Bending without Breaking: Aristide Returns

Article excerpt

Bending without Breaking: Aristide Returns

Catherine Orenstein

Catherine Orenstein is a New York-based journalist. She has made numerous trips to Haiti since 1990. In 1995 she was a member of the United Nations human rights observer mission to Haiti.

Eyes of the Heart, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Edited by Laura Flynn. Common Courage Press, 2000.

In the twenty-first century, the globe has never been richer--or poorer. Today the combined income of thirty-two of the world's most heavily indebted countries is roughly equal to that of the world's richest man, Bill Gates. Their present value of debt to GNP is higher than 80 percent. As the gap between prosperous and poor nations grows, the less fortunate are increasingly beholden to wealthy benefactors for their room and board--the foreign aid that constitutes the budgetary bulk of many third world nations. In exchange they are obliged to carry out the chores and remedies that the world's lenders dictate: privatization, deregulation, structural adjustment, and the other tenets of the free market. These policies are supposed to offer them a better chance in life. Nonetheless, the numbers of the world's poor are rapidly growing.

Thus we face a crisis of imagination, says Haiti's former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, "so profound that the only measure of value is profit, the only measure of human progress is economic growth." In his new book, Eyes of the Heart, Aristide offers a critique of the global economy, and questions the wisdom of its masters, from the point of view of those who suffer under it. Adapted from speeches given since he handed over the presidency to Rene Garcia Preval in 1996, Eyes of the Heart alternates between historical anecdote and a series of parables from the poorest and smallest of Haiti's citizens, which is to say the poorest and smallest citizens of the world. They remind him, and us, of the consequences of measuring value only in dollars.

In the 1980s, Aristide tells us, Haiti opened its markets in accordance with free trade policies prescribed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and lifted its tariffs on imported rice. At the same time the United States government increased subsidies to its own rice industry. American rice flooded the Haitian market, washing out the Haitian peasant farmer in a matter of a few years. While in 1986 Haiti imported 7,000 tons of rice, by the 1990s the country was importing hundreds of thousands of tons of rice, the main staple food of the country. As import prices then began to rise, Haiti's peasants found themselves at the mercy of the market. Farmers fled the countryside. The longer-term results of the World Bank's rice experiment in Haiti soon became evident: urbanization; the erosion of food security; and increased dependency on foreign donors. Thus Haiti learned, says Aristide, "that for poor countries free trade is not so free, or so fair."

Opponents of the World Bank and IMF policies in Haiti called them a "death plan." Yet, with 60 percent of the national budget already dependent on foreign aid, can Haiti afford to defy the world's lenders? It is a choice, Aristide says, between death and death. Or is it? Throughout Eyes, children provide a constant reminder of the urgency of escaping that catch-22--and a key to the means.

Four-year-old Florence visits Aristide's house, where she sees a pool for the first time in her life. The word "pool" is beyond her experience. She calls it a "bucket." So Aristide teases her: Is it big, or small? To which Florence replies, "It is beautiful." In another anecdote, two Americans teach English at Lafami Selavi, the home for street children that Aristide founded in 1986. "Give me water," they teach the children. But when they get to Bertony, he says, "Give me chocolate!" The foreigners want to know why he did not ask for water. Bertony replies, "Who told you I was thirsty?" Like Bertony and Florence, Haiti has also been taught what questions to ask, what answers to give. …