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July 21, 2010 10:18 AM   Subscribe

This past March, former US President Bill Clinton acknowledged to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that tariff policies his administration championed in the mid-1990's helped destroy Haiti's rice production and contributed to the impoverished nation's inability to feed itself. But while most of the world has stopped paying attention to Haiti's woes, Mr. Clinton has become the de facto leader of the effort to rebuild it after the catastrophic earthquake this past January. Will his influence be enough? Reports from the UN Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti indicate that the reconstruction progress has been slow.

Worth noting: the history of Haiti's rice production industry is complex and despite his comments, Clinton is not solely to blame for its failure.

(Esquire link goes to single-page print version. Original is here.)
posted by zarq (35 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Not only did it cripple farming, but owing to that farmers and farm laborers flocked to Port-au-Prince looking for by the thousands and moved into the same poorly built shanties on shaky ground that were later devastated by the earthquake. If he is sincere about his feelings of guilt, he has my sympathies because that must be a huge weight. It's a pretty startling for a president to admit that imperialist trade policies are poisonous and I hope this becomes something of a trend so there is more mainstream awareness.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:25 AM on July 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


It is interesting, and something I have noted before, how Democratic presidents and vice presidents seem to continue to work for social issues without prompting even after they retire from office. republican Presidents / VPs retire, disappear and sometimes make a token appearance if asked. At the most they continue exclusive party politics.
posted by edgeways at 10:33 AM on July 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


From the article:

admitting for the first time that loosening trade barriers has only exacerbated hunger in Haiti and elsewhere.

Gee I wonder if "trade barriers" refers to the $1B-plus rice growers in USA get each year in subsidies. Let's see:

"A combination of food aid, but also cheap imports have ... resulted in a lack of investment in Haitian farming, and that has to be reversed,"

Ah, No mention of subsidies at all. Considering that's the reason they can give the rice away so cheaply, I'd say that's a pretty glaring oversight.
posted by vanar sena at 10:34 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Ok I commented too soon, the "complex" link mentions subsidies. Apologies.
posted by vanar sena at 10:43 AM on July 21, 2010


This is something I honestly don't understand -- how free trade policies can ever be fingered as the culprit in an economic issue of poverty, and why Clinton seems so eager to fall on this sword.

* Haitians are poor and grow rice to make money to eat and buy other foods.
* The U.S. can make and ship rice to Haiti cheaper than they can grow it themselves.
* A corrupt Haitian government can't tax the poor people of Haiti at the level it wants to. So, it skims tariffs off the top of imports, in the name of "protecting domestic rice production."
* Haiti to its people: "We won't educate you or encourage growth -- just keep growing the damn rice like we told you to do."
* Haitian unions, in bed with the government, agree with this idea. The union works hard to ensure that every little Haitian kid can look forward to a short, brutal life growing rice.
* U.S. farmers start to go out of business, while ironically staring at mountains of rice it can sell.
* The U.S. asks to lower trade barriers, so it can make money with its cheap rice.
* Haitians start to buy cheap imported rice. More food for everyone, hooray!
* But wait. We can't sell our own rice now. Haitians can't sell anything to buy any food at all, cheap or not.
* Governments change, Haitians starve, unions demand more tariffs.

This ... is ... Bill Clinton's ... fault? Run this by me again?

It doesn't add up. This seems like Bill Clinton taking "I feel your pain" on a Caribbean tour.

And I really like Bill Clinton, too...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2010


> This ... is ... Bill Clinton's ... fault? Run this by me again?

It's both the fault of the so-called free trade policies that Clinton pressured Haiti into adopting and Haiti's wealthy elite. The idea was to spur investment in manufacturing, but that stagnated while landowners sat on good land.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:51 AM on July 21, 2010


It's nice that Clinton wants to save the world now. Too bad he wasn't in a position earlier in his life where he had enough power to help the world. Well, I guess you work with what you got.
posted by zzazazz at 10:51 AM on July 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


Even before the earthquake, many poor Haitians were reduced to eating dirt.
posted by Melismata at 10:52 AM on July 21, 2010


And, perhaps Clinton is "falling on his sword" because of the major failures that he himself laments and rues not taking more proactive action against, namely Haiti, Rwanda, and Bosnia, Haiti is the one that he can actually concentrate on and influence now. I'm wiseacring on his motives, of course, but that seems to me to be the case.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:53 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Let's just hope that enough hurricane shelters can be built before a storm tears through Haiti. These should've been started back in March when the funds were earmarked, but haven't been. Even a strong tropical storm will be absolute misery for Haitians without shelters, let alone an actual hurricane.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:55 AM on July 21, 2010


This is something I honestly don't understand -- how free trade policies can ever be fingered as the culprit in an economic issue of poverty

Theoretically free trade enables countries to focus on where their comparative advantage lies. That way, everybody wins because everybody gets access to the cheapest goods and services.

