James Ridgeway: Exporting Misery to Haiti

"Le ou malere, tout bagay samble ou," says one of the Creole proverbs that are a staple of Haitian popular culture. When you are poor, everything can be blamed on you. It’s a truth we can see played out in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.

These changes in many ways served US economic interests in the Caribbean, which since the 1980s have been oriented towards knitting the area into a common free trade zone, first in the Caribbean Basin Initiative and then under the North American Free Trade Agreement. Forced out of small-scale farming by the elimination of two basic staples, Haitians moved to the cities, where they were available to work in sweatshops producing panties, bras, and dresses for such places as Sears, WalMart, and JC Penney. US aid programs have supported the effort to turn countries such as Haiti into low wage assembly platforms that supply a cheap, easily exploitable workforce for American and international business – and at the same time, relieve pressure on immigration by keeping the desperate Haitians working at home for what is barely a living wage.
After coming to Haiti en masse in the 1980s and 1990s, some of these companies moved on to even cheaper – and more "stable" – countries. Yet recent development initiatives, including the US’s HOPE II program to encourage duty-free trade with Haiti, continued to emphasize the low-wage, export-oriented garment industry over sustainable agriculture or other projects that would build Haiti’s self-reliance. At the same time, Western companies looked toward the prospect of an expanded tourist industry, owned by foreigners and once again exploiting cheap labor. The purported return of the luxury tourist hotels targeted such places as Jacmel, which now lie in ruins.
Even before the earthquake, these economic actions, driven by outside economic forces, offered little promise of restoring and reinvigorating indigenous farming, or providing any sort of real, homegrown economic base for Haiti. Such has been the nature of the US’s "help" to its impoverished Caribbean neighbor.


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