In the wake of this year's many disasters, the flow of bad news coming out Haiti has slowed to a trickle. Last week actually brought some good news that the 2010 quake's death toll might actually be much lower than reported. And then WikiLeaks swoops in with with 1,918 documents from a seven-year period starting 10 months before the coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on February 29, 2004 and ending six weeks after the January 12, 2010 earthquake. In partnership with WikiLeaks, The Nation and the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté are publishing a series of stories that so far highlight how America has been micromanaging and manhandling the Haitian government into aligning their policies with U.S. interests. It is, of course, not news that the United States bullies allies into doing what she wants, but the first couple of scoops are worth itemizing.
America Used Haiti as a Pawn in an Oil War Against Venezuela
René Préval took power after Aristide's ousting and immediately visited the United States to bolster confidence in the two nations' diplomatic relations. According to a March 26, 2006 cable written by U.S. Ambassador Janet Sanderson, Préval wanted "to bury once and for all the suspicion in Haiti that the United States is wary of him," wary because of Préval's ties to Cuba and Venezuela. Sanderson also said that Préval "stressed to the Embassy that he will manage relations with Cuba and Venezuela solely for the benefit of the Haitian people, and not based on any ideological affinity toward those governments." But American behavior behind the scenes would show how "wary" may have been too gentle a word.
Préval quickly dashed his own hopes for a strong relationship with his northern allies by negotiating a deal with the Venezuelan-based oil alliance PetroCaribe. Recognizing how the deal made sense both for Haiti's strapped budget and poverty-stricken people--the Haitian government "would save USD 100 million per year from the delayed payments" by American embassy estimates--the United States stonewalled the deal for years to come. American officials apparently helped to enlist Chevron and ExxonMobil, the only U.S. oil companies operating in Haiti, to block their shipments and refuse to transport PetroCaribe oil, a necessary requirement for Haiti to sign the deal. Despite the American ambassador's recognizing Haiti's lack of interest in anti-American politics--"At no time has Preval given any indication that he is interested in associating Haiti with Chavez’s broader ‘revolutionary agenda,'" she wrote in one cable--Sanderson suggested that the U.S. "convey our discontent with Preval's actions at the highest possible level when he next visits Washington" after Préval visited Venezuela to negotiate a related energy deal that would bring electricity to more homes and save the Haitian people millions.
Chevron ultimately signed the PetroCaribe deal in early 2008, despite U.S. protests, but only after two years of negotiations potentially watered down the benefit to Haiti. However, as The Nation points out, "The extraordinary story that the Haiti WikiLeaks cables tell of the US Embassy’s campaign against PetroCaribe--which provides such obvious benefits for Haiti--lays bare the real priorities of 'Haiti's most important and reliable bi-lateral partner,' as Sanderson calls the United States."
America Wanted to Keep Haiti's Minimum Wage at 24¢ an Hour
Préval's campaign to raise the nation's minimum wage caught the attention of the Obama administration. The bump 37¢ bump seems small by American standards, but considering it would raise wages by 150 percent--from 24¢ and hour to 61¢ an hour--the new rule stood to dramatically affect the lives of poor Haitians. However, it would also dramatically affect the bottom line of American companies, like Hanes and Levi Strauss who contracted labor in Haiti to sew their clothes. The companies insisted on capping the wage increase at 7¢ an hour, and the U.S. ambassador pressured Préval into a $3 per day wage for textile workers, $2 less than the original $5 a day that Préval had wanted. The Nation's report* on the negotiations show continued disapproval with the politics of the whole thing:
Still the US Embassy wasn’t pleased. A deputy chief of mission, David E. Lindwall, said the $5 per day minimum “did not take economic reality into account” but was a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”
Ryan Chittum at the Columbia Journalism Review did a little bit of math to put these figures into perspective. The proposed $5 per day falls well short of The Nation's estimated $12.50 per day needed for a Haitian family of three to make ends meet. But how dramatically will the even lower $3 a day affect the American companies with a stake in the matter?
Zooming in on specific companies helps clarify this even more. As of last year Hanes had 3,200 Haitians making t-shirts for it. Paying each of them two bucks a day more would cost it about $1.6 million a year. Hanesbrands Incorporated made $211 million on $4.3 billion in sales last year, and presumably it would pass on at least some of its higher labor costs to consumers.
Chittum notes that Hanes's CEO Richard Noll could cover the losses with just one sixth of his $10 million compensation package. That makes American Apparel and their no sweatshop policy look angelic, sex-crazed CEO Dov Charney and all.
*The Nation pulled their report on the minimum wage dispute after publishing it briefly in accordance with a publishing schedule agreement with Haïti Liberté. CJR snatched a summary while it was briefly online and The Nation will publish its full report tomorrow.