In November and December 1986, Radio Haiti covered the first “rice wars” in the Artibonite, the first flare of a still-unresolved conflict between producers and importers, pitting peasants against international and government policy.
After the fall of Jean-Claude Duvalier in February 1986, the initial excitement of liberation and the democratic era soon gave way to insecurity as different groups jockeyed for power and control under the military junta led by Henri Namphy. In late 1986, violence erupted throughout the Artibonite department – the “rice basket” of Haiti – over the importation of US rice (diri Miyami). Certain factions – including anti-Duvalierist opposition leader-turned-militant Jean Tatoune –profited from the importation of government-subsidized US rice in the Artibonite port city of Gonaïves (which is a historical hotbed of dissent and revolution). In the rest of the Artibonite, local rice farmers found their crops undersold by the US rice and they were unable to make a living. When protesting farmers in the town of l’Estère erected a roadblock to stop the transport of diri Miyami from the port city, the factions from Gonaïves retaliated violently (killing, raping, burning down peasant houses) both within the countryside and among migrants from the countryside residing within Gonaïves. Local political and police authorities were unable to control the situation or provide justice.
The incident followed a series of neo-liberal reforms, stipulated by the International Monetary Fund and implemented by then-Finance Minister Leslie Delatour. The ports closed by François Duvalier were now open and contraband merchandise, including rice, flooded Haitian markets. Official tariffs on rice imports were significantly reduced and subsidies to Haitian rice farmers were cut by 30%, making US rice substantially cheaper than Haitian-grown rice – a phenomenon which remains and has only worsened since.