[Marxism] Haiti, rice and "free trade"
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
By TIM WEINER
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."
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