By Sam Bojarski
Political instability and gang violence threaten way of life for Haiti’s ti marchand (market women)
Madame Marcelin was one of many merchants who lost everything when the Iron Market in Port-au-Prince burned down last year.
“I didn’t save nothing, anything from the fire,” Marcelin said through a translator.
Merchants in Haiti’s vast informal economy rely on income they receive from the sale of goods – items like produce, household accessories, clothing and handicrafts – to feed themselves and their families. The fire made life much more difficult for Marcelin and the large household she is responsible for.
“I don’t have nothing, and I have a lot of (children) they’re expecting food from me,” she said.
The fire that burned down much of the iconic Iron Market, which Digicel spent $12 million to reconstruct after the 2010 earthquake, occurred in February 2018. Another fire struck the Iron Market five months later, in July.
A total of five market fires occurred in 2018, tying 2016 for the second-highest yearly total recorded since 1987, according to Enquet’ Action Haiti.
Authorities have not reported any arrests in connection to the fires. According to Francois Pierre-Louis, a professor of political science at Queens College in New York City and former Haitian government official, market fires are never accidental and are usually carried out by gangs with deep political ties. They frequently occur during times of political instability. He also said poor merchants have largely paid the price for this political violence.
Lost goods, devastated communities
Haiti’s vast informal economy is worth over $4 billion, according to one estimate. However, it is powered largely by poor women who rely on the goods they sell for income.
Some have lost everything in recent fires, said Sherry Todd-Green, director of communications at Fonkoze, a nonprofit that provides microfinance services to rural Haitian women.
“When you go to any market in Haiti, it’s primarily women who are selling. So when they lose their merchandise or when their situation is devastated, you have not just them but a whole community that’s devastated,” Todd-Green said.
Due in no small way to their role in markets, many in Haiti consider women the backbone of society. The ti machann, or market women, serve as small-scale entrepreneurs but live on the verge of extreme poverty. Fonkoze, Todd-Green added, provides these women with microfinance loans, which serve as an alternative to the steep interest rates they would otherwise face.
The large businesses that import most of Haiti’s goods make sales contracts with individual merchants, who typically don’t have the capital to sell on their own. Businesses will extend capital at interest rates as high as 40-50 percent, according to Pierre-Louis.
“Not only is it hard for them to make a profit, but those merchants don’t really control anything on the supply or demand side. They are just merely selling for the bigger businesses,” he said.
Consumers rely on these merchants as a source of affordable goods, said Jean-Junior Joseph, a Haitian media blogger. Oftentimes, he added, consumers can purchase better goods at markets than they can in formal stores.
A fire that occurs in Port-au-Prince produces ripple effects throughout the countryside. Merchants in southern Haiti often procure goods from markets in the capital and resell them, Pierre-Louis said.
“Most people who come there are people with little means. The poor, the middle class and people who cannot afford the prices of the supermarkets,” he added.
Haiti’s political landscape and the informal economy
Armed gangs control much of the activity in Haiti’s informal markets. These groups collect extortion money from merchants and share it with political allies in government.
Gang members have set public markets on fire when they do not receive enough extortion money. Other times, fires are a way to punish businesses that loan to merchants.
“If (gangs) find out that one of the businessmen or a couple of them that dominate the market is fighting with the government … then (they) will set the market on fire to punish that business,” Pierre-Louis said.
Gang members with ties to particular business elites also use arson to disrupt sales from other private sector actors, he added.
“If you look at how these groups are funded, supported, allowed to operate, armed, I think that’s where you start looking at the political connection,” said Jake Johnston, a research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
He referenced a May 2019 article in Le Nouvelliste, which detailed recent findings of the Haitian government’s National Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration Commission. According to the article, the commission identified 76 armed gangs in Haiti. Gang members told the commission that they receive arms from politicians close to the government and opposition, as well as private sector actors.
Johnston also said innocent residents, including those who operate in public markets, have largely dealt with the repercussions of this gang activity.
According to the Miami Herald, a Haitian government investigation into the brutal La Saline massacre of November 2018 that claimed as many as 71 lives implicated two former Haitian National Police officers with ties to armed gangs, as well as two senior government officials.
Gang conflicts in La Saline simmered over control of a large outdoor market, while powerful politicians and businessmen initiated guns-for-hire schemes in an effort to control votes, the Herald reported.
In addition to political violence, merchants must also deal with the consequences of Haiti’s role in the international economy. At one time, peasant farmers from the countryside would come to the markets to sell their produce. Now, Pierre-Louis said, large importers buy rice from places like Arkansas and give merchants credit to sell it.
International financial institutions, with the acquiescence of the Haitian government, led the effort to reduce rice tariffs starting in the 1980s. After imported rice started flooding Haitian markets, agricultural production and employment declined sharply, as the priest and human rights advocate Father Gerard Jean-Juste has noted.
The formal economy offers few opportunities for gainful employment, even in the cities. Haiti is essentially a cheap-labor economy in the context of the global economic system, said Gearoid Colmain, a French political analyst and journalist who has written extensively on Haiti and globalization.
According to a report from the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, the garment industry represents one of the few formal employment opportunities in Haiti. However, apparel workers make four times less than the cost of living.
Life continues to get harder for the poor. Madame Marco, a merchant in the Iron Market, recalled that a can of rice used to cost 12 Haitian dollars. She lamented that over the past year, the price has increased to 20 dollars.
Haiti’s heavy reliance on imports and relative lack of exports has led to skyrocketing inflation, and the Solidarity Center has reported that the cost of living has increased by 74 percent since 2014 alone.
“Money is a means of exchange that is meant to facilitate trade,” Colmain said. “Exorbitant interest rates and super exploitation are what you get when money exists to make the rich richer.”
A failing justice system
After the fires in May, many merchants demanded accountability from their government. Merchants at the Ti Coco market in Delmas even blockaded traffic to draw attention to the lack of response.
“I ask the government to do something for us because this is the only (thing) we know how to do,” said one merchant in the Iron Market, who identified himself as Johnny. He also said through a translator that he lost many of his goods in the February 2018 fire.
The merchants who lose their livelihoods face what Pierre-Louis called a lawless situation. Public safety and law enforcement lack the resources, and often the interest, to respond effectively.
To local authorities, market fires represent an embarrassing failure of the public safety system, Joseph said. During the Iron Market incident, first responders struggled for hours to put out the fire. The initial fire truck that arrived on scene was not even equipped with water, according to Le Nouvelliste.
Minimal public investment in everything from health care to emergency response ensures that society pays the burden for acts of arson, Pierre-Louis said.
Johnston provided a broader overview of a justice system that does not seem to work for the majority of Haitians.
“To the extent that it does work, you know, it doesn’t seem to be there to protect the interests of the poorest members of society and the most vulnerable members of society but rather to protect those with power and influence,” he said.
Given their ties to gangs, government authorities often play a role in fires, which Pierre-Louis said diminishes their ability to provide justice.
“It’s difficult to bring people to justice, because these people that should have brought (gang members) to justice are the ones setting the fire,” he said.
In addition to the general lack of accountability, Pierre-Louis mentioned the ironic fact that the private sector can profit after markets burn down. In many instances, he added, government officials use their connections in the business community to help rebuild markets after fires.
Meanwhile, merchants in the Iron Market, Delmas, Malpasse and other parts of Haiti have not reported receiving any compensation for their lost goods.
“At the end of the day when the fire is set off, it’s not really the big businessman that is losing the money, it’s the little merchant who borrowed the money from the big businessman who loses,” Pierre-Louis said.