Olympic Records – Lamothe Style
HSG from the Houses of Parliament, London, 26-07- 2012
The Olympics have kicked off and with it the road show of Haiti’s one-time singles tennis champion and now Prime Minister rolled into London, under the government’s ambiguous “open for business” mantra. The question as ever remains the same as when the slogan was originally coined: open for what kind of business, for whom and on what terms? HSG went to the Houses of Parliament to hear Laurent Lamothe address a motley assortment of potential investors, NGOs, civil servants and Haitian diaspora representatives as to his vision.
Little of this rang true. All along, Lamothe looked the shadowy transplanted business executive he is, having made his fortune in telecoms regulatory deals with dubious African governments, the proceeds of which helped bankroll Sweet Mickey’s election costume change to President Michel Martelly, the return on which was the post of Foreign Minister, now Prime Minister. Unsmilingly, Lamothe recited a long list of bullet points from his i-pad, leaving his audience nonplussed as to exactly what business he wants to attract from the UK, where the Haitian government expects to open its next new embassy. Suddenly the Haitian Prime Minister alighted on a quick, digressive win: “I cannot understand” he said “why all these NGOs are not permitting their workers to bring their families to Haiti.” The country was perfectly safe (largely true) and NGO workers’ families going to the Haitian beaches “will really help development”. At an earlier closed meeting with UK NGOs he apparently envisaged a future for Haiti in “high-end tourism”. It would appear that Lamothe is dreaming of a return to the good old 1960’s when Haiti was the favoured destination of many of the New York-Hollywood creative crowd, enjoying the stability and safety guaranteed by Papa Doc’s iron first. Such a vision already seems to be taking shape in Jacmel where state security officials killed 12 Haitians, including four children, in an eviction related to tourist developments.
Last, but not least, the Prime Minister alighted on that now notorious beacon of development in the North – the Caracol Industrial Park. A full 50,000 jobs will be created, Lamothe boasted (up from his estimate of 20,000 last week), “benefitting” 500,000 people. This finally gave us a chance to confront him with the recent New York Times’ investigative feature on the reality of Caracol. It is for many of us simply the latest manifestation of successive Haitian governments’ “factories not fields” policy and for many Haitians the latest incarnation of what they call the “death plan” — starvation wages and soaring imported food prices. In response, Lamothe laconically referenced his subsequent “rebuttal” of the New York Times piece, which included generalities such as this: “Haitians are working to rebuild their lives and their economy. We are eager to break with a cycle of disaster, struggle and dependency…” and “The developments underway throughout the North will provide Haitians with the fundamentals to compete internationally and unleash the entrepreneurship, creativity and resilience that defines us as a nation.
In case anyone believes we are not giving the PM a fair hearing, last week we asked one of our collaborators visiting the site, to speak to some of a first wave of employees at Caracol. She was told by one hire of South Korea’s Sae-A’s textile factory (the only company operating at Caracol so far) – effectively ejected from Guatemala for flagrant violations of its labour laws – that workers are paid the princely sum of 150 gourdes (US$3.50) per day, 50 gourdes less than the legal minimum wage from which Sae-A has been exempted. Just for good measure, workers are fired at will – for asking for a break, for showing up two minutes late, for missing work to go to the hospital. This is the basis on which Caracol offers Haitians’, in Lamothe’s words, “unique opportunities… to break the cycle of poverty.”
On this evidence, Lamothe will certainly be struggling to persuade anyone outside his own elite circles or the foreign investors with whom he hob-nobs, of the feasibility of his truly Olympian poverty-reduction ambitions.