The problem is that sometimes a country has no comparative advantage. The US is a giant country with many varied climates, the capital to invest in mechanization, a functioning education system to provide an educated workforce, a relatively noncorrupt government, well-developed internal markets, working trade infrastructure (e.g., ports, telecommunications), etc, etc. Haiti doesn't have any of those things, so there is essentially nothing Haiti can do better than the US, especially when the US effectively cheats through farm subsidies and the like.

And even if there were something Haiti could have switched to in order to better leverage its comparative advantage, doing so takes time, and such economic transitions are often painful as people move to find work, have to be retrained or educated, etc. With such a weak economy and corrupt government to start with, Haiti was unlikely to make such a transition without breaking down completely.

So, that's how free trade sometimes screws the little guy.
posted by jedicus at 10:55 AM on July 21, 2010 [14 favorites]


Ok I commented too soon, the "complex" link mentions subsidies. Apologies.

My fault. I should have put that link up higher. The coha.org link is an excellent summation. The post felt too long and complicated when I had it before the "More Inside" so I moved it down.
posted by zarq at 10:56 AM on July 21, 2010


Goldman-Sachs might have done some contributing to the increase of staples price.
posted by francesca too at 11:07 AM on July 21, 2010


forgot the via
posted by francesca too at 11:12 AM on July 21, 2010


francesca too, that's horrifying.
So it has come to this. The world's wealthiest speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of hundreds of millions of innocent people. They gambled on increasing starvation, and won. This is what happens when you follow the claim that unregulated markets know best to the end of the line. The finance sector's Wasteland moment created a real wasteland. What does it say about our political and economic system that we can so casually inflict such misery, and barely even notice?


There are no words.
posted by zarq at 11:15 AM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Democratic presidents and vice presidents seem to continue to work for social issues without prompting even after they retire from office. republican Presidents / VPs retire, disappear

This isn't an entirely fair observation. First of all, there's only one living R President right now, and some have either been quite ill (Reagan) or disgraced (Nixon, and arguably George W) when they left office.

Also, George Bush Sr. has been quite active, only current living R President, in partnership with Bill Clinton and on his own, in working on charitable fundraising drives. Gerald Ford wasn't as engaged, but he had charitable causes and events too. Dan Quayle is no Al Gore, but he has continued to participate in celebrity golf charitable fundraising events.
posted by bearwife at 11:34 AM on July 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Excuse me, two living R Presidents, but I think it is fair to say George W is kinda in disgrace.
posted by bearwife at 11:34 AM on July 21, 2010


Also, though I despise the man, Cheney and his wife have given very large sums to charity.
posted by bearwife at 11:38 AM on July 21, 2010


It's hard as well in Haiti, because something like 80 percent of the population speaks only Creole, and very few non-Haitians speak it. So even those of us who are sympathetic to the plight of the Haitians are tended to hear their needs through translators and the moneyed elite, none of whom necessarily share the agenda of the remainder of the population. They're really isolated for being so close to the US; linguistic isolation can be devastating, because if you cannot articulate your needs to the larger population, and they don't care to take the effort to understand, they're not going to hear you at all.

This became especially notable after the earthquake, when help swarmed into the country, but was limited by linguistic difficulties. The earthquake also created some attempts to address the issue, which may be the only good thing to come out of the disaster.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:40 AM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wasn't there a link when that Goldman-Sachs allegation surfaced to an article by an actual economist that demonstrated that Johann Hari doesn't understand what commodities futures markets do and was basically talking out his ass about the price effects? Oh, yeah.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:50 AM on July 21, 2010


So, that's how free trade sometimes screws the little guy.

Well, yes, that's a measured and reasonable way to look at it.

That said, it's not happening in a vacuum. The little guy can get screwed, but free trade isn't a culprit that needs to be banned.

