The US Role in Haiti's Hunger
by Bill Quigley
Riots in Haiti over explosive rises in
food costs have claimed the lives of six people. There have also
been food riots worldwide in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivorie,
Egypt, Guinea, Mauritania, Mexico, Morocco, Senegal, Uzbekistan
which calls the current crisis the silent tsunami, reports that
last year wheat prices rose 77 percent and rice 16 percent, but
since January rice prices have risen 141 percent. The reasons
include rising fuel costs, weather problems, increased demand
in China and India, and the push to create biofuels from cereal
Hermite Joseph, a mother working in the
markets of Port-au-Prince, told journalist Nick Whalen that her
two kids are "like toothpicks - they're not getting enough
nourishment. Before, if you had $1.25, you could buy vegetables,
some rice, 10 cents of charcoal and a little cooking oil. Right
now, a little can of rice alone costs 65 cents, and is not good
rice at all. Oil is 25 cents. Charcoal is 25 cents. With $1.25,
you can't even make a plate of rice for one child."
The St. Claire's Church Food program,
in the Tiplas Kazo neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, serves 1,000
free meals a day, almost all to hungry children - five times a
week in partnership with the What If Foundation. Children from
Cité-Soleil have been known to walk the five miles to the
church for a meal. The costs of rice, beans, vegetables, a little
meat, spices, cooking oil and propane for the stoves, have gone
up dramatically. Because of the rise in the cost of food, the
portions are now smaller. But hunger is on the rise, and more
and more children come for the free meal. Hungry adults used to
be allowed to eat the leftovers once all the children were fed,
but now there are few leftovers.
The New York Times lectured Haiti on April 18 that "Haiti, its
agriculture industry in shambles, needs to better feed itself."
Unfortunately, the article did not talk at all about one of the
main causes of the shortages: the fact that the US and other international
financial bodies destroyed Haitian rice farmers to create a major
market for heavily subsidized rice from US farmers. This is not
the only cause of hunger in Haiti and other poor countries, but
it is a major force.
Thirty years ago, Haiti raised nearly
all the rice it needed. What happened?
In 1986, after the expulsion of Haitian
dictator Jean Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the International
Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned Haiti $24.6 million in desperately
needed funds (Baby Doc had raided the treasury on the way out).
But, in order to get the IMF loan, Haiti was required to reduce
tariff protections for Haitian rice and other agricultural products
and some industries, to open up the country's markets to competition
from outside countries. The US has by far the largest voice in
decisions of the IMF.
Doctor Paul Farmer was in Haiti then and
saw what happened. "Within less than two years, it became
impossible for Haitian farmers to compete with what they called
'Miami rice.' The whole local rice market in Haiti fell apart
as cheap, US subsidized rice, some of it in the form of 'food
aid,' flooded the market. There was violence . . . 'rice wars,'
and lives were lost."
"American rice invaded the country,"
recalled Charles Suffrard, a leading rice grower in Haiti in an
interview with the Washington Post in 2000. By 1987 and
1988, there was so much rice coming into the country that many
stopped working the land.
The Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian
priest who has been the pastor at St. Claire and an outspoken
human rights advocate, agrees. "In the 1980s, imported rice
poured into Haiti, below the cost of what our farmers could produce
it. Farmers lost their businesses. People from the countryside
started losing their jobs and moving to the cities. After a few
years of cheap imported rice, local production went way down."
Still, the international business community
was not satisfied. In 1994, as a condition for US assistance in
returning to Haiti to resume his elected presidency, Jean-Bertrand
Aristide was forced by the US, the IMF and the World Bank to open
up the markets in Haiti even more.
But Haiti is the poorest country in the
Western Hemisphere; what reason could the US have for destroying
the rice market of this tiny country?
Haiti is definitely poor. The US Agency
for International Development reports the annual per capita income
is less than $400. The United Nations reports life expectancy
in Haiti is 59, while in the US it is 78. Over 78 percent of Haitians
live on less than $2 a day, more than half live on less than $1
Yet, Haiti has become one of the top importers
of rice from the United States. The US Department of Agriculture
2008 numbers show Haiti is the third-largest importer of US rice
- at over 240,000 metric tons of rice. (One metric ton is 2,200
Rice is a heavily subsidized business
in the US. Rice subsidies in the US totaled $11 billion from 1995
to 2006. One producer alone, Riceland Foods of Stuttgart, Arkansas,
received over $500 million in rice subsidies between 1995 and
The Cato Institute recently reported that
rice is one of the most heavily supported commodities in the US
- with three different subsidies together averaging over $1 billion
a year since 1998 and projected to average over $700 million a
year through 2015. The result? "Tens of millions of rice
farmers in poor countries find it hard to lift their families
out of poverty because of the lower, more volatile prices caused
by the interventionist policies of other countries."
