amy wilentz

A New Kind of Plantation

On Tuesday, Sae-A, South Korea’s premier clothing manufacturer, opened its new plant in Caracol, in the north of Haiti, with great fanfare. Present were both Clintons (the kinder, gentler Mama and Papa Doc of today’s Haiti) as well as the actual president of Haiti, Michel Martelly, and Luis Moreno, the head of the Inter-American Development Bank. The US Embassy sent representatives, as well. Richard Branson, international man of  finance, was there, too, as an investor in the project. Along for the ride, perhaps in Branson’s or Clinton’s private jets, were more of the usual suspects (usual for Haiti after the earthquake, that is): Sean Penn, Ben Stiller, and Donna Karan — lending their celebrity wattage to this dubious project. These last should know better and think deeper: Haiti’s not a charity party, a celebrity fundraiser? Or is it?

The Caracol project is the grand finale of Bill Clinton’s American Plan for Haiti. He began by supporting the George Bush program of dumping subsidized surplus U.S. rice into the Haitian market. The rice so dumped undercut Haitian rice prices, and effectively destroyed Haitian cultivation of the national carbohydrate staple. In turn, the destruction wrought on rice cultivation by “Miami Rice” forced thousands of Haitians to abandon the countryside and move to the cities seeking to participate in Haiti’s strained cash economy. There they were, two decades later, waiting to be crushed when the January 2010 earthquake destroyed Port-au-Prince and its outlying suburbs.

Beyond this, Bill Clinton and the US Secretary of State have been plumping to use funds raised for post-earthquake reconstruction to lure companies like Sae-A to Haiti. Counting on Haitians having no other resources and no ability to make money in agriculture, the Clintons — who no doubt think of themselves as great Haiti boosters and friends of the Haitian person in the street — have been pimping the low-wage Haitian worker to firms like Sae-A, and in fact to Sae-A itself, for years. 

At yesterday’s ceremony, Hillary Clinton thanked Sae-A for agreeing to establish a maquiladora in troubled Haiti. The company, she said “took a decision that was something of a risk, never having worked in Haiti before, after a tremendous natural disaster that was so devastating.”

But as the Center for Economic Policy and Research, and many others, have been pointing out for almost a year, Sae-A was hardly taking a risk when it agreed to the Haiti deal. As The New York Times reported in July, the land on which the new plant has been built was donated free of charge to Sae-A by the Haitian government, the IDB paid  for construction and infrastructure (around $100 million), and the US paid another $124 million to help out with roads, power, and something called “housing services.”  Are these, one wonders, quarters for the slaves (oh, sorry, I meant housing for the workers) or great-houses for the masters (oh, sorry, I mean condos for the bosses)?

Not only Sae-A but others will be part of the industrial park of which Sae-A is the anchor. The only tax that will be levied by the Haitian state on Sae-A and other tenants will be docking fees for the new dock that has been built in the north, estimated at about $17,500 per year — maybe the Government of Haiti can use that money (which is the equivalent of about a half tuition for one American child’s private school year) to fix education in Haiti.

In order to tempt Sae-A to Haiti, Secretary Clinton worked to provide the company with “duty-free access to the United States, abundant cheap labor, factory sheds, a power plant, a new port and an expatriate residence outfitted with special kimchi refrigerators,” according to Deborah Sontag of The New York Times (trust Sontag to find the detail that tells the whole story). The contract with Sae-A is contingent on Haiti providing, according to the Memo of Understanding among Sae-A and its international backers, “adequate infrastructure, labor force, labor policies, favorable access to export markets…” In recent years, Sae-A has abandoned its projects in both Guatemala and Nicaragua as labor costs have gone up or preferential treatment has ended. Like other international textile companies, it engages in what CEPR  calls “a race to the bottom.” Haiti’s the bottom right now. And amazingly, Caracol and Sae-A are the flagship of the Clintons’ plan for Haiti’s reconstruction. Warning to Haitian workers at Caracol: don’t organize; don’t complain. 

