Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99 per year.
Subscribe for Full Access
The afterlife of American junk

The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

Illustrations by Olivier Kugler. Stevedores loading the Magestic in Miami. Source photograph courtesy the author

Illustrations by Olivier Kugler. Stevedores loading the Magestic in Miami. Source photograph courtesy the author

It was a busy day on the river. The ship moored at the dock, the Doris T, was almost full, but the Miss Lilie 1, which occupied the terminal’s second berth, was loading at the same time. A profusion of cars and people swarmed the front gate. A box truck full of sixteen-foot boards had been parked head-in, ass-out, for an hour, leaving only a narrow path on either side. Stevedores barked conflicting orders as shippers jostled to get their cargo inside. Shouts of “Telefòn!” filled the lot. “Quiet day,” I said to Richard Dubin, the owner of the terminal, through the fence. He rolled his eyes. “I’m about to close the gate. I just need this truck out of the way.” He vowed to lose a day’s business rather than endure the chaos. “I can’t open it today. It’s impossible,” he said.

An old woman in a head wrap sat in serene impatience on a crate in the shade of a Honda Civic, eating fried sweet potato and hot sauce out of a foam carryout container. Merchants argued about who would be next. A minute after the truck left, a minivan backed in with its rear door open. A large cardboard box teetered on the bumper and toppled out as the driver changed direction. Five minutes later, a couple of stevedores dropped a pallet in the entranceway, blocking the gate once again. “Take this stuff and get out of here,” Dubin pleaded. “Put it anywhere. I don’t care.”

In the past sixty years, the drive for efficiency unleashed by the advent of steel containers has propelled the global shipping industry into an arms race of bigger boats, deeper ports, and automated terminals, allowing more stuff to move in less time, with less fuel, and, above all, less labor. But this transformation has hardly registered on the Miami River, home to small, decades-old ships that serve Caribbean ports without container lifters or harbors deep enough to accommodate large vessels. The Miami River stands out as America’s last bastion of break-bulk shipping, a process by which cargo is moved piece by piece, as it was around the world before containers became standard.

Shipping here operates according to a different imperative. Where most shippers have tried to eliminate labor wherever possible, “this business,” Dubin explained, “is all labor”: labor to source the goods from flea markets and dumpsters, to sort and repackage them for export; labor to carry cargo to the docks, or to sell it to a stevedore with a side hustle; labor to price and classify each item accepted on board; and labor to write out carbon-paper receipts in longhand. The waterway’s five-and-a-half-mile course weaves between scrapyards and boat repair shops before slipping downtown and out into Biscayne Bay. A river of secondhand goods follows the same route, out of South Florida’s sprawl into the Caribbean. As one Coast Guard commander told me, the Miami River is essentially “the thrift shop of the maritime industry.” While big companies ferry containerized cargo from modern ports like the one in Fort Lauderdale, husbands and wives looking to send food back to their families and entrepreneurs with used-furniture businesses turn to the river. Here, in the shadow of luxury downtown real estate, is a corner of the economy where recent immigrants can build a business with the tools they already have.

Docks like the 5th Street Terminal are often among the first stops for Haitians looking for work when they settle in Miami. Break-bulk has conventions to follow, but no scales or scanners, and no rigid price list. As one former tallyman put it to me, “It depends on what you know. If it’s the first time you come to the dock? A box could go for thirty. You pay sixty. If you say ‘Yes,’ yes, if you say ‘No,’ no. There’s no exact price: that’s how you make money.” Chaotic as it may be, where else can you export a single sack of rice or a bucket of paint for less than it costs to send an envelope by Priority Mail?

Each freighter counts scores of customers on each trip, along with hundreds more porters, wholesalers, and hangers-on with some stake in the goods on board. As such, it’s hard to get a clear sense of exactly who is profiting or by how much. When I asked one charter operator whether I could use his ledgers to tally the goods in a single shipment to Port-de-Paix, his eyes widened in disbelief. “You won’t be able to,” he said. “We couldn’t even figure that out ourselves.”

Mattresses—abundant, lightweight, and expensive to buy new—are among the most sought-after commodities in the business. Fritz “Big” Rémy, who works in “mattress connections” for his uncle, a charter operator, explained that these secondhand mattresses come by the truckload from as far away as Indiana and West Virginia. “Everywhere!” he told me. “Gold. Mattresses are gold, man.”

Americans dispose of nearly 20 million mattresses a year, the vast majority going to landfills. Most shipping operators along the Miami River have informal agreements with people like Big, who coordinate with national junk-disposal companies or round up used bedding by the truckful and make deliveries themselves.

A boat the size of the Doris T typically carries goods for more than five hundred customers. Every parcel, package, and misshapen bundle that goes aboard is branded with the owner’s symbol. Jean Claude Exantus, a stevedore at the terminal who runs his own export business on the side, has been using the same mark to identify his goods since 1986: a J whose tail curls back on itself so it looks more like the number 2, and three jagged claw marks forming a capital E.

Exantus, who was born in Haiti and lives in Boynton Beach, got into ­exports as a kind of second act. When he lost his job in Miami during the recession, he turned to the one thing he knew he could still count on: Americans’ habit of throwing things away. “I buy junk here and send it back home,” he told me. “Everything sells well in Haiti.”

The whole supply chain is powered by the Haitian diaspora: a vast network of relatives, collectors, shippers, brokers, and haulers with eyes throughout South Florida. There are specialists who stalk the alleys behind big hotels when the carpet is being ripped out, clothing dealers with an inside track on thrift store donation boxes, and dabbling sons and daughters who send a single sack of rice or beans home to their families once a month. Exantus is a generalist, scouring yard sales for bargains on old appliances and leftover construction supplies.

Exantus wouldn’t hazard a guess as to what his export business brings in; he said he’d never paused to do the math. He paid his rent and kept gas in the tank, but most of the household budget stayed with his wife in Haiti. Whatever profit she sent to Florida each month, he invested in inventory for export. “If I have two hundred dollars, I’ll send two hundred worth,” he said. “If I have a thousand, I’ll send a thousand.”

That afternoon, Exantus’s haul had grown to include several rolls of carpet, vinyl doors, stacks of paint buckets and linoleum flooring, bags of rice, and a queen-size mattress. With the Doris T already loaded to capacity, Exantus decided to take his haul two miles downriver to the Magestic, which docks at a larger and somewhat more orderly terminal managed by an affable Chilean named Sergio Cortez.

Cortez entered the world of break-bulk after more than fifteen years running cargo for a major container-shipping line. “I remember the first time I came here,” he said, leading me across the cluttered blacktop, wearing a large straw sun hat. “I explained that you could use Excel. It was like I was speaking Chinese.”

Above us, a derrick aboard the Magestic creaked back and forth, unfurling a massive nylon net onto the pavement. Two stevedores loaded it with shrink-wrapped boxes and sacks of rice and black beans. Inside the ship, in a gymnasium-size cavern, four men unloaded each netful into the hold and muscled the cargo into place, one box, one mattress at a time.

A couple of weeks later, in early June, two tugboats puttered up to either end of the Magestic as the crew dropped ropes thick as lampposts down from the deck. Pulling from the bow and stern at once, the tugs maneuvered the Magestic downriver like a log in a stream as the skippers communicated over two-way radios. It passed through five drawbridges and rounded hard corners with only inches to spare, sliding through a channel just fifteen feet deep at low tide. And then, at last, the Magestic left for Haiti.

Three days later, the ship docked in Exantus’s hometown, Port-de-Paix. Refugees from the northwest have long made up a disproportionate share of the “boat people”—those who started fleeing the country to Florida in the 1970s. Today, it remains Haiti’s poorest and most isolated region, and almost every family that can afford it has sent someone to South Florida in search of a living. For those who stay, fortunes rise and fall with the tide.

The unloading began at around 8 a.m. on a Sunday. The charter operator, a hulking man with a shaved head named Hanson Rémy—Big’s uncle—had flown down early with several members of his staff to assemble a team of stevedores. Mattresses, stacked ten feet high and tied down with enormous tarps over the cars and trucks that covered most of the Magestic’s deck, were the first cargo to come ashore.

In the courtyard, a half dozen customers waited in the shade of a lone palm tree to catch a glimpse of their merchandise. It can be a week or more before a particular consignment emerges from the bowels of the ship, but the consensus is clear: if you don’t come to the dock to keep track, you’ll never get your stuff. Jean Claude Exantus’s wife and business partner, Acela, a cheerful woman twenty-­one years his junior, was there to watch as the first mattresses were heaved three stories down and piled onto wooden dinghies waiting in the harbor.

As the unloading progressed through­out the week, well over a hundred people milled about the dock, drinking beer and making deals on stoves and refrigerators the moment the cargo reached Haitian soil. An agent from Haiti’s National Port Authority sat in a corner filling a small notebook with tick marks for every door and mattress that went past. Several customs officials and a half dozen police officers monitored the unloading, but they seemed to take an easygoing approach to security. As Big remarked, watching his uncle’s operation from the dock: “The chaos is the money.”

Over the water, I heard the clanging sound of workers strapped to the sides of the ship, knocking rust off the hull with hammers. As a dinghy approached, a newish Infiniti FX35 appeared high above the Magestic’s deck, tethered to the derrick with thick nylon straps at the ends of steel cables. Out it went, over the heads of a dozen stevedores squinting in the sun, over the turquoise waters of the trash-strewn harbor. A fishing boat centered itself beneath the crane. As the car came down, four men guided it toward the I beams laid across the gunwales, securing the wheels with wooden blocks, like a truck parked on a hill. It’s a precarious process; for the heaviest vehicles, like dump trucks, two boats are lashed together to steady the weight, while a third pushes them ashore. One stevedore told me he has seen divers sent down to tie chains to cars that fall into the harbor so that the derrick could lift them back out.

Near the edge of the courtyard, a crowd buzzed in the shade of a small pavilion where the tally table was set up. A stream of customers matched crumpled, yellowed receipts to the charter operator’s books or flashed pictures of paperwork that relatives in Miami had sent via WhatsApp. Two local vendors, Osselin Descardes and Wilson Simon, debated how to get a good price on the mountains of memory foam coming off the boat. Seeing an opportunity as the boat owner counted off a stack of worn Haitian bills, Descardes offered up an elastic band, explaining, in a whisper, that he would like to buy twenty-­four mattresses. They settled on a price of 16,000 gourdes, or less than $250, per dozen, and the vendors climbed to the top of the heap, scouting for the largest, cleanest, plushest mattresses they could find.

Descardes and Simon rent parking-space-size slices of a nineteenth-­century warehouse they share with fellow craftsmen specializing in mattress rehab. The warehouse is their showroom; the dirty work happens across the street, where the market has commandeered the site of an old customs building, burned to the ground in 2004 during protests over the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the narrow alley behind the market, beds black with mildew are scrubbed using rags soaked in bleach. California kings, known in Haiti as “eighty-fours” (they are eighty-four inches long), are split in half with wire cutters and refashioned as twins that fit standard Haitian bed frames. Others are trimmed by a foot and sewn back up. A small, corrugated steel shack overflows with puffy mattress guts. Even mattresses that came off the boat a decade ago are brought here for renewal. Stripped of the cloth innards, each coiled spring is carefully straightened and fastened to the frame before the whole is stuffed and covered again.

At the dawn of the Haitian revolution, in the 1790s, the colony known as Saint-Domingue was the busiest trade center in the Western Hemisphere, an export juggernaut where enslaved people produced three quarters of the world’s sugar and massive quantities of coffee, indigo, cotton, and cacao. Planters sent rum and sugar to the United States in exchange for flour and livestock. That trade continued under the leaders of the new black republic after Haiti won independence from France in 1804. But over time, the United States came to consider Haiti a colony of its own.

The Magestic being unloaded in Port-de-Paix. Source photograph courtesy the author

The Magestic being unloaded in Port-de-Paix. Source photograph courtesy the author

In 1915, U.S. Marines occupied the country on the pretext of restoring order after a succession of coups and assassinations. By the time they left twenty years later, both Haiti’s National Bank and its national debt were controlled by a bank in New York. Today, farmers across the country can still remember the period in the early 1980s when their pigs were rounded up and slaughtered to protect the American pork industry from the threat of African swine fever. Later that decade, the United States helped push Haiti to drop tariffs on food imports, opening the gates for a flood of less-­marketable chicken parts (necks, gizzards, thighs) from American slaughterhouses, and so-called Miami Rice, grown in the United States with generous federal subsidies.

Tax forgiveness and the promise of a union-free workforce have lured American corporations to Haiti for more than fifty years. But as the rural farm economy withered in the 1980s, foreign development agencies became important boosters for a vision of Haiti as a free trade destination: “the Taiwan of the Caribbean,” as one USAID report had it. For a time, this model made Haiti the world’s leading producer of baseballs. But duty-free manufacturing is no substitute for the agricultural economy that once powered Haitian exports. Without much coffee or sugar to tax as it goes abroad, there’s little incentive to spend money rehabilitating rural ports in the northwest.

The government port in Port-de-Paix was destroyed in the late 1980s, when a large piece of a steel freighter blew ashore in a storm and crushed the concrete pier. Without funds to rebuild, officials decided to lay down rebar and pour a layer of concrete on top of the submerged fragment, turning the flotsam that had destroyed the pier into the pier itself. The arrangement lasted only so long. In 2012, when the dock gave way once more, top brass in the capital suggested that the port might have to close for good.

Munir Mourra, a veteran of the Miami shipping industry and sometime adviser to Haiti’s National Port Authority, told me that his government would not care if break-bulk shipping disappeared altogether. The rationale for closing Haiti’s secondary ports is simple: the government doesn’t see enough of the revenue. In this sense, there’s one important difference between containerized cargo and break-bulk: with containers, shippers off-load the sealed cargo as is, leaving individual customers responsible for ­clearing customs themselves, and giving customs agents leverage in extracting duties. With break-bulk, shippers pay customs duties in a lump sum up front, an estimate of what they owe based on a single manifest. With the exception of cars and trucks, which contribute more than half of the customs revenue in Port-de-Paix, customers are free to take their goods home the moment they come ashore, an accommodation based partly on the fact that the government would have nowhere to store them. This arrangement is frowned upon in the capital, where authorities are losing out on customs revenue for thousands of tons of cargo.

“They’ve never believed in maritime transportation in Haiti,” Mourra said, arguing that the country’s powers that be would prefer to limit imports to the two main container ports (Port-au-Prince and Cap Haitien), where they have the most control, and “shut down everything else.”

“But what kind of roads do you have?” Mourra asked pleadingly. In a country with unstable politics and a population trapped in a precarious kind of subsistence, Mourra sees the maritime economy in cities like Port-de-Paix as a release valve taking pressure off an unresponsive government. Without it, prices on imports would skyrocket, he believes, and the volume of remittances would fall, cutting off provincial cities from their main sources of trade. “You shut down those ports,” Mourra said, “give it two months, and you’ll realize how chaotic it can be.”

As it stands, the unloading in Port-de-Paix takes place in a dilapidated waterfront mini-mall built by a private businessman in the 1980s. It has one fundamental limitation: the water is too shallow for ships to anchor off the dock. Near the shore, fishermen stand in waist-deep water hauling in their catch from purse nets left out overnight. Boats the size of the Magestic must moor more than one hundred yards out, as a flotilla of dinghies, rowed from the stern with a single oar, ferry goods to the dock.

When I introduced myself to Luc-Albert Duval, who owns the Magestic, he was skeptical that I was being honest about my interest in break-bulk shipping. “You say that’s the story, but I think you are really only telling me part of the story,” he said with a glare. “We are doing this the right way. No illicit activity.”

Duval had good reason to be on guard: he’d bought the boat from the federal government in 2016, just three months after Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents along the Miami River discovered nearly two thousand pounds of cocaine welded inside secret compartments beneath the deck. At the time, the Lisanne, as the ship was called then, was returning from Miragoâne, a container port in southern Haiti. Miami officials said it was the largest cocaine seizure in a decade.

When the U.S. Treasury Department put the Lisanne up for bid in an online auction, Duval bought it for $656,000, repaired the holes federal agents had drilled into the deck, and christened it the Magestic.

I had no idea of the Magestic’s backstory when we first met, but as it turns out, it’s hard to write about shipping to Haiti without writing about cocaine. For months last spring, the berth next to the Doris T’s in Miami was occupied by a boat called the Voici Bernadette,which had been seized in a cocaine bust. It has since been donated to St. Lucie County and is set to be stripped of electronics and sunk off Florida’s Atlantic coast, where salt and sea creatures will make it an artificial reef.

Again and again, observers of the shipping economy along the river suggested that the whole thing rests on a foundation of fine white powder. “If you’re puzzled by how people are making money off of this, has it occurred to you that some of this might be a cover for the cocaine trade?” an anthropologist asked me, raising the possibility that thousands of small-scale merchants shipping goods from Miami to Haiti are being subsidized by profits from cocaine smuggling.

As Sergio Cortez, the shipyard manager in Miami, pointed out: “These boats come empty.” Sometimes, he noted, it takes more than a week after a trip to Haiti before a boat docked in his yard gets the okay from CBP to begin loading cargo again. Even when it’s empty? I asked. “Especially when it’s empty. There’s a lot of drugs that come with these boats. You know that, right? Sometimes I think that completes the equation.”

In the 1980s, cocaine seizures were often tallied in the thousands of pounds. But Anthony Salisbury, the special agent in charge at the local field office for Homeland Security Investigations, explained that the government’s understanding of the smuggling industry began to change in the late 1990s, with a years-long investigation known as Operation River Sweep. The key informant, Salisbury said, was a sophisticated ship welder who hid cocaine in places where law enforcement hesitated to search, for fear of piercing the ballast and sinking ships in the river.

During a particularly busy two-week stretch in 2000, agents found two hundred pounds of cocaine buried in human feces at the bottom of a converted fishing boat called the Anita, and lifted another boat, the Hardness, all the way out of the water to reach coke packed into the keel.

Today, the vast majority of cocaine entering the United States comes over the Mexican border, often hidden in trucks that cross through official ports of entry. The main maritime route follows the Pacific coast, where smugglers head north in speed-boats or custom-­built submarines.

But freighters remain an important secondary target. In the past four years, Customs and Border Protection agents have seized more than six thousand pounds of cocaine on the Miami River, all from purportedly empty ships sailing from ports in Haiti. Both sides in this transnational game of hide-and-seek have gradually beefed up their use of technology: today, bales of cocaine are sometimes thrown overboard with GPS trackers before a ship approaches the shore; smugglers have eschewed duct tape for vacuum-­sealed plastic bags, which offer better waterproofing. CBP uses mobile ­X-ray units and submersible drones to scan for underwater care packages affixed to a ship’s hull.

Cocaine’s residue clings to even the most scrupulous operators along the river. Shipping agents have to put up a bond of at least $300,000 for each new arrival, which may be forfeited if illicit cargo is found on board. Charter operators pay hundreds of dollars a day to anchor on the river while CBP agents canvass their ships with dogs. And though operators have occasionally cried foul, they’ve mainly made peace with the inconveniences of doing business along a major drug corridor.

Still, there are powerful players on both sides of the route who would rather see it phased out. In Miami, the number of shipping terminals has dwindled steadily from more than thirty in the 1990s to fifteen today, as high-rise condominiums continue their westward march along the waterfront. To protect what’s left, the trade association representing the break-bulk industry has repeatedly sued the city into compliance with local zoning laws, which call for mixed-use development along the river. In Port-de-Paix, there’s still a risk that the National Port Authority could close off the city to international shipping altogether. Undy Ulysse, the agency’s local director, thinks this is because of pressure from the feds. “The tendency from the Americans has been to try and choke off traffic from northwestern Haiti, because they say that’s where all the drugs come from,” he told me recently.

But even if the cocaine trade props up the route between the Miami River and Port-de-Paix, thousands of legitimate small businesses rely on it too. On occasion, freighter captains and crew members have been tied to the drug trade, but merchants like the Exantuses occupy a different niche in the economy—­willfully ignorant, perhaps, of the cocaine that subsidizes freighters’ comings and goings, but also exclusively interested in sending cargo in the opposite direction. There’s no industry waiting in the wings to supplant Port-de-Paix’s reliance on salvaged goods sent by sea. As one colleague of Jean Claude’s put it, taking a break from loading the Doris T: “If this boat ever sinks, the people of the northwest would perish.”

The Doris T didn’t sink, but it was seized by Customs and Border Protection this spring. The ship had returned from a trip to Haiti in March and was searched by the U.S. Coast Guard for nearly three weeks before it was finally cleared to take on cargo. A few days later, as the Doris T began loading at the 5th Street Terminal, it was seized on suspicion of being outfitted for smuggling. When merchants with Haiti-­bound cargo on board learned that their goods were in federal custody, they protested at the terminal with homemade signs: we need vessel doris t. I heard a rumor that the seizure had something to do with secret chambers belowdecks. CBP later confirmed this, noting that “officers detected hidden contraband concealment compartments void of any contents.” A lawyer for the owner of the Doris T said it could be more than a year before the issue is resolved.

From the dock in Port-de-Paix, I followed the queen mattress emblazoned with Jean Claude’s initials as it was transported, dripping wet, in a wheelbarrow through the buzz of the downtown market. Once you know the signs of merchandise that comes by boat, you see it everywhere, as though you’ve suddenly discovered that manufactured goods in the United States are sometimes marked “Made in China.” The porter climbed the narrow gravel streets toward the Exantuses’ two-story concrete depot on the city’s main drag, across the street from a water-­treatment kiosk built into the baby-blue wall of the local Catholic school. Outside, a patio set, scraps of carpet, and boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes announced the sale of goods from Miami from dawn until dusk. The mattress, still soaked, came to rest against an unpainted facade. Small red lettering announced: we buy dollars.

This is Acela’s end of the business. While Jean Claude scours the streets of South Florida for finds he can ship to Haiti, Acela meets each shipment at the dock and sells the goods out of a storefront in Port-de-Paix. Her lone full-time employee is a craftsman who hammers a steady supply of fifty-five-gallon steel oil drums into sheet metal and refashions each one into five small charcoal stoves.

Water damage seemed like an obvious hazard of shipping bedding at sea, but Acela wasn’t concerned. Sun and bleach make for a powerful disinfectant. And just over the border in the Dominican Republic, she explained, you can buy upholstered mattress covers almost as good as the originals. The queen mattress would look new again in no time.

Acela began selling mattresses downtown in 1997, twenty-five years old and newly widowed, with an infant and a two-year-old. When she met Jean Claude, three years later, they moved her business up the hill, and he became her main supplier. The family’s inventory in Port-de-Paix consists of anything he finds at a good price (twelve-foot lengths of two-by-four lumber, bundles of PVC pipes, a garden hose), along with a few consumer staples like rice, spaghetti, and diapers.

When a freighter is in town, Acela wakes up early to open the shop and spends most of each day at the dock. She leaves the store in the care of an employee and returns again at six to sell until dark. “There’s no rest!” she said, sitting on a large cardboard box overflowing with diapers. “No rest.”

Over the course of two decades, imports have helped her assemble the ingredients of a middle-­class life. Electricity in Port-de-Paix isn’t reliable enough for her to hold on to one of the refrigerators Jean Claude ships on occasion, but she keeps a small diesel generator to power the lights and an electric stove in the kitchen. Both children from her first marriage are now attending college in Port-au-Prince. Her younger son and daughter go to the Catholic high school across the street. Jean Claude never finished middle school; Acela dropped out in the eleventh grade. She nodded in the direction of her younger children, each busying themselves on their smartphones in a corner of the depot. “They want me to go back to school,” she said. “But I have too many kids on my books.”

Having a husband who can cull goods directly from South Florida makes Acela like a retailer with a wholesale operation on the side. If sales are brisk or the price of doors in Miami creeps up toward $20 apiece, she’ll sell everything she can at full freight. But if the market in Port-de-Paix goes slack, or the doors come cheaply, she can always sell off her stockpile at cut rates to merchants without family in the United States, distinguished only by Jean Claude’s curlicue initials.

To pad what can otherwise be thin margins, Acela has honed a kind of exchange-­rate arbitrage, hoarding gourdes from purchases at the depot until the dollar weakens. When she needs to send money to her husband, she avoids the commissions and fees charged by companies such as Western Union and Unitransfer by tapping into the flow of remittances headed in the opposite direction. Jean Claude collects dollars from someone in Miami looking to send money home to Haiti, and Acela delivers gourdes to their relatives in Port-de-Paix.

Lately, it’s gotten harder to wring much profit from sales counted in gourdes. “Once you change the money into dollars, it becomes a bit worthless,” Jean Claude explained. The currency’s value relative to the dollar has fallen by half in just five years. It now seems poised to slip further as Haiti reckons with the fallout from a corruption scandal that sparked violent protests and led to the ouster of the prime minister in March. And yet, the shipping economy remains a lifeline, a symbol both of Haiti’s reliance on the dregs of global capitalism and of the power of remittances to reach deep into the Haitian countryside. “Everything you see here will be gone before the end of the year,” Acela promised. Probably sooner. She smiled. “You’ll see my mark all over town.”

 is the author of Go Tell the Crocodiles: Chasing Prosperity in Mozambique.

More from

| View All Issues |

February 2021

“An unexpectedly excellent magazine that stands out amid a homogenized media landscape.” —the New York Times
Subscribe now