[Marxism] Haiti, rice and "free trade"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 1 08:18:23 MDT 2004

NY Times, June 1, 2004
The Price of Rice Soars, and Haiti's Hunger Deepens

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, May 31 - One lesson of life in Haiti is never to 
say things cannot get any worse. They can, and they have.

People say they have had less money, less food and less hope since the 
February revolt that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

For most Haitians, this has nothing to do with last week's deadly 
floods, which left 1,000 dead and 1,600 missing in Haiti, according to 
the official government estimate on Monday.

It has to do with the price of rice.

The cost of living has soared in the past four months. And as they say 
in Haiti, "Rice is life."

On the Rue de Miracles, one of the capital's biggest sidewalk markets, 
where thousands buy and sell the necessities of life, people talk of 
little else. Every conversation that starts with politics ends with the 
price of rice.

Many Haitians eat one meal a day. The main course is rice, and the price 
of a 110-pound sack doubled, to $45 from $22.50, between late January 
and early May. That price has dropped to about $37 in the past few weeks 
but is still too high, said Clermathe Baron, 29, who sells the big white 
sacks across the street from the Haitian customs office near the port. 
The price was driven up by global, national, political and economic forces.

"Life for the people of Haiti was better under Aristide because rice was 
less expensive," said Ms. Baron, not a big fan of the former president, 
as an American military helicopter hummed overhead.

"Even though it's more expensive now, I make the same as I did before," 
she said. "These high prices are not to my advantage. They're not to 
anyone's advantage, except maybe a few big importers and a few people in 
the Customs House. They always seem to have money."

People who buy rice by the pound say the price also doubled, and it has 
stayed that high.

"We have less and less to eat," said Nadia Casmir, 21, who sells 
crackers, cookies and powdered milk from a sidewalk stall, and lives 
with her mother, aunt, and the aunt's three children. "Things were 
better before. I'm not making a living. I've had to raise my prices, but 
people have less money, so they can't buy what we are selling."

Mr. Aristide, unsurprisingly, agrees that things have gotten worse since 
he was overthrown Feb. 29.

"The level of suffering has dramatically increased in Haiti," he said to 
reporters before leaving Jamaica and arriving Monday in South Africa, 
which offered him refuge. Mr. Aristide, who says he is still Haiti's 
elected leader, received a head of state's welcome in Johannesburg from 
President Thabo Mbeki.

But Haitian businessmen say Mr. Aristide's government kept the price of 
rice down through corruption.

One leading importer said an Aristide crony received a near exclusive 
concession on rice imports and evaded customs duties. That evasion 
allowed the rice concessionaire to cut about $3 a bag off the market 
price, pass some of the savings on to the market and pocket the rest.

"It was kind of a monopoly" under Mr. Aristide, said Danielle St.-Lot, 
the new minister of commerce.

Haiti used to grow its own rice. But its agriculture has collapsed in 
the past two decades, crushed by poverty, environmental destruction and 
foreign imports. While rice production crashed, demand soared: Haiti's 
population has grown to eight million from five million in 20 years. 
"The deterioration of the economy, years of bad governance without any 
policy for agriculture, and the day-to-day problems of life we now see 
reflected in the price of rice," Ms. St.-Lot said.

Eighty percent of the rice imported by Haiti comes from the United 
States, chiefly Arkansas, Louisiana and California - more than 300,000 
tons in 2003. American rice is the most expensive in the world, Ms. 
St.-Lot said. "The problem is serious," she said. "The price on the 
international market is growing every day."

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/06/01/international/americas/01hait.html
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