this trigger as a reaction to the UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon’s remarks on April 2, saying that Haiti’s economy was better than it had been in the past decade, an insult to people who steadily saw their minimum wage of 70 goud ($1.80) buy progressively less. His speech also argued that the 9,000 UN troops in Haiti should remain past their current October mandate. Many people in Haiti, spanning political ideology and socioeconomic status, resent the UN presence as an insult to Haiti’s sovereignty. Many low-income residents of neighborhoods like Bèlè and Sitesolèy [Bel-Air and Cité Soleil] see the UN as a threat because troops have shot and killed many neighbors. Many progressive NGOs argue that UN troops maintain control over Haiti’s leta restavèk—a “child slave” government. UN troops’ shooting of protesters and public statements of support for Préval from Ban-Ki Moon and governments like Canada’s could foretell a division of Haiti’s people, supported by a tenuous coalition of formerly bitter enemies and Haiti’s government, supported by the international community.

As with most things, time will tell. Se swiv nap swiv.

The canary in the coal mine

Most importantly, the events of early April in Haiti need to be seen not as “Haitian exceptionalism,” with the usual 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 proximity to the U.S. and its level of dependence on foreign aid—highlights the contradictions and flaws in the system of international aid and growing global food crisis.5 As such, the “riots” are not expressions of an incomprehensibly backward Haitian mentality but rather a clear example and early warning if significant changes are not made to the system. Already there have been mobilizations in the Philippines since.

Cut the strings

What is to be done? Long-term solutions should address both our dependence on oil and the inequalities in distribution within the world system.

In the short term, we can promote the Jubilee Act—a complete, immediate cancellation of the debts of sixty-seven Southern countries, without conditionalities—that passed the House in April and is headed for a Senate vote. Debt cancellation would free up resources and relieve the pressure of neoliberalism, empowering Southern countries to define their own priorities, like national production.

To unravel the inequalities of this contemporary neoliberal world system, we should 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,

1 I have conducted two years of anthropological fieldwork in Pòtoprens [Port-au-Prince], and have returned for several follow-up trips, including working on a documentary about Haitian women workers (
2 Fares for taptap (buses) doubled for many Pòtoprens routes from 2003 to 2005, from 5 goud to 10 goud.
3 Customs duties are the lowest in the hemisphere. Excepting gasoline, they varied from 0 to 15 percent, “noticeably lowered in the 2000s” following IMF rulings, with an average of 9 percent according to the Heritage Foundation.
4 In the mid-1990s, the figure was 90 percent higher than the latest estimate, 65 percent.
5 The World Food Program noted that costs for basic foodstuffs have doubled over the past year in many countries.

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