You just have to wonder whether building an industrial park in a faraway and inaccessible area of Haiti’s countryside is a proper expense of funding energies initially targeted for reconstructing the country post quake. Remember, more than half a million people are still homeless and living in camps in and around Port-au-Prince because their homes were destroyed almost three years ago. The people who will be working at Caracol have no connection to the earthquake and its destruction other than living in the same country. It’s as if funds raised for those made ill in the aftermath of 9/11 were spent on building a new cancer hospital in Boise.

Really the Caracol project has nothing to do with reconstruction and nothing to do with good policies for Haiti, unless you think turning Haiti into a sweatshop (modern day version of a plantation) is a great idea. Or unless you think that in the global economy, there is no other possibility for Haiti. Clearly the people who put together this deal think of Haiti as a hopeless place  where they wouldn’t want their children to grow up — a place where a sweatshop job should be seen as a golden opportunity. I kept thinking of Chelsea Clinton in front seats at the Paris fashion shows as I looked at pictures of her mother oohing and aahing over a Sae-A-sewn t-shirt.

The real Papa Doc tried sweatshops early on to anchor new slums that he had had built in order to get the poor out of the nicer parts of the capital. It worked for a while. But it can safely be said that these unbelievably low-paying jobs (about $3 a day) never lift the next generation out of poverty, and never benefit the country in which the plants are based. They’re not meant to do that, actually. These jobs are meant, globally, to provide cheap t-shirts to the world, and coincidentally they create future generations of sweatshop workers who can provide cheap t-shirts to the world; workers who, by the way, can only buy those cheap t-shirts second-hand when they arrive in Haiti’s ports in bales after having been worn by people in developed countries. The slogan for the Caracol project is “A New Day in Haiti,” but in fact it’s a very worn out and old day in Haiti. 

One other thing and then I’ll stop: It’s likely that this project will utterly destroy the area in which it has been plopped, a fairly pristine, untouched, unspoiled part of the country with some clean water sources. Caracol will become a population magnet in the area; more farms abandoned, more urban dwelling, more pollution, waste, etc. More than that, the location is a good one for pursuing profit unseen by the rest of the world. I can only guess when is the next time either Clinton will show up at Caracol: five year anniversary, ten-year anniversary? Never? The international media is also not known for its love of long dangerous drives to outlying districts where the only known amenity is a kimchi fridge. I don’t see CNN setting up a studio and doing long reports on working conditions in remote Haiti, even though the project was funded partly by the US taxpayer.

Should I propose an alternative plan for Haiti and Haitian post-earthquake reconstruction?

Here’s the Amy Plan (offered with humble admission that I know very little about planning, development, economics, business, etc): Build cheap seismically bolted Haitian-style housing for homeless Port-au-Princiens. Build it in Port-au-Prince where people want to live or used to live. Meanwhile, start funding Haiti’s other eight  departments. Put in decent government infrastructure in the outlying areas: community halls, etc. Create scholarships and other programs to attract Haitians from the diaspora back to teach for a certain period in a new national educational system all over the country. Extend the power grid to the outlying countryside and to the provincial towns (duh). Help support Internet providers in improving national infrastructure, and get thousands of cheap computers to Haitian families and schools.

And then fund agriculture like crazy without dumping our excess into it or forcing Haitians to plant Monsanto crops. Offer land plans in the countryside and a year’s worth of agricultural subsidies to Haitians who were financially ruined by the earthquake. Set up a national recycling system and give Haitians decent jobs in it. Support eco and truly socially responsible tourism (i.e. no Trump resorts and their like). Tax international mining companies at a level consonant with the profit they’ll be taking out of the country. Collect taxes from business and import-export.

Support Haiti’s justice system.

All of this would be a better use of funds and would create more jobs in the long run and maybe even in the short run than this ugly deal with a known exploiter of the poorest of the poor in the global economy.

  1. amywilentz posted this