January 22, 2010

Time for Haiti to be debt-free

Earthquake crisis gives developed world a chance to forgive Haiti’s loans

While raising money for his organization’s relief work in Haiti, evangelist and one-time Presidential candidate M. G. “Pat” Robertson described the massive earthquake that struck the capital of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area on Jan. 12 as the result of a longstanding “curse” on the small Caribbean nation.

Of course, Robertson, who just five years ago blamed the death and destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina on legalized abortion, was not speaking of the island’s Spanish conquest, which led to the near extermination of an estimated 1.5 million Taino inhabitants through murder, disease, and forced labor. Nor was he drawing attention to the savage cruelties of plantation slavery, through which France kept close to half a million West and Central Africans in bondage through naked brutality.

Rather, Robertson suggested that the source of this “curse” was, ironically, the very action, which enabled those who had suffered under slavery sought to gain their freedom: the holding of a Vodou ceremony attended by tens of thousands and held in the north of the Saint Domingue colony in August of 1791.

For Robertson, those participating in this West African religious ritual were not sparking an uprising that, after the defeat of successive European armies, won them freedom and independence in 1804, but rather they were swearing “a pact to the devil.” Ever since, Robertson said, “they have been cursed by one thing after the other, desperately poor.”

In the week since his comments were made public, Robertson’s remarks have been widely condemned by everyone from Al Sharpton and Don Imus to Valerie Jarrett and Rev. Franklin Graham. Yet these denunciations overlook that since its independence, Haiti has had to make deals not with the devil, but with the world’s most powerful nations; deals that have brought upon it not God’s wrath, but greater and greater levels of foreign debt.

From the start, Haiti’s hard-won freedom was seen as a threat by the Old World’s colonial powers and the New World’s slaveholders, who responded with a diplomatic quarantine, refusing to recognize its sovereignty. This trend was later replaced with gunboat diplomacy, beginning in 1825 when a squadron of French battleships docked in Port-au-Prince. Threatening the capitol with their canons, these ships bore news that France’s recently restored king would recognize Haiti’s independence, but only on the condition that Haiti to pay a 150 million franc indemnity and halve its tariff on French goods. Rather than compensating the descendants of those who had been enslaved for their unpaid labor, it was the French slave owners who had to be repaid, with interest. After being accepted by Haiti’s government, this proverbial deal with the devil set what had once been the world’s richest colony on the path to poverty.

Estimated at roughly 22 billion dollars today, this Faustian bargain saddled Haiti’s government for more than a century, as they borrowed money, at times from French banks, to keep up their end of the deal. Rather than investing the bulk of its budget in domestic interests, Haiti annually spent most of its money on loan repayment. According to some estimates, at the turn of the century, 80 percent of the nation’s revenue went to repay debts, setting a template for what most of the world’s post-colonial countries would later face.

At the same time, successive threats from British, German, French, and American warships demanding their own indemnities also drained the nation’s treasury of tens of millions of francs. This pattern of foreign intervention ultimately culminated in the invasion and armed occupation of Haiti by the U.S. Marine Corps in 1915 under the pretext of safeguarding U.S. property and establishing political stability. A popular uprising forced the Marines to leave in 1934, but not before the provisional government had signed onto a new $40 million loan, now with banks in New York, rather than Paris.

This burden of debt, rather than Robertson’s “pact to the devil,” has hindered Haiti’s social and economic development. As late as 2003, the Haitian government was spending $57.4 million to service its debt, but only $39.2 million on education, health care and other services. And much like France’s 1825 demand for indemnity and tariff reduction, these loan deals have generally come with conditions. From the culling of the Haitian pig in the late 1970s to the lowering of the rice tariff in the mid-1990s, to the structural adjustment program of the late 1990s, foreign policies have made Haiti less self-sufficient and have made life for the average person that much harder. These man-made conditions have made the country very vulnerable.

In the wake of last week’s tragic natural disaster, the International Monetary Fund extended a new $100 million loan to Haiti to assist with the daunting relief and reconstruction efforts. But while providing a much needed line of credit, this loan was originally designed with particular policy conditions, like raising the price of electricity and holding down the wages of public sector workers. It was only after a flurry of protests from organizations like Jubilee USA raised alarm that IMF officials backtracked, announcing the loan would now be interest-free. In addition, the fund also promised to work towards forgiving all of the country’s $265 million in debt. While it should not have taken such a terrible tragedy for Haiti to have a chance at full debt relief, this news is a rare ray of hope in the midst of such dire circumstances.

Let it be an opportunity that the Haitian people, and those who stand in solidarity with them during these harrowing times, seize.

— Losier is a Ph.D Student in History.