Saturday, January 23, 2010

A sobering look at Haiti and history

The Times of London has a very interesting article showing how Haiti's history is the clue to its present poverty and helplessness. Here's an extract.

Where does the fault lie in Haiti? For geologists, it lies on the line between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates. For some, the earthquake is evidence of God’s wrath: the American evangelist Pat Robertson has even suggested that the horror is recompense for some voodoo pact made with the Devil at Haiti’s birth.

More sensible voices point to the procession of despots who have plundered Haiti over the years, depriving it of an effective infrastructure and rendering it uniquely vulnerable to natural disaster. But for many Haitians, the fault lies earlier — with Haiti’s colonial experience, the slavers and extortionists of empire who crippled it with debt and permanently stunted the economy. The fault line runs back 200 years, directly to France.

In the 18th century, Haiti was France’s imperial jewel, the Pearl of the Caribbean, the largest sugar exporter in the world. Even by colonial standards, the treatment of slaves working the Haitian plantations was truly vile. They died so fast that, at times, France was importing 50,000 slaves a year to keep up the numbers and the profits.

Inspired by the principles of the French Revolution, in 1791 the slaves rebelled under the leadership of the self-educated slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. After a vicious war, Napoleon’s forces were defeated. Haiti declared independence in 1804.

. . .

France did not forgive the impertinence and loss of earnings: 800 destroyed sugar plantations, 3,000 lost coffee estates. A brutal trade blockade was imposed. Former plantation owners demanded that Haiti be invaded, its population enslaved once more. Instead, the French State opted to bleed the new black republic white.

In 1825, in return for recognising Haitian independence, France demanded indemnity on a staggering scale: 150 million gold francs, five times the country’s annual export revenue. The Royal Ordinance was backed up by 12 French warships with 150 cannon.

The terms were non-negotiable. The fledgeling nation acceded, since it had little choice. Haiti must pay for its freedom, and pay it did, through the nose, for the next 122 years.

Historical accountancy is an inexact business, but the scale of French usury was astonishing. Even when the total indemnity was reduced to 90 million francs, Haiti remained crippled by debt. The country took out loans from US, German and French banks at extortionate rates. To put the cost into perspective, in 1803 France agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory, an area 74 times the size of Haiti, to the US, for 60 million francs.

Weighed down by this financial burden, Haiti was born almost bankrupt. In 1900 some 80 per cent of the national budget was still being swallowed up by debt repayments. Money that might have been spent on building a stable economy went to foreign bankers. To keep workers on the land and extract maximum crop yields to pay the indemnity, Haiti brought in the Rural Code, instituting a division between town and country, between a light-skinned elite and the dark-skinned majority, that still persists.

The debt was not finally paid off until 1947. By then, Haiti’s economy was hopelessly distorted, its land deforested, mired in poverty, politically and economically unstable, prey equally to the caprice of nature and the depredations of autocrats. Seven year ago, the Haitian Government demanded restitution from Paris to the tune of nearly $22 billion (including interest) for the gunboat diplomacy that had helped to make it the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

In the wake of last week’s earthquake, the effect of which has been so brutally magnified by Haiti’s economic fragility, there have been renewed calls for France to honour its moral debt. There is no chance that it will do so. The view from the Élysée is that the case was closed in 1885. In 2004 Jacques Chirac set up a Commission of Reflection under the left-wing philosopher Régis Debray to examine France’s historical relations with Haiti: it concluded blandly that the demand for restitution was “non-pertinent in both legal and historical terms”.

As Haiti faces social breakdown, government paralysis and death on a shattering scale, the French finance minister has called for a speeding up of the cancellation of Haiti’s debt. This is grim irony: if France had not saddled the country with debt almost from its inception, Haiti would have been far better equipped to cope with nature’s spite.

. . .

The legacy of colonialism worldwide is a bitter one, but in few countries is there a more direct link between the sins of the past and the horrors of the present.

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading if you want to understand the factors underlying Haiti's disastrous economic, social and political situation.



John Peddie (Toronto) said...

Maybe it partly colonialism gone awry-only the Romans and the Brits really knew how to run an empire (which also means dealing with defeated enemies), and theirs eventually ran off track too.

But Haiti is also about the imposition of a humiliating and debilitating peace treaty.

Change the location and skin colours, and you can draw some interesting parallels to the Treaty of Versailles which ended WW I.

Ruinous reparations, a sense of grievance and POOF! here's a European dictator called Hitler with a cause he could sell.

And what would we call "Papa Doc" if not a dictator (albeit not a Hitler).

There are many differences, of course, but neither Haiti nor Germany in 1919 were exactly offered a Marshall Plan.

It is to the eternal credit of the US that it came up with such magnanimity, which has ensured a very different and peaceful Europe since 1945.

Stranger said...

There is not a vast difference between the situation Haiti found itself in 1825 and the situation America finds itself in today.

In 1825, it was the cupidity of the French Government, today, it is the lust for permanent political power.

But in both cases the "National Debt" has gotten far beyond the debtors ability to repay the debt.

We can still pay our way out - but it will take fiscal discipline far beyond that demonstrated by either of the "major parties."

TEA Party, anyone?

And for a chuckle, the captcha is "dumpr" exactly where the economy is.


makeumdothechicken said...

France. The country that wouldn't exist if it were not for the bloody sacrifice of America and hates us for it. While I agree that going down the road of the payment of reparations would set a bad international precedent, the French certainly bare the primary responsibility for straightening out the mess they made in Haiti. You'll never see it happen though. France never does the right thing. They currently are dealing with a large, angry and mostly unemployed Immigrant Muslim population which will ultimately be their demise.