Features

Don't sweat it

"Don't sweat it" Continued...

Issue: "Motel 1600," Sept. 6, 1997

In a system where anything of value is likely to be appropriated by the ruling class, corruption eventually reaches even the lowest levels. A policeman stopped me on the street to issue trumped-up charges of misconduct. After 20 minutes of discussion and a discreet payment of 150 Gourdes ($10 U.S.), I bought my exoneration.

"This is how the economy works," says Jo‰l Beaucejour, a pastor from the southern Haitian town of L'og"ne. "Those that have privileged positions, even at low levels, can extract payments of graft and bribery."

And what do the 80 percent who are unemployed do to survive? "They transact. A man will borrow a dollar to eat for a couple of days. Then he will borrow $2 from the next person to pay back the $1 and eat for a few days more. Eventually, he will sell some goods for a small profit."

The transaction economy, based on deals, negotiations, trading, gambling, and thievery, is endemic and completely non-productive. It thrives alongside foreign aid. The massive importation of food, clothing, and other relief goods into Haiti feeds a transaction economy as the aid material is bartered and sold again and again on the streets. The price of a product is pushed higher each time it changes hands.

When asked about the high unemployment, one man in the village of Cayes Jacmal responds by quoting a Haitian proverb in his Creole language: "Si travay te bon bagay, moun rich ta praul' lontau." It means, "If work was a good thing, the rich would have grabbed it long ago." Mr. Beaucejour adds this explanation, "The Bible offers two reasons for poverty. One, laziness. Second, the corruption and wickedness of the rich. It is not that our people choose to be idle. The people are paralyzed into inaction by the long history of exploitation by the government and the ruling elite."

These very conditions of high unemployment and low wages could make Haiti a manufacturer's paradise. Foreign corporations have counted on profit margins of at least 30 percent from their Haitian operations, prompting some to call Haiti the land of "opportunism." Rawlings Sports Company makes and exports 15 million baseballs in its Haitian factory each year. With labor costs of about 10 cents per baseball, company officials readily admit they'd rather not make baseballs in the United States again.

Disney opened garment factories in Haiti to take advantage of the low wages. But after protesters in London and New York claimed "Mickey Mouse is a Rat," Disney's largest subcontractor here abandoned its operations last month, bringing to more than 7,000 the number of jobs lost due to such international pressure. The Disney subcontractor's decision alone turned 2,300 out of the sweatshops and into the shade, where the poverty is no less

stifling.

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