Dr. Paul Farmer on Bill Clinton's Apology for Devastating Haitian Rice Farming: "A Great Relief"

July 14, 2011



Dr. Paul Farmer

U.N. Deputy Special Envoy for Haiti, under Special Envoy Bill Clinton. His new book, Haiti After the Earthquake, has just been published. Dr. Farmer is a medical anthropologist and physician. He is Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard University and chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is also founding director of Partners in Health.

Shortly after becoming the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, former President Bill Clinton publicly apologized for forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on imported subsidized U.S. rice during his time in office. The policy wiped out Haitian rice farming, seriously damaged Haiti’s ability to be self-sufficient, and contributed to Haiti’s forced urbanization that likely increased the earthquake toll. Dr. Paul Farmer, who serves as Clinton’s deputy in Haiti, says, "I felt a sense of great relief just at hearing him say that. I feel grateful for it as an American." [includes rush transcript]


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re spending the hour with Dr. Paul Farmer, who is co-founder of Partners in Health, university professor at Harvard University, runs the Global Health-Social Medicine Department of Harvard Medical School, and has just written a new book called Haiti After the Earthquake. Paul Farmer is also the deputy U.N. special envoy under President Clinton, which brings me, Paul, to President Clinton. President Clinton, the U.N. special envoy to Haiti, shortly after assuming the position, publicly apologized for forcing Haiti to drop tariffs on imported subsidized U.S. rice during his time in office. The policy wiped out Haitian rice farming, seriously damaged Haiti’s ability to be self-sufficient. Clinton apologized in March 2010 at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

BILL CLINTON: Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Clinton in 2010. You were already working under him as deputy U.N. special envoy to Haiti. Did you write some of those words? Did you influence what he has to say? And talk about the significance of this?

DR. PAUL FARMER: Well, I would have been proud to have written those words, and I felt a sense of great relief just at hearing him say that. I did not, however, write those words.

And I just would go back a little bit to the work that I’ve been lucky enough to do with him. It’s almost all been healthcare work, in mostly in Rwanda, Malawi, Lesotho, and setting policies. We were going to start in Haiti. And this is in 2002. He had launched the Clinton HIV/AIDS Initiative, which is now the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which is basically to move forward access to healthcare for people living in poverty and focuses—it started out around AIDS, but it was never anything other than to move forward this broad, comprehensive model of care, that we use at Partners in Health, as well. So our work was really around healthcare. And in 2008, he was in Rwanda to break ground on what was, I’m happy to tell you, a beautiful new hospital in northern Rwanda on the Ugandan border. It actually was the site of a military base, so it’s kind of the ultimate in swords into plowshares. You should come and visit. So he was there, but he was talking a lot about Haiti in Rwanda. And right after that, the third of—or the second of four storms smashed into Haiti. And I was down there. And this is about the time we started talking about working together more in Haiti.

So, by March, when he made those comments, we had been spending a lot of time together. A little bit before, and of course after the earthquake, he was there in Haiti or working on Haiti every day. So when he said that to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I had just done testimony there maybe two or three weeks earlier in which I argued, again, that we have not just to build Haiti back better, but to build foreign assistance and humanitarian, the machinery back better. I was watching as he said that.

Anyway, just one other thing I want to say while we’re on the topic. In Rwanda, I once asked a friend of mine, "How come you guys like President Clinton so much?" After all, he was president in 1994, which is the lowest hour of their existence, for sure. And this friend of mine said, "Well, because he said he was sorry." And that was instructive to me.

AMY GOODMAN: The genocide took place—

DR. PAUL FARMER: That’s right. This was—

AMY GOODMAN: —and they wouldn’t invoke the word "genocide."

DR. PAUL FARMER: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So it didn’t trigger all the international ways of dealing with it.

DR. PAUL FARMER: And he apologized. And I think there’s something really—I don’t want to say "refreshing." These are too—it’s too big an issue to use a word like that. But that candor around the rice subsidies, I think it’s healthy. And I feel grateful for it as an American, too.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he was criticizing his own neoliberal policies, right?

DR. PAUL FARMER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Of this flooding of the country with rice from the United States, and then that wipes out the farmers. They come into the cities. They’re looking for jobs. And then you have this situation of assembly factories, of sweatshops and, you know, lowered wages.