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How American Power Works in Haiti

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I’ve long been fascinated with how the American government exerts power on the ground. We focus on the big events for obvious reasons, but I think you can make a legitimate argument that the full force of American authority comes through behind the scenes.

An anecdotal example: A couple of years I ago I had dinner with a priest who was once the Franciscan representative to the United Nations. He had long experience in Bolivia and was friends with the Bolivian ambassador to the UN. According to priest, the Bolivian rep was in a meeting when news came out about Ariel Sharon’s provocation to the Palestinians that led to the Second Intifada. Instantly, UN delegates voted to condemn the action. That evening, this priest called up his friend’s office to give him support for his vote. But the Bolivian delegate had already been fired. The State Department had called Bolivian president and puppet of globalization Hugo Banzer (who had earlier that year privatized the Cochabamba water system and sold it to Bechtel, leading to massive protests that eventually helped bring Evo Morales to power in 2006) and ordered Banzer to get rid of him. The Bolivians complied immediately. Like within an hour.

This kind of behind the scenes power I’d argue causes, at least in aggregate, as much resentment toward the American government as giant screw ups like the Iraq War, the drone bombing of Afghani and Pakistani civilians, or awkward attempts to overthrow Hugo Chavez. But how this all goes down rarely comes to light.

Here’s an example in Haiti that came out in a Wikileaks cable. In 2009, the Haitian government passed an increase in the minimum wage, from 24 cents an hour to 61 cents an hour. US apparel companies flipped their lids. Many apparel companies have factories in Haiti and pay them nearly slave wages. These companies, including Haines and Levi-Strauss pressured the State Department. After the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti went and talked to the president, the Haitian government created an exception for American textile companies of a $3 a day minimum wage, which for an 8 hour day works out to something like 37 cents an hour.

2 major points about this. First, why would the United States do this? I know that one role of the American government is to facilitate good international business conditions for American companies. But does such a move promote stability in the Caribbean for the long term? When the Haitian earthquake took place, Americans poured millions in donations into the country. For an international story in an impoverished nation, the earthquake story stayed in the media for quite a long time. But if we want to help the Haitians, allow them to build a stable society, and bring them closer to something more than extreme poverty, why would the United States support decimating a 61 cent an hour minimum wage? Doesn’t that lead to more instability in the nation, more refugees fleeing to the United States and other nations, more international problems? Stupid, short-sighted, and immoral. Not that the apparel companies care about any of these things.

Second, even a lot of progressives seem to talk of globalization as this unstoppable trend with a self-powering propulsion engine pushing it forward ever faster. How can you put the genie back in the bottle, they say. There’s of course some truth to this. But neoliberal globalization is also a series of discrete decisions made by individuals, bureaucracies, organizations, and governments. The U.S. government could very easily tell the apparel companies that they will not use pressure to push down the minimum wage. It could enact policies to protect American workers. It could pressure corporations to enact decent labor and environmental policies when they do build a factory abroad. It could do any number of things to make the increasingly globalized world a better place.

Instead it forces Haitians into continued extreme poverty.

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