A New Beginning for Haiti?

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The earthquake that devastated Haiti and shook the world could have heralded a new start for the perpetually impoverished Caribbean nation. But the reconstruction plans have made it clear that local and global elites wish to continue the policies that lie behind Haiti’s history of violence and deprivation.

Much of the country’s political powers have shifted to the Interim Reconstruction Commission, an unelected and foreign-dominated body that will oversee the deployment of relief and reconstruction aid, that grassroots organisations fear will become a de facto government. The reconstruction plans focus on capitalising on Haiti’s primary ‘comparative advantage’ of abundant cheap labour, i.e. high unemployment. Capitalising on this means the expansion of the garment and assembly factories in the export zones of Port-au-Prince and Gonaives. This is simply the reinvigoration of the standard American policy line for the island’s economy.

The Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement (HOPE) Acts of 2006 and 2008 established tariff-free trade between Haiti and the United States. Touted, pre- and post-quake, as a continued basis for economic recovery, the preferential agreement most benefits major US corporations, such as Levi’s and Disney, which subcontract out their assembly work to Haitian factory owners. The profits primarily go back to the United States, while the big brands are able to wash their hands of the conditions in their factories. It’s standard sweatshop practice.

The labourers are paid ‘starvation wages’, with most earning around three dollars a day. Conditions are poor and there are many complaints of sexual abuse of the female workforce. In a country with some nominal labour rights, but no government interest in the issue, employers are free to dismiss rebellious workers at will. Demonstrations, strikes and an act of parliament called for a raise in the national minimum wage last year, but President Rene Preval imposed an exception on the garment industry. The comparative advantage prevails.

The HOPE acts are themselves to be born again, with bipartisan legislation in the US Congress aiming to extend their terms until 2020. But free trade cuts both ways. The HOPE Acts also severely restrict the ability of the Haitian government to restrict or control US imports via tariffs, taxation or price control. This is crucial for the continued existence of the apparel sector as a ‘maquiladora’, or assembly industry, where the raw materials are sourced in the US, brought into Haiti, manufactured into finished items, and then returned to America for sale.

It’s also a notable limitation considering the massive outflows of cheap rice from subsidised US farmers that continue to undercut Haitian farmers. Cheap labour is not naturally occurring; this ‘dumping’ of subsidised American imports devastated local production and eventually drove costs up. The food riots of 2008, which resulted in scores of people being shot and killed by UN peacekeepers, were a direct result of the vulnerability of Haiti to shifts in global food prices.

Migration from rural areas, the overcrowding of urban centers and the pauperisation of the population; the devastation caused by the earthquake is in large part a result of the destruction of Haitian agriculture. And while Bill Clinton expressed regret for his part in the damage done by his policies at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last March, there is little sign of any policy rethink.

Pre-quake, there were 25,000 Haitians employed in the garment industry, a quarter of what were employed a decade ago. Now, with rising fuel costs driving Chinese export prices upwards, returning Haitian garment production to the pre-embargo peak, as outlined in the Recovery Plan, will secure continued access to cheap garment production for major North American corporations.

Haitians aren’t just victims though. Their history of violence and poverty is also one of great struggle and resistance. The country’s reconstruction could follow an alternative path; with an increased role for popular organisations and unions. This isn’t the path that international or local elites want, and it won’t happen without struggle.

Now that the most immediate emergency is over, those of us outside of Haiti who genuinely wish for a new beginning, should support the organisations that can empower the impoverished to improve their lives. Organisations such as Batay Ouvriye, which organises garment workers in the free trade zones, fighting for a living wage and for dignified working conditions.

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