In addition to three different subsidies
for rice farmers in the US, there are also direct tariff barriers
of three to 24 percent, reports Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute
- the exact same type of protections, though much higher, that
the US and the IMF required Haiti to eliminate in the 1980s and
US protection for rice farmers goes even
further. A 2006 story in the Washington Post found that
the federal government has paid at least $1.3 billion in subsidies
for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming
at all; including $490,000 to a Houston surgeon who owned land
near Houston that once grew rice.
And it is not only the Haitian rice farmers
who have been hurt.
Paul Farmer saw it happen to the sugar
growers as well. "Haiti, once the world's largest exporter
of sugar and other tropical produce to Europe, began importing
even sugar - from US-controlled sugar production in the Dominican
Republic and Florida. It was terrible to see Haitian farmers put
out of work. All this speeded up the downward spiral that led
to this month's food riots."
After the riots and protests, President
Rene Preval of Haiti agreed to reduce the price of rice, which
was selling for $51 for a 110-pound bag, to $43 dollars for the
next month. No one thinks a one-month fix will do anything but
delay the severe hunger pains a few weeks.
Haiti is far from alone in this crisis.
The Economist reports a billion people worldwide live on
$1 a day. The US-backed Voice of America reports about 850 million
people were suffering from hunger worldwide before the latest
round of price increases.
Thirty-three countries are at risk of
social upheaval because of rising food prices, World Bank President
Robert Zoellick told the Wall Street Journal. When countries
have many people who spend half to three-quarters of their daily
income on food, "there is no margin of survival."
In the US, people are feeling the worldwide
problems at the gas pump and in the grocery. Middle-class people
may cut back on extra trips or on high price cuts of meat. The
number of people on food stamps in the US is at an all-time high.
But in poor countries, where malnutrition and hunger were widespread
before the rise in prices, there is nothing to cut back on except
eating. That leads to hunger riots.
In the short term, the world community
is sending bags of rice to Haiti. Venezuela sent 350 tons of food.
The US just pledged $200 million extra for worldwide hunger relief.
The UN is committed to distributing more food.
What can be done in the medium term? The
US provides much of the world's food aid, but does it in such
a way that only half of the dollars spent actually reach hungry
people. US law requires that food aid be purchased from US farmers,
processed and bagged in the US and shipped on US vessels - which
cost 50 percent of the money allocated. A simple change in US
law to allow some local purchase of commodities would feed many
more people and support local farm markets.
In the long run, what is to be done? The
president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who visited Haiti
last week, said "Rich countries need to reduce farm subsidies
and trade barriers to allow poor countries to generate income
with food exports. Either the world solves the unfair trade system,
or every time there's unrest like in Haiti, we adopt emergency
measures and send a little bit of food to temporarily ease hunger."
Citizens of the US know very little about
the role of their government in helping create the hunger problems
in Haiti or other countries. But there is much that individuals
can do. People can donate to help feed individual hungry people
and participate with advocacy organizations such as Bread for
the World or Oxfam to help change the US and global rules which
favor the rich countries. This advocacy can help countries have
a better chance to feed themselves.
Meanwhile, Merisma Jean-Claudel, a young
high school graduate in Port-au-Prince, told journalist Wadner
Pierre " . . . people can't buy food. Gasoline prices are
going up. It is very hard for us over here. The cost of living
is the biggest worry for us; no peace in stomach means no peace
in the mind. I wonder if others will be able to survive the days
ahead, because things are very, very hard."
"On the ground, people are very hungry,"
reported Father Jean-Juste. "Our country must immediately
open emergency canteens to feed the hungry until we can get them
jobs. For the long run, we need to invest in irrigation, transportation,
and other assistance for our farmers and workers."
In Port-au-Prince, some rice arrived in
the last few days. A school in Father Jean-Juste's parish received
several bags of rice. They had raw rice for 1,000 children, but
the principal still had to come to Father Jean-Juste asking for
help. There was no money for charcoal or oil.
Jervais Rodman, an unemployed carpenter
with three children, stood in a long line Saturday in Port-au-Prince
to get UN-donated rice and beans. When Rodman got the small bags,
he told Ben Fox of the Associated Press, "The beans might
last four days. The rice will be gone as soon as I get home."
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer
and professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Bill can be reached
at: Quigley@loyno.edu. Read other articles by Bill.