It seems as if free trade is exacerbating the real problem, which was a corrupt government that developed no comparative advantage, and perhaps a lack of U.S. foreign aid and leadership to correct that problem.

IMO, railing against free trade policies is misplaced anger, akin to driving your car off a cliff and then blaming your car. The car didn't depress its own accelerator. The car wasn't taking kickbacks from the contractor building the guardrail.

Clinton knows this. There's something else to this.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


This past March, former US President Bill Clinton acknowledged to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that tariff policies his administration championed in the mid-1990's helped destroy Haiti's rice production and contributed to the impoverished nation's inability to feed itself.

Next up, he can talk about how great NAFTA has been for Mexico.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:17 PM on July 21, 2010


Wasn't there a link when that Goldman-Sachs allegation surfaced to an article by an actual economist that demonstrated that Johann Hari doesn't understand what commodities futures markets do and was basically talking out his ass about the price effects? Oh, yeah.

Hmm.. that article seems to cleverly avoid actually contradicting the evidentiary claim made by Hari, that crops with futures markets invested in by index funds saw a large price increase while crops without that saw a small increase in price. His refutation is that all crops saw a rise in price, which was not in dispute, and that a wheat market with index fund investment saw a similar price increase to one without. Note he is comparing two markets for the same product, not two different products.

Regardless of the man's credentials, his arguments are poorly thought out or not in good faith.
posted by Zalzidrax at 1:48 PM on July 21, 2010


I'm not sure how this gets blamed on the free market. The market was anything but free, either before or after Haiti's price protections, or the flood of subsidized US rice. Haiti's price supports made rice artificially high for it's people. Rather than free markets, it seems that market distortions from inside and out, well intended and otherwise, affected Haiti's economy much more drastically.

Artificially low cost imports could have been a boon to the country. For any normal country, it would have been. However, combined with everything else that's so fundamentally and deeply broken down in Haiti, the long term effects are bad. It sounds like the end result is a nation that's not only too poor to produce food itself, but also too poor to import food at market prices. If they want to eat, they're stuck with taking whatever charity can be given.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:49 PM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


linguistic isolation can be devastating

It struck me while watching the news reports on Haiti's recovery that the wealthier and more successful Haitians often spoke in fluent English to the reporters, while poorer Haitians who were still stuck in the disaster had to speak through translators. The poorer Haitians were also, in general, noticeably darker.

(Using past tense because I don't recall seeing Haiti on the news in a while.)

I do think the linguistic "isolation" is largely due to economic factors, though. Haiti has over nine million people and is relatively close to the US. If people perceived it as a place they might end up doing business, Haitian Creole would be much more popular as a second language outside of Haiti.

I've known more people who study Hungarian than study Haitian Creole.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 1:58 PM on July 21, 2010


There are no words.

I can think of a few: "when the revolution comes, you fuckers, would you like blindfolds or not when you're up against the wall?"

Oh come on. A girl can dream.
posted by scody at 2:15 PM on July 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


There is no free trade in food until the first world ends agricultural subsidies.

Until then, attempts to promote free trade in food are just attempts to screw and starve farmers in the developing world in favour of rich farmers and agri-businesses in the first world.

We have to end all subsidies for staple crops.* If that means some of our farmers go out of business, so be it.

*I could go for health-based subsidies to promote cheap fruits and especially vegetables -- but none of the American are aimed this way.
posted by jb at 2:31 PM on July 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Clinton deserves respect for acknowledging he was wrong, but I suppose with any politician it's too much to ask that penitence should be connected with a period of shutting-up and own-business-minding.
posted by Phanx at 2:40 PM on July 21, 2010


*I could go for health-based subsidies to promote cheap fruits and especially vegetables -- but none of the American are aimed this way.

Ah, but in that case the subsidy should be aimed at the consumer level. For example, grocery stores should be subsidized by the government to sell raw and minimally processed vegetables more cheaply. That way both foreign and domestic farmers can take advantage of the increased demand.

I would say that there is at least one reasonable exception, which is what Switzerland does for dairy farmers. The point isn't really to compete against foreign milk and cheese producers (I'm pretty sure Switzerland is still a net importer of dairy products) but rather to keep traditional cheesemaking profitable and provide picturesque Swiss cows to dot the picturesque Swiss countryside, which is a boon to tourism.
posted by jedicus at 2:58 PM on July 21, 2010


Clinton deserves respect for acknowledging he was wrong, but I suppose with any politician it's too much to ask that penitence should be connected with a period of shutting-up and own-business-minding.

