Shut out of global markets, Haiti's farmers managed to survive, feeding the population and producing trade surpluses into the 20th century. Throughout the 1970s, Haiti imported a mere 19 percent of its food. The regimes of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier had abysmal human rights records, but they largely protected farmers from foreign competition by instituting virtual bans on foreign food with tariffs that neared 100 percent. The country was self-sufficient when it came to rice production in part because Haitians only ate rice two or three times a week as part of a diverse diet that included corn and sorghum. According to Perard and many others from an older generation, the country was better off nutritionally as well.
In the 1980s, Baby Doc initiated a period of economic liberalization as part of an effort to establish a thriving manufacturing- and export-based economy that would create jobs for a large and cheap labor force. For a time, this vision seemed manifest. According to Ernest Preeg, the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti from 1981 to 1983, the country had around 200 domestic and foreign manufacturing companies and was producing everything from baseballs to clothing to tomato sauce. "Haiti was just as far along as anyone else," said Preeg. "People came to Port-au-Prince to get jobs because it was a burgeoning export economy." Preeg wrote an article in 1984 in which he echoed the view of many others that Haiti could be the "Taiwan of the Caribbean."
A series of international trade embargos in the early 1990s -- prompted by a military coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- not only destroyed the country's business sector, but also depressed agriculture by cutting off imports of raw materials like fertilizer. When the embargo was finally lifted in 1994, the IMF and World Bank stepped into the void and promoted structural adjustment programs aimed at setting the country's economy back on track. Among their conditions was lowering tariffs on food imports -- a policy Haitian farmers now call plan lanmo, or the "death plan" in Creole. Soon after, President Clinton signed the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, which shifted farm policy to direct payments for farmers. It was this legislation that Clinton dramatically apologized for in 2010.
Open markets, virtually no access to banks and credit, and a lack of private and public sector investment made it impossible for Haitian farmers to thrive. Today, most farmers have an income level of just $400 per year and they view the policies that brought them to this state as not just bad economics for Haitians, but also as an ongoing assault by foreigners on their cultural independence. "It was a campaign against Haitian culture," said Ferry Pierre-Charles, an agronomist with the Lambi Fund. "We have a lot of big white people here, but they are coming to take care of their own interests; they don't really care about local production."
Symeus Doval is one of 130,000 rice farmers in Haiti's rural Artibonite Valley in the north, and she remembers when she first started to see American rice in the market. "It was almost for free," she recalled while we sat on wooden stools in the crowded Croix Des Bossales market in Port-au Prince. "Like a gift." Demand for the affordable new rice increased as poverty levels rose and Haitians grew dependent on the grain.
Today, Doval, who has been farming for five decades, grows her rice crop in much the same way that her parents did before her. She plants the one hectare of paddy field she owns by hand, relying on rain and small irrigation canals to flood the crop. After the harvest, she dries the rice on cement slabs in the sun before processing it with a small mechanical mill. Then she brings her product to Croix Des Bossales, where it sometimes sells for twice as much as the American rice hawked in nearby stalls. "This rice is good for you," explained Doval. "People want to buy it but they don't have the money." To compete with American rice, she needs the resources to improve her crop and grow more of it. "We don't have money or credit so we can buy more equipment and seed," she said.
Doval isn't alone. In the Artibonite town of Petite-Rivière, members of a farming collective called AIM explained that between their 600 farmers, they lack a single tractor and the ability to sell their rice when markets are favorable. "We don't have financing," said Gilbert Meulus, a farmer and one of the leaders of AIM. "If we had that we could do better and not sell [our rice] to pay for school or the hospital."