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A Rare Piece of Televised Journalism

May 21, 2010

Here’s a segment from a program of PBS Newshour earlier this week:

It’s about how NGOs oriented in the right way, i.e., as local efforts and not as outside or top-down interventions, can be effective in feeding thousands of people, during extreme disasters, circumventing corrupt government, using local agriculture, working to restore that local agriculture, and providing meaningful employment. Personally, I’ve always been interested in particular operations that combine feeding people through local means and growing those local means through locally administered agriculture. That is, I have an image of the economy as structured in tiers of the sectors which are most essential to people’s well-being, starting with agriculture as the most essential, extending through healthcare, education, manufacturing and finally leading to investment banking as the least essential.

But maybe what made this a remarkable piece compared to almost everything else one might have seen on TV about Haiti is that it offers us an unvarnished, albeit brief, glimpse behind the image of U.S. political and economic  intervention into the affairs of Haiti. Essentially, it correctly places blame for the decimation of Haiti’s once sustentative agricultural sector on willful global economic manipulations under the banner of “free trade”. To this end, it quotes Bill Clinton’s later admissions about these manipulations:

It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people.

What he’s speaking about is the dumping of subsidized U.S. rice on the Haitian market. And this, as any thorough economist could have predicted at the time, would destroy Haitian rice production, as it did. But there is even more deceit in Clinton’s picture. If one looks at the U.S. farming sector in the same time period, while it has not been beaten back to the extent that Haiti’s has been, it also has not fared well (at least not from the perspective of employed and small-scale farmers). Under the same policies of “free trade” used to justify the U.S. and its allies’ economic conquests in Haiti, the number of farmers employed in the U.S. has decreased, while corporate giants that could profit more by cheaper production elsewhere ate up much of the industry and excreted satisfying profits for big investors.

The other thing that Clinton leaves out of his weak and late admission is the other interventions the U.S. was involved in in Haiti and of which rice dumping was only one tendrel. These interventions ranged from C.I.A. plotting with Haitian military factions to undermine attempts at egalitarian economic reform in the country, thus continuing the U.S. military’s long history of wielding its power, sometimes more overtly, as in the 1915-1934 occupation of Haiti, and sometimes more covertly, as in the last two military coup detats, to protect U.S corporate interests. The intended consequences of all of this, as part of securing new one-sided markets, has been a distabilization of Haitian subsistence livelihoods in exchange for economic “modernization”, i.e., rather than performing self-sustaining work in the field, people would be moved into low cost industrial manufacturing in sweatshop factories.

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