excerpted from the book
Eyes of the Heart
by Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Common Courage Press, 2000
Our planet is entering the new century with fully 1.3 billion
people living on less than one dollar a day. Three billion people,
or half the population of the world, live on less than two dollars
a day. Yet this same planet is experiencing unprecedented economic
growth. The statistics that describe the accumulation of wealth
in the world are mind-boggling. From where we sit, the most staggering
statistics of all are those that reflect the polarization of this
wealth. In 1960 the richest 20% of the world's population had
70% of the world's wealth, today they have 86% of the wealth.
In 1960 the poorest 20% of the world's population had just 2.3%
of the wealth of the world. Today this has shrunk to just barely
What happens to poor countries when they embrace free trade?
In Haiti in 1986 we imported just 7000 tons of rice, the main
staple food of the country. The vast majority was grown in Haiti.
In the late 1980s Haiti complied with free trade policies advocated
by the international lending agencies and lifted tariffs on rice
imports. Cheaper rice immediately flooded in from the United States
where the rice industry is subsidized. In fact the liberalization
Haiti's market coincided with the 1985 Farm Bill in the United
States which increased subsidies to the rice industry so that
40% of U.S. rice growers' profits came from the government by
1987. Haiti's peasant farmers could not possibly compete. By 1996
Haiti was importing 196,000 tons of foreign rice at the cost of
$100 million a year. Haitian rice production became negligible.
Once the dependence on foreign rice was complete, import prices
began to rise, leaving Haiti's population, particularly the urban
poor, completely at the whim of rising world grain prices. And
the prices continue to rise.
... in 1995, severely indebted low-income countries paid one
billion dollars more in debt and interest to the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) than they received from it. For the 46 countries
of Subsaharan Africa, foreign debt service was four times their
combined governmental health and education budgets in 1996. So,
we find that aid does not aid.
In 1982 international agencies assured Haiti's peasants their
pigs were sick and had to be killed (so that the illness would
not spread to countries to the North). Promises were made that
better pigs would replace the sick pigs. With an efficiency not
since seen among development projects, all of the Creole pigs
were killed over period of a thirteen months.
Two years later the new, better pigs came from lowa. They
were so much better that they required clean drinking water (unavailable
to 80% of the Haitian population), imported feed (costing $90
a year when the per capita income was about $130), and special
roofed pigpens. Haitian peasants quickly dubbed them "prince
a quatre pieds," (four-footed princes). Adding insult to
injury, the meat did not taste as good. Needless to say, the repopulation
program was a complete failure. One observer of the process estimated
that in monetary terms Haitian peasants lost $600 million dollars.
There was a 30% drop in enrollment in rural schools, there was
a dramatic decline in the protein consumption in rural Haiti,
a devastating decapitalization of the peasant economy and an incalculable
negative impact on Haiti's soil and agricultural productivity.
The Haitian peasantry has not recovered to this day.
Most of rural Haiti is still isolated from global markets,
so for many peasants the extermination of the Creole pigs was
their first experience of globalization. The experience looms
large in the collective memory. Today, when the peasants are told
that "economic reform" and privatization will benefit
them they are understandably wary. The state-owned enterprises
are sick, we are told, and they must be privatized. The peasants
shake their heads and remember the Creole pigs.
The 1997 sale of the state-owned flour mill confirmed their
skepticism. The mill sold for a mere $9 million, while estimates
place potential yearly profits at $20-30 million a year. The mill
was bought by a group of investors linked to one of Haiti's largest
banks. One outcome seems certain; this sale will further concentrate
wealth-in a country where 1% of the population already holds 45%
of the wealth of the country.
If we have lingering doubts about where poor countries fall
in this "new" economic order, listen to the World Bank.
In September 1996, the London Guardian cited a draft World Bank
strategy paper that predicted that the majority of Haitian peasants-who
make up 70% of Haiti's population-are unlikely to survive bank-advocated
free market measures. The Bank concluded: "The small volume
of production and the environmental resource constraints will
leave the rural population with only two possibilities: to work
in the industrial or service sector, or to emigrate." At
present the industrial sector employs only about 20,000 Haitians.
There are already approximately 2.5 million people living in Port-au-Prince,
70% of them are officially unemployed and living in perhaps the
most desperate conditions in the Western Hemisphere. Given the
tragic history of Haiti's boat people, emigration, the second
possibility, can hardly be considered a real option.
The choices that globalization offers the poor remind me of
a story. Anatole, one of the boys who had lived with us at Lafanmi
Selavi, was working at the national port. One day a very powerful
businessman offered him money to sabotage the main unloading forklift
at the port. Anatole said to the man, "Well, then I am already
dead." The man, surprised by the response, asked, "Why?"
