Former President Bill Clinton, now UN Special Envoy to Haiti, took the opportunity of an appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10, to apologize for having imposed free trade on Haiti during his first term in office. That policy was "a mistake," Clinton said, and helped destroy Haiti's ability to produce rice and feed its people.
About a year after the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1993, the Clinton Administration reinstated ousted Haitian President Jean-Baptiste Aristide in power in 1994 on the condition that Aristide accept an IMF/World Bank structural adjustment program, including the demand to slash protective tariffs on rice imports. Aristide cut that tariff from 35% to 3%, which flooded the country with cheaper rice imports, and drove farmers, millers, and traders out of business, and into the slums of Port-au-Prince and other cities with their families. These impoverished and unemployed citizens are today's earthquake victims.
This policy "may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I had to live every day with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."
Haiti quickly became, and remains today, the fifth-largest export market in the world for American rice. Current Haitian President Rene Preval, who is an agronomist from the rice-producing Artibonite Valley, is urging foreign NGOs and government agencies not to just dump food on the country as aid, but rather to provide the seeds, fertilizer, implements and technology necessary to produce food in the provinces. Farmers, he insists, must be able to produce food and sell it, rather than seeking refuge in the capital because they have no livelihood elsewhere in the country.