Activity buzzes at a market in Haiti, where NAFTA and other free trade policies have deeply impacted local economies. An earthquake rocked the area on January 12, 2010. Photo by Justin Stumberg.
We can learn a lot about economics and solidarity from Haiti’s past and present. Historically, Haiti is so poor because ever since the 1791-1803 revolution that freed the slaves, the United States has helped bleed the country economically and politically. In the 19th century, the U.S. backed France’s demand that Haiti pay reparations for the freed slaves and refused to recognize the Republic of Haiti for fear that its own slaves would rebel. In the 20th century we repeatedly invaded the country militarily, supported despots like Papa Doc, and toppled popularly elected officials like Aristide.
In the last few years, misery has increased in Haiti because food self-sufficiency was destroyed in a move known locally as “the Plan of Death.” Haiti once grew its own rice. But in 1994 the IMF came in and ordered the government to cut its rice tariff from 35 per cent to three percent. Suddenly the market was flooded with rice grown in the U.S. by hugely subsidized farmers. Haiti's hundreds of thousands of rice farmers went bust and were driven to Port-au-Prince to provide cheap labor for foreign-owned sweatshops. It was an externally engineered, political-economic earthquake that made the natural earthquake of 2010 far more deadly.
Yet Bill Clinton, who is the UN special adviser for Haiti relief efforts, can’t wait to bring foreign investors back to Port-au-Prince to open sweatshops producing t-shirts and baseballs for export.
Local economies are especially needed worldwide at this time because they:
- Require less transportation over long distances and therefore slow down pollution and global warming;
- Combat the consumerism that is concerned only with gratifying our wants and not with the well-being of the producers;
- Encourage small businesses that need more workers;
- Create communities;
- Help us live more simply so that others can simply live;
- Improve our health and quality of life by reducing stress and giving us more control over our lives.
Since the early 1990s, the U.S. labor movement has opposed Bill Clinton’s NAFTA because “free trade” means exporting U.S. jobs to low wage countries. But it needs to do more to help American workers recognize the many benefits of the local economies that are now needed for our health and the Earth’s.
Since NAFTA was launched on January 1, 1994, more American jobs have gone overseas to cheap wage countries and the decline in private sector jobs has meant declining tax revenues and layoffs of public service workers. Moreover, because U.S. corn could be sold more cheaply than it could be produced in Mexico, millions of Mexican farmers have been put out of business and driven north to seek work.
According to Michael Shuman, author of The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition, that is why the time has come to redefine Globalization as Localization. If we really want to help poor countries, Shuman explains, it's far smarter to help them achieve the same level of local self-reliance we seek for ourselves.
Instead of exporting jobs and goods, we can create long-term partnerships between our communities, North and South, in which we help one another reorganize every element of our economies. As we in the North create community food systems, we might help partners in the South transform their food systems, away from the plantations and export crops and toward the cultivation of enough healthy fruits, vegetables, rice and beans to feed their own families. As we strengthen and spread our own local banks, credit unions, stock markets and mutual funds, we can help partners create these institutions as well, so that local savings everywhere increasingly support local housing, local education and local entrepreneurship. As we deploy new technologies to become more energy efficient, we can share our know-how with renewable resource innovators in the South.
The Capital Times (Wisconsin), Nov. 5, 2009.
This is the form that Solidarity needs to and can take in the 21st century.
Grace Lee Boggs has been an activist for more than 60 years and is the author of the autobiography Living for Change.
More from Grace Boggs' blog.