Anatole answered, "because if I sneak in here at night and
do what you ask they will shoot me, and if I don't, you will kill
me." The dilemma is, I believe, the classic dilemma of the
poor; a choice between death and death. Either we enter a global
economic system, in which we know we cannot survive, or, we refuse,
and face death by slow starvation. With choices like these the
urgency of finding a third way is clear. We must find some room
to maneuver, some open space simply to survive. We must lift ourselves
up off the morgue table and tell the experts we are not yet dead.
The average Haitian survives on less than 250 U.S. dollars
a year. This requires imagination every day. One percent of the
population controls 45% of the national wealth.
In nations around the world, even those experiencing rapid
economic growth, there are millions of children living on the
streets, refugees of a system that puts the market before the
person. If we listen closely, these children have a message for
the new century. Thirteen years ago we opened a center for street
children in Port-au-Prince. In 1996, we opened a radio station
with our 400 kids. Radyo Timoun (Little People's Radio) broadcasts
their music, their news, and their commentaries 14 hours a day.
In a world in which a child under the age of 5 dies every 3 seconds,
children must speak. In a commentary on democracy prepared by
three eleven-year-old girls, democracy was defined as food, school,
and health care for everyone. Simplistic or visionary? For them
democracy in Haiti doesn't mean a thing unless the people can
Democracy asks us to put the needs and rights of people at
the center of our endeavors. This means investing in people. Investing
in people means first of all food, clean water, education and
healthcare. These are basic human rights. It is the challenge
of (any real democracy to guarantee them.
Ironically, in many countries of the South the transition
to democracy comes at a time when states are being forced to rapidly
divest of resources, saddled with debt, abandoning the economic
field to market forces, and playing a smaller and smaller role
in the provision of basic human services. They have neither the
money nor the will to invest in their people. Today democracy
risks being rapidly outpaced by the galloping global economy.
If democracy in rich countries and poor ones alike is to be more
than a facade, nice in theory, but irrelevant in the face of global
economic relationships, our concept and practice of democracy
must make a giant leap forward. We must democratize democracy.
Do not confuse democracy with the holding of elections every
four or five years. Elections are the exam, testing the health
of our system. Voter participation is the grade. But school is
in session every day. Only the day-to-day participation of the
people at all levels of governance can breathe life into democracy
and create the possibility for people to play a significant role
in shaping the state and the society that they want.
I recently heard a beautiful story about holding representatives
accountable in democracy. In Columbia a member of an indigenous
community was elected to parliament to represent his people. On
one particularly important vote, the community elders had decided
how they wished their representative to vote. The parliamentarian,
now far away from his community in the halls of power in the capital,
voted differently. Again the elders met and agreed that for defying
the wishes of the community he was elected to represent, the parliamentarian
should walk many miles through the mountains and then bathe in
the freezing water of a sacred mountain lake in order to purge
himself. This he did, and balance within the community was restored.
Perhaps this technique would not be appropriate elsewhere, but
the point is that it is up to each country and indeed each community
to search for ways to both keep the peace and protect against
the potential betrayal of elected leaders.
In a country where only 20% of the population have access
to clean drinking water, swimming pools are exclusively for the
rich. There is not a single public swimming pool in Haiti. The
pool itself is a symbol of the elite.
The neo-liberal strategy is to weaken the state in order to
have the private sector replace the state.
Today we face complex networks of communications and disinformation,
corporations with budgets hundreds of times the size of our national
budget, and an army of international financial, trade, and development
institutions. The panorama of threats is so daunting that sometimes
I say perhaps our only strength is that the majority of the people
did not go to school. They are not yet assimilated into this machine.
Their minds remain their own and they are experts at unearthing
the truth in a morass of disinformation.
It would take six billion dollars a year, for three years,
in addition to what is already spent, to put every child in the
world in school. Does this seem like a lot? It represents less
than 1% of world military spending.
I see [for the children of Haiti a future] country with 85%
literacy, rather than 85% illiteracy. Cooperatives flourish in
villages and in the informal sectors of the cities. Water is flowing
through the fields of the countryside-where food enough for all
of Haiti's people is growing. Creole pigs are seen more and more
in the countryside, the descendants of those few that the peasants
hid away and saved from extermination. Seedlings are beginning
to take root on the mountainsides. The seedlings have a chance
at survival because the people are no longer in misery, but are
already on the road to poverty with dignity. There are primary
schools and health clinics in every municipality of Haiti. The
schoolbooks are not just half-price-they are free, in accordance
with Article 32.1 of our constitution which promises a free education
to every Haitian child.