‘Eating power’ and the oligopolisation of the Haitian food economy

15 September 2016

Merisa Thompson - Institute for Gender and Development Studies, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad and Tobago

As one of the world’s poorest countries, the inequities in Haiti’s local food economy are deeply rooted in its troubled history and its elite-dominated political economy

‘Nothing prepares you for Haiti’. At the closing plenary of the recent Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) Conference, the first time the conference has been held there since the CSA’s inception in 1975, Trinidadian activist and journalist, Attillah Springer, summed up the mood of attendees, many of whom, like me, were visiting Haiti for the first time. Springer was right: Haiti is a desperately poor country, in the midst of a constitutional crisis, where many people go hungry – and the structure of the local food economy is a major factor for this.

Haiti is one of the largest and most populous countries in the Caribbean, nearing 11 million inhabitants; it is also one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of US$824 in 2014. Two-thirds of the population lives on less than $2 per day.  However, average food prices for some products can be as much as 35 to 77 per cent higher than in other countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Haitians who do not grow their food often therefore cannot afford to buy it.  Furthermore, having once produced most of the country’s food, Haitian agriculture’s economic contribution is declining, and Haiti now imports over 50 per cent of what it consumes, which causes further erosion of local production.

So: what are the reasons for this? Do they link to Haiti’s ongoing constitutional crisis and, if so, how?

Declining levels of food production in Haiti have been influenced by many factors, including vulnerability to natural disasters, deforestation, flooding, drought, low levels of technological innovation, poor infrastructure, low production and issues of land tenure. However, according to Fritz-Alphonse Jean, a prominent Haitian economist, once governor of the Haitian Central Bank, and most recently acting Prime Minister as part of the 120-day provisional government put in place after President Michel Martelly stepped down in February 2016, in addition to these technical issues the major factor is the structure of the market and the continued neoliberalisation of Haiti’s economy.

In his plenary presentation, as part of the ‘food sovereignty, agriculture and economic sustainability in Haiti’ panel at CSA, Jean argued that ‘the structure of the market is the ultimate handicap to reaching sustainable development’. And for Haiti, the structure of the market is intimately linked to what Jean calls ‘social networks of accumulation’ whereby the political and economic elite, who have a vested interest in keeping power, control the system of distribution.  Therefore, a network of operators effectively reflective of the political-economic order that has evolved since the Haitian Revolution continues to benefit from Haiti’s on-going instability.

Haiti was the first black nation whose slaves successfully overthrew their colonial rulers between 1791 and 1804, but since then it has never managed to get onto an even keel. After the slave uprising, Haiti’s prospects were marred by the crippling debt it was forced to pay France in return for freedom that it only finished paying back in 1947. It has also been hampered by gross inequality with its Caribbean neighbours, particularly the Dominican Republic with which it shares the island of Hispaniola.  These inequities have been exacerbated by the looming dominance of the US (which first occupied Haiti from 1915-1934), by US and French support for the Duvalier dictatorships, the overthrow of Aristide and a range of unfair trade deals that have continued to erode its sovereignty.  More recently, the earthquake in 2010, combined with the subsequent (and highly controversial) UN ‘stabilisation’ mission, served to perpetuate these trends. Like the rest of the Caribbean, echoes of the country’s troubled history are found in present-day control over the economy, to which food and agriculture are central.

Recent World Bank research on Haiti has pointed to strong links between the economic elite, and their preference to ‘invest in markets that offered opportunities for gaining monopoly positions’. With declining agricultural prospects, distribution and trade have come to offer the most lucrative opportunities for wealth creation for local elites.  Furthermore, as another World Bank report suggests, ‘from the beginning of the twentieth century, autocratic leaders in Haiti have traded political support from the elite for economic advantages to this elite’. This has had nefarious results, with high levels of market concentration and monopolies across all types of goods.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, liberalisation has seen tariffs dismantled, leading to the flooding of imported goods onto the market. Once self-sufficient in rice, after tariffs were reduced in 1994-5 from 50 per cent to 3 per cent Haiti now imports 80 per cent of its rice needs.  In one of Bill Clinton’s recent admissions (what appears to be becoming an ever-more regular occurrence with regards to Haiti), he conceded, apologetically, that the importation of subsidised US rice in the 1990s had been a mistake and a ‘devil’s bargain’ that destroyed Haiti’s rice industry. In addition, tariffs were reduced to less than 5 per cent for many other products, such as wheat, corn, sugar, milk, pork and chicken, with comparable consequences.  As with other Caribbean countries where commerce trumps production – i.e. where cheap imports, subsidised in their country of origin, such as poultry and dairy, flood local markets – neoliberal trade policies have worked to decimate local agriculture and erode national sovereignty.

With wealth creation often linked to monopolisation, the importance of market forces, competition and the interests of the local elite cannot be understated. The increased importation of food is inextricably linked to the power and position of the Haitian political and economic elite, which is in turn integrated ever more closely into international corporate and distribution networks.  The World Bank’s recent analysis finds significant oligopolisation in Haitian food markets, with 45.5 per cent of the most important food and beverage consumer basket items found to be highly concentrated (such as, edible oil, bread, goat meat, beef, fresh fish, banana, corn and milk), 45.5 per cent to be moderately concentrated (such as, rice, chicken, refined, raw sugar and cola), and only 9 per cent not concentrated (such as, dry peas and corn).  The dumping of US surplus agricultural produce has continued to exacerbate these problems, for example, the post-earthquake shipments of USAID rice and, most recently, the US plan to ship peanuts as aid to feed Haitian children.

As political scientist Robert Fatton notes, the political and economic elite in Haiti is reluctant to see any change in the current distribution of wealth and power: what Haitians call ‘eating power’ or growing fat on power at the expense of everyone else. The opening-up of the economy to cheap subsidised foods has continued in recent years.  When running for president in 2011, Michel Martelly, heavily supported by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the US, ran under the moniker ‘open for business’. Under his watch, the country’s first free-trade agricultural zone – a large-scale banana plantation – was created in public-private partnership between the Haitian government and agricultural entrepreneur Jovenel Moïse – widely known as ‘banana man’ – who, incidentally, was also chosen by Martelly to run as his successor in the fraudulent October 2015 elections. The project is thought to have displaced up to 800 peasant farmers, thereby destroying domestic production in a hungry nation in favour of exports for profit and elite enrichment.

With elite actors continuing to ‘grow fat on power’ whilst most Haitians are unable to afford food, the revival of domestic production and the breaking of the monopolisation of food import and distribution networks by the local political-economic elite remain central – and very difficult – problems that need to be tackled by whoever emerges in charge of the country after the political crisis. Addressing the problem of ‘eating power’ is central to the resolution of Haitian’s constitutional crisis.  However, as Haiti’s history shows only too clearly, these deep-seated tendencies are likely to endure and perpetuate the country’s underdevelopment.

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