In Haiti’s historic breadbasket, a dozen farmers worked in ankle-deep water, stooped under a piercing blue sky in a lush region dominated for generations by rice fields, and more recently by roving bands of armed men.
The gunmen, linked to an infamous gang leader named Arnel Joseph, have been waylaying travellers in the Artibonite Valley, driving out police and even holding press conferences proudly displaying their firepower.
“Gang activities are increasing — and they can move freely from one place to another with no fear,” said Mario Andresol, a former presidential candidate and one-time head of Haiti’s national police force. “The police seem weaker than before, and it seems almost impossible for them to take action.”
Drivers fear to traverse the region’s main north-south highway, where motorists have been shot at and some wounded, and venturing east into the heart of the farming region is a desperate endeavour given gang-controlled lanes and villages. And rural anarchy is accompanied by urban unrest: In Port-au-Prince, residents over the weekend flooded the streets in deadly protests intended to topple President Jovenel Moise.
The turbulence wracking the valley — and even the capital — is in large part the outgrowth of tariff decisions made three decades ago that destroyed the local agricultural economy. They ravaged a relatively thriving part of a nation whose per-capita gross domestic product was only $760 in 2017, less than half that of Nicaragua, the hemisphere’s second-lowest. They drove thousands of rural residents to cities in search of nonexistent jobs.
As US President Donald Trump unsettles the world’s trade regimen — raising tariffs rather than lowering them — the struggles are an extreme
example of how peremptory changes to trade rules can
have unforeseen consequences. Many here see a link between unrest across the country and policies foisted upon it by some of the world’s most powerful governments.
Areas like the Artibonite Valley, home to as much as 88 percent of total land under rice cultivation, were once an integral part of Haiti’s economic engine. During the early 1980s, the country produced more than 80 percent of its food.
In 1995, as part of an International Monetary Fund and World Bank-sponsored structural adjustment made with the support of US President Bill Clinton, Haiti lowered tariffs on imported rice to 3 percent from 50 percent. Failed economic policies have perpetuated a dynamic that continues to destabilise the country and undercut its economic growth. Haitians hope that the current intense political ferment will open a window for change.