The American Rice Scandal and Haiti

COHA Research Associate Leah Chavla reports on the impact of American rice export policies on Haiti’s economy. The article offers a lengthy and fascinating examination of an issue that has perplexed readers. It is too long to reproduce here, but here are the opening paragraphs, with a link to the full article below.

Did President Clinton and other recent White House tenants condemn Haiti to a future of endemic poverty through a self-serving U.S. rice export policy? An examination of Haiti’s economic liberalization strategies of the 1980s and 1990s indicates that the answer is “yes.”

Haiti’s economic liberalization began in the early 1980s as a result of a Reagan Administration initiative. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), among other agencies, encouraged Haiti to start exporting manufactured and processed agricultural products, in tandem with emphasizing the need to import grain staples on the international market. In 1983, under Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), there was a vast increase in the amount of subsidized food, like rice, began to be exported to Haiti by U.S. agro-industries. Moreover, with the help of CBI provisions, U.S. experts worked to disassemble Haiti’s rural economy, even though USAID officials recognized that such a move could increase poverty and contribute to a decline in average Haitian income and health standards.

During the 1980s, USAID workers along with industrialists and large landholders dedicated themselves to create agro-processing facilities while simultaneously promoting the release of surplus subsidized U.S. agricultural products onto the Haitian market. The main goal of these restructuring exercises was to develop Haiti’s cities into exporting bases (i.e. manufacturing sites for American companies, particularly textiles). This restructuring program, in conjunction with the dismantling of the island’s rural economy, spurred massive migration of former Haitian farmers from the countryside to urban centers. However, upon their arrival, it quickly became apparent that there were not sufficient tangible opportunities available.. Seemingly, this imbalance was created by design: Haiti otherwise would lack the comparative advantage in any market. So, by spurring mass migration to the cities, workers would have to vie for even the least desirable jobs, thus creating an ideal situation in which workers would readily be vulnerable to exploitation. The abundance of dirt-cheap labor was and still is Haiti’s most reliable “comparative advantage,” and the process soon saw Haiti serving as an export platform for island rice grown by foreign agro industry that was too expensive for domestic consumption.

Washington’s reconstruction of the Haitian economy, as promoted by USAID, still did not witness a take off. In part, the plan failed due to the political instability that Haiti has experienced for most of its modern history. The turbulent and elite-controlled economic atmosphere of the small island state, which shares a border with the Dominican Republic, has been further compounded by its chronically endemic poverty, as well as soaring rates of unemployment. As Haiti was pushed to open its markets (by means of drastically reducing its import tariffs or as a result of U.S. pressure, eliminating them altogether), the U.S.-based American Rice Corporation pounced on the opportunity to penetrate Haiti’s newly unprotected rice market. The subsequent invasion of U.S.-produced rice began a new cycle of foreign “intervention” in Haiti, similar to previous involvement elsewhere in Latin America, was made possible by such U.S. firms as the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands International). Only this time, the increasingly ubiquitous foreign presence in Haiti began to push too far, all but guaranteeing the continued deterioration of domestic rice products and the poverty to which it was linked.
For the full (highly recommended) article go to

Image: Haitian artist Rejin Ley’s Just Rice. Part of a wonderful series you can see at

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