If you had destroyed a country's ability to feed itself, wouldn't you want to put things right?
posted by zarq at 3:08 PM on July 21, 2010


I'm just saying... his motivation is kind of understandable.
posted by zarq at 3:09 PM on July 21, 2010


The problem is that sometimes a country has no comparative advantage. The US is a giant country with many varied climates... //

So, that's how free trade sometimes screws the little guy.


This actually isn't true. Comparative advantage (wiki link) is a tricky concept in economics, one that I wouldn't blame any non-economics student for getting wrong. What you're talking about - that the US can produce any good better and cheaper than Haiti can - that's absolute advantage. Absolute advantage is what most laymen think about in terms of trade - you produce A cheaper, I produce B cheaper, thus we trade. In actuality, comparative advantage is the basis for most trade in the world - one country can produce both A and B cheaper in absolute terms, but the opportunity costs for both countries differ so that with trade both countries end up better off.


I'm in agreement with jb on this one - trade barriers and tariffs are just another form of market distortion, no better or worse than subsidies. A market with 20% tariff is just as market-distorting as a country with a 20% subsidy on production. To call for free trade while you are subsidizing your own markets is just dishonest.

At its core trade should make both countries better off, but that's just capturing the dollars part of the equation. Poorer countries have worse law and enforcement in areas like environment and safety, and there are always firms that are going to exploit this: once those externalities are factored in, I think you could make the case that some countries have ended up worse off after opening their markets.
posted by xdvesper at 5:20 PM on July 21, 2010


Theoretically free trade enables countries to focus on where their comparative advantage lies. That way, everybody wins because everybody gets access to the cheapest goods and services.

The problem is that sometimes a country has no comparative advantage


The problem is that "free trade" is bullshit; a mirage; at best a delusion. In reality "free trade" is the rubric by which powerful countries demand weaker ones open themselves up to exploitation, while sheltering their own interests.
posted by rodgerd at 1:11 AM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


his motivation is kind of understandable

Yes, certainly, and creditable in itself. Many, in fact most politicians would still be saying they did the right thing, or the right thing in the circumstances, so the honesty is genuinely refreshing. But it would be even more creditable if the experience of inadvertently wrecking the country's agriculture made him a bit less sure of his ability and his right to reconstruct the country.

Clinton raised $9 billion from fifty-nine donors. The list of what must be rebuilt is weighty and long. Clinton ticks them down, one finger to the next. The federal workforce, never that strong to begin with. Schools — not just the ones that collapsed but a system of universal elementary education, which never existed. Infrastructure. Small-business credit.

"Then the health-care system needs to be built. I used to say rebuilt, but then I realized there really wasn't one before," he says. "Now I say built."

... "We'll have to rebuild the infrastructure," he says, as if reminding someone at the back of the room. "We'll have to rebuild the agriculture."


No-one would criticise work to help Haiti overcome its immediate problems, but that sounds worryingly grandiose. Perhaps I'm jaundiced, but I fear Haitian pride and independence being pulverised and a host of parasitic American contractors sweeping in to suck up the cash, distort the economy, and wipe out new/surviving local businesses.

I can't help thinking it would be better and more helpful if Clinton stayed at home and undertook the more difficult and less agreeable task of weaning American farmers off their subsidies.
posted by Phanx at 2:38 AM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am currently reading Travesty in Haiti where Tim Schwartz tells of his experience in Haiti.

According to Dr. Schwartz, the major problem is food aid, which has been used against the poor of Haiti. What was called "The American Plan" (or something like it, I don't have the book in front of me) was to create a Taiwan of the West, and to do so, the population had to be willing to work for very low wages. Part of that strategy was to ruin agriculture in Haiti by giving food away. The elite would steal the donated food, and sell it at market for less money than can be grown itself. My reading (I am far more the tin foil hat than Dr Schwartz), is that the arrival of donated food was timed to come during harvest, so the farmers couldn't make money even when crops were harvested.

The 'complex' article was good, but read Schwartz's book, it is both eye-opening, amusing and tragic.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 8:41 AM on July 28, 2010


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