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Aristide government hosts neo-liberal strategists

From This Week in Haiti,
Vol. 13, no. 11, 7-13 June 1995

After trying for two decades to reform Haiti into a modern neo-colony, foreign investors are finally rubbing their hands while they watch the Haitian government capitulate to the demands of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Among those welcoming Haiti into the fold of sheepish nations was the head of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America (AACCLA), a group representing more than 16,500 company and individual members. Latin America has been a 'hot investment' market during the 1990s, as governments throughout the region have implemented broad liberalization policies aimed at both attracting new investments as well as helping domestic companies become globally competitive, said Jaak Rannik, the AACCLA president, in a May 26 press release. Even Haiti has bought into the model.

Of course, Rannik is referring to the embrace of neo-liberalism by the Haitian government, not the Haitian people. Nevertheless, foreign businessmen are trying to convince Haitian workers that they have to make themselves more competitive. In essence, Haitians are being told that their only hope for the future is to be cheaper laborers than anybody else on the planet. (The minimum wage is supposed to be raised from 15 to 36 gourdes -- about $2.50 -- which is still less than the $2.84 which prevailed during Haiti's assembly industry heyday in the early 1980's). Competitiveness was the principal theme of two notable business meetings in Haiti last month.

The first gathering, held May 11 and 12, was of the Consultative Group -- the World Bank-led assemblage of international organizations such as the European Union and USAID which are trying to dictate the economic future of Haiti. Their message was the tired old prescription of structural adjustment which has brought misery to millions of people around the world -- privatization, price increases on basic goods, production for export, low wages, and the elimination of tariffs. In other words, more poverty for Haiti.

During the meeting, the Haitian government obliquely complained that money was not coming fast enough. The disbursement of funds is often done so slowly that it forces the national institutions to rely on their national resources, which are meager, whined Haitian Prime Minister Smarck Michel at the meeting.

But, the Consultative Group felt, inversely, that the money flow was too fast. The disbursement of money was done in a more rapid way here than elsewhere, countered Marc Schneider of the USAID, citing as examples Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Panama. We can all look at ways to accelerate our own internal procedures, he admonished the Haitian government. But he also kept dangling the carrot: You're going to see the first project disbursements very soon.

The second meeting was a little more nuanced. Organized by President Aristide and misleadingly entitled A Haitian Effort to Take Charge of our Economic Future, 400 business people from Haiti and the diaspora gathered in Port-au-Prince from May 15 - 17 at the Economic Symposium to hear the Haitian government promise that it would leave economic affairs to the expertise of the private sector. In fact, the meeting was little different in substance than two previous Haiti Government/Business Partnership Conferences held in July 1993 and November 1994. The neo-liberal Minister of Finance Marie Michelle Rey reaffirmed her faith in free enterprise, the liberalization of the economy and competition, and stressed again the need to attract capital to promote production, according to the bi-weekly newsletter, Haiti Info.

The business meetings were held, however, in a climate of growing protest. Public school teachers, backed by their students, launched strikes and demonstrations in April and early May to demand a 300% pay increase to compensate for the dramatic plunge of the gourde in recent years. The government, led by Education Minister Emmanuel Buteau, offered 30%. Some demonstrations turned violent in the middle of Port-au-Prince when public school students tried to get support from those in private schools. (UN troops, who refuse to police the country when Macoutes are involved, fired tear gas at student demonstrators.) Then President Aristide intervened. The two unions who led the struggle -- Union Nationale des Normaliens d'Haiti (UNNOH) and the Corps National des Evaluateurs Haitiens (CONEH) -- accepted a 120 percent salary increase. Aristide's bypassing of (Education Minister) Buteau, noted the bi-monthly Haiti Info, is an example of the way the government is confronting issues where the population's demands are not being met: the president intervenes personally, thus gaining political mileage and further propagating the myth that all unpopular policies are not his responsibility, but the fault of those around him.