The disaster that struck Haiti has led to an impressive show of solidarity worldwide. In Denmark, as in many countries, a huge TV show will be held to raise funds. But this aid is accompanied by a majority discourse in the media and Western governments which portends the worst about the principles that will govern the country’s reconstruction
The disaster that struck Haiti has led to an impressive show of solidarity worldwide. In Denmark, as in many countries, a huge TV show will be held to raise funds. But this aid is accompanied by a majority discourse in the media and Western governments which portends the worst about the principles that will govern the country’s reconstruction.
Everyday, the mainstream medias are telling stories [which have much more to do with “emo-journalism” than anything else], that Haiti is characterized by extreme poverty along with crime and violence. Haiti, devastated two years ago by four hurricanes and the earthquake today, would be hit by a curse! Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, French journalist, as UNICEF ambassador, has said: “The people of Haiti are the most cursed by history. But it is not responsible for the story here. The French people either.” For the extremist American Christian, Pat Robertson, Haitians are cursed because they signed a “pact with the devil” to free themselves from slavery of their French masters in the Haitian revolution, 200 years ago.
In truth, the only question worth asking is: Why is Haiti so poor? Haiti is a very good example of what could happen in the future if a poor country was the victim of a natural catastrophe linked to climate change.
Historical Perspective: Haiti, first independent black nation
Haiti was a French colony until the late eighteenth century. Then called Saint Domingue and known as “the pearl of the Antilles”, it produced many of the goods which enriched France through which commodities were produced, first and foremost sugar. More than 400,000 black slaves from Africa were working for 30,000 French owners.
But under the leadership of Toussaint Louverture and despite the intervention of the “invincible” army of Napoleon and the death of one third of the population, the anti-slavery and anti-colonial struggle of the Haitian people was victorious and the country becomes independent in 1804.
It was a first in history and Haiti became a model for oppressed peoples. In 1825, France imposed a fee for independence of 50 million gold francs (the annual budget of France at the time), approximately 21 billion dollars in today’s money.
In order to repay this sum to France, Haiti cut trees to sell precious wood and above all got into debt to foreign banks: thus was created in the nineteenth century the first external debt of developing countries. Haiti took nearly seventy years to pay his fee, and they were still paying the interest into the beginning of the twentieth century.
In December 1914, American Marines pillaged, sword in hand, the National Bank of Haiti and transferred funds into the coffers of Citibank (known as Citigroup today). A US military occupation of the country ensued, which lasted twenty years. They tried again to establish large plantations which led to a new round of deforestation.
A string of semi- or fully authoritarian regimes culminated in the dictatorship of the Duvalier family. “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s reign began with the assistance of the United States in 1957 and lasted until 1986, when the son “Baby Doc” was ousted by a popular rebellion. The violent dictatorship supported largely by Western countries lasted nearly 30 years. It was marked by the exponential growth of its debt. Between 1957 and 1986, external debt multiplied 17.5 times.
When Duvalier fled the country, this represented 750 million dollars. It continued to rise with the interest and penalties to more than 1,884 million. This debt, far from serving the impoverished population, was intended to enrich the regime put in place. The personal wealth of the Duvalier family (well sheltered on the western bank accounts) was in fact $ 900 million, an amount higher than the country’s total debt at the time of the flight of “Baby Doc”. Note that France offered him political refugee status with total immunity although it doesn’t like this to be discussed too much.
In 1971, Baby Doc had succeeded his father. While the country produced its food until that time, he was made President by the State Department to initiate policies that would put an end to food sovereignty of Haiti, with assistance from the IMF, the World Bank and the IDB (Interamerican Development Bank). For example, all the pigs “Creole”, the basic economic unit of any rural family, were slaughtered to halt the supposedly imminent African Swine Fever in Haiti. No evidence has been provided.
Moreover, the U.S. flooded the Haitian market with subsidized rice which was cheaper than the locally produced rice and thus broke the chain of national rice production. It was the same for all agricultural products. The dumping ended up killing the local food networks. Beside the US’s interest in finding a market for its products, the United States were especially keen to install assembly companies in a country near enough to supply the North American market. Maquilas are overwhelmingly located in Mexico’s border region with the United States, and they are also found in Haiti at the same time where everything has been done to provide a reservoir of manpower ready to accept any wage and working conditions. Of course, in the same time, migration routes are blocked and attempts at emigration are fraught with danger.
In 1991, during the first democratic elections in Haiti, the priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, liberation theologian, was elected with enthusiasm. Accused of corruption, he was overthrown in a coup nine months later and then restored to power in 1994 by Bill Clinton who used him as puppet to implement a neoliberal program, dubbed the “Plan of Death” by the Haitian people. It was actually the political program of his opponent during the last election, a former official of the World Bank, Marc Bazin.
Rene Preval, same party as Aristide, succeeded to power in 1995 and immediately applied the American plan, causing an outcry on the island. Aristide was reelected in 2000 and at the approach of the bicentennial celebration of the Revolution, Aristide had the audacity to claim reparations from France for the harm it had caused caused to Haiti, calling for the restitution of the money that was extorted from it the previous century. The answer was not long in coming: in 2004, Aristide was again toppled by a military expedition led by the United States, France and Canada. Kidnapped by the military, he was expelled and has since lived in exile in South Africa.
The expedition gave way to a military occupation disguised as a peace mission: MINUSTAH, the UN Mission for Stabilization in Haiti, which supported the puppet government of Gerard Latortue, whose reign was marked by deep corruption and destroyed the timid reforms that Aristide had set up. Deployed since June 2004, its mandate was recently extended at the request of President Preval. The “intervention subcontracted by the United States” in the words of Nobel Peace Laureate Adolfo Esquivel of Argentina, is for Haitians the symbol of the loss of national independence.
Poverty in Haiti is not a coincidence. It was generated during two centuries of foreign intervention, it was the deliberate work of the great powers at the forefront of which were (and still are) France and the United States. And now, thanks to a natural disaster, the Western countries are suddenly the greatest of humanists, giving lessons in governance, and calling for solidarity. Few governments and large NGOs mention the causes of poverty and certainly avoid the crucial issue of debt which will absorb much of the aid while deployed.
Any financial assistance being announced after the earthquake is already lost in the repayment of debt!
According to the latest estimates, over 80% of Haiti’s foreign debt is with the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IBD) with up to 40% each. Under their leadership, the government applied “structural adjustment plans”, now disguised as “Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers