Haiti: debt is the disaster, too

By Pascale Palmer
March 18, 2012

In 2010 an earthquake ripped through Haiti killing more than 200,000, making millions homeless. Speaking to Haitians now, they date everything from that day – “après le douze”, “avant le douze” meaning after or before the twelfth of January when the 7.0 magnitude quake shook itself out from near the capital Port au Prince.

Within hours the news channels in the UK were showing us the devastation – the National Palace with its toppling roofs, the cathedral in ruins so that only its façade remained standing; and soon we looked out through our television sets as the sea of tents that became the make-shift homes of millions of people.

At the year anniversary, the media asked why so little had been achieved when so much money had been donated to the emergency. At the two-year anniversary in January 2012, similar questions were still being asked. Reconstruction takes a long time. Building back better when Haiti was in dire need of support before the earthquake, takes even longer.

Trying to haul machinery, building materials, toilets or water through a country whose roads have been destroyed or need to be cleared of rubble, is a pretty huge undertaking; and then there is the issue of land rights which have long been a grey area in Haiti, and a difficult political climate, and the yearly hurricanes, and then cholera, and the fact that the best kind of long term development in any country is about capacity-building – ie the sharing and transfer of skills and knowledge – and that takes a lot of time.

All of these things we have watched and heard about and discussed even, but there are a couple of things about Haiti that perhaps you may not have known from the media portrayal of a forlorn and destroyed nation that voted for a former musician and mango seller to be its president.

Haiti was the first independent state in all of Latin America and the Caribbean, and it was the first post-colonial black-led republic in the world. In 1804, after a complicated and bloody slave revolution that saw many key players changing sides from Spanish to French, and attempts by the French to double-cross Haitian leaders, the republic was declared in the name of Haitian people. But the complex and angry colonial melting pot into which this new nation was born made sure Haiti would be weakened for more than another century.

Over the next decades, as a fledging nation, one of the most important issues for Haiti was security – its rulers and people lived with an ever-present threat of French invasion and the reestablishing of slavery. In 1825, with 14 French warships in Port-au-Prince harbour, supported by nearly 500 guns, Haitian president Jean Pierre Boyer signed an outrageous treaty with the old colonial overlords agreeing to pay compensation for the loss of slaves and trade. In return, Haiti was granted formal recognition of independence and the promise of no further French attacks.

To the tune of 150 million francs – 10 times the new country’s annual revenue - the French were making ex-slaves pay for their own freedom. Later the debt was reduced to 60 million, but still way beyond the reach of a country weakened by war. By 1900 Haiti was giving 80 per cent of its income to pay the debt – and of course it was having to take out loan after to loan to service the original treaty agreement. So instead of being able to grow and achieve and develop, the country spent until 1947 still chained by the neck to colonial powers, until all the monies were repaid, plus interest. That is more than a whole century spent on its knees. In today’s money Haiti paid France more than £14 billion.

I think that is atrocious. The French, and other European governments, plus the Americans, who signed off borrowing to pay for the French debt, will have known the consequences of this cruel and unfair 1825 treaty (which may well have been technically illegal as France had abolished slave trading in 1818). That means they actually didn’t care that a people became beleaguered and tired generation after generation because no one invested in them to ensure they flourished; because their state coffers and personal futures were being as blatantly drained away as if they were still bound slaves.

A month after the earthquake Nicolas Sarkozy walked around Port au Prince, visiting IDP camps and talking to injured and homeless Haitians. He announced that France would give £200 million and cancel Haiti’s £47 million debt to France. It’s certainly something, but it’s a long way off £14 billion. And how on earth could France, after the crippling and shameful legacy of the 1825 treaty ever, ever have allowed Haiti to be in hock to them again?

In the words of writer Russell Hoban: “If the past cannot teach the present and the father cannot teach the son, then history need not have bothered to go on, and the world has wasted a great deal of time.” It seems to me that the rich world has been wasting Haiti’s time, its people, its culture, its resources for centuries, and now, as the country goes through a process of reconstruction “après le douze”, it must pay back in whatever ways Haiti needs.


(c) Pascale Palmer is Senior Press Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for the official Catholic aid agency CAFOD - www.cafod.org.uk

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