“We Made a Devil’s Bargain”: Fmr. President Clinton Apologizes for Trade Policies that Destroyed Haitian Rice Farming

From Democracy Now!, April 1st, 2009.  Check out Democracy Now! for more great coverage of Haiti and international economic news.

President Bill Clinton, now the UN Special Envoy to Haiti, publicly apologized last month for forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on imported, subsidized US rice during his time in office. The policy wiped out Haitian rice farming and seriously damaged Haiti’s ability to be self-sufficient. On Wednesday, journalist Kim Ives of Haiti Liberté questioned Clinton about his change of heart and his stance on the return of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

AMY GOODMAN: Kim Ives, I wanted to ask you about former President Bill Clinton, now the UN special envoy to Haiti. Last month he publicly apologized for forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on imported subsidized US rice during his time in office. The policy wiped out Haitian rice farming and seriously damaged Haiti’s ability to be self-sufficient. Well, Clinton apologized at a hearing last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    BILL CLINTON: Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.

AMY GOODMAN: That was former President Bill Clinton speaking last month. Well, on Wednesday, Kim Ives asked Bill Clinton about his change of heart at the donors conference.

    KIM IVES: But what about the change in your thinking to have you issue your apology the other day about the food policies?

    BILL CLINTON: Oh, I just think that, you know, there’s a movement all around the world now. It was first—I first saw Bob Zoellick say the same thing, the head of the World Bank, where he said, you know, starting in 1981, the wealthy agricultural producing countries genuinely believed that they and the emerging agricultural powers in Brazil and Argentina, which are the only two places that have, parenthetically, increased wheat yields per acre, grain yields per acre in the last decade, because they’re the only places with more than twenty feet of topsoil, that they really believed for twenty years that if you moved agricultural production there and then facilitated its introduction into poorer places, you would free those places to get aid to skip agricultural development and go straight into an industrial era.

    And it’s failed everywhere it’s been tried. And you just can’t take the food chain out of production. And it also undermines a lot of the culture, the fabric of life, the sense of self-determination. And I have been involved for several years in agricultural products, principally in Rwanda, Malawi, other places in Africa, and now increasingly in Latin America, and I see this.

    So we genuinely thought we were helping Haiti when we restored President Aristide, made a commitment to help rebuild the infrastructure through the Army Corps of Engineers there, and do a lot of other things. And we made this devil’s bargain on rice. And it wasn’t the right thing to do. We should have continued to work to help them be self-sufficient in agriculture. And we—that’s a lot of what we’re doing now. We’re thinking about how can we get the coffee production up, how can we get other kinds of—the mango production up—we had an announcement on that yesterday—the avocados, lots of other things. And so—

    KIM IVES: What about the return of Aristide, which has been asked for by demonstrations even right across the street today?

    BILL CLINTON: Well, that’s not in my purview. That’s up to the Haitians, including those that aren’t demonstrating.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Clinton being questioned by Kim Ives. Kim Ives in the studios with us, along with Roger Leduc, who is a radio host and activist with KAKOLA, the Haitian Coalition to Support the Struggle in Haiti. Juan?

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Kim, that repudiation by Clinton of his previous policies is really a stunning statement, because, in effect, he is in large part renouncing even NAFTA, even though he hasn’t said it, because obviously NAFTA had a major impact on agriculture in Mexico, where millions of people were thrown off their farms because they couldn’t compete with American corn flooding the country. Your sense of whether the possibility of policies like this actually being implemented?

KIM IVES: Well, that’s just it, Juan. I think it’s a lot of bluff. We have to remember, we’re not in the age of Bush anymore, with all the chest pounding and, you know, America first and capitalism first. This is Slick Willie, and they come with the message. They know the sensitivity of the Haitian community—I can say of the progressive American community, too—to all these maneuvers. And so they know the language. We hear the word “solidarity.” We hear the word “sovereignty.” We hear the word—we hear all the right words. But once again, to me, it’s total smoke.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Roger, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the role of the Haitian government, you mentioned that obviously the government had failed in the early—in the aftermath. There have been calls, for instance, for some transparency in what happened to the original aid that came into the country. Your sense of your faith in the ability of the Haitian government to be a major partner in the distribution and the execution of this aid?

ROGER LEDUC: There is no faith at all. What I was referring to was the principle of recognizing a government that was voted in by the people of Haiti, even though the government failed miserably, not only just in terms of its response to the disaster, but even before that. What Préval applied himself to do was to gather the political class and put them in his pocket and then deliver it to the international community, mostly the United States government, so they could do whatever they needed to do with Haiti.

With the disaster, the program that they already had in mind to capture Haiti’s state, can be accelerated. If they were going to do it in ten years, this disaster is really a boon, a godsend, for everybody, actually, for the reactionary, for the imperial powers, and also for Haitian progressives who want to take the opportunity to do something and establish public forums throughout Haiti and build a national popular grassroots movement to say, “Hey, we’re here, and we need to be involved. We must be involved. This is our country. And no reconstruction of Haiti, no building of Haiti, can be done without us.”

This is the key moment here. After the carnival of conferences and the beautiful show of universal support, now this is serious business. Are we going to let them take hold of our country for thirty, forty years, as they’ve done since 1915? Or are we going to step up to the plate and, you know, go through the usual nonsense, secondary contradictions, that we have among us and really build a national front and do the right thing?

Posted in Trade Justice Blog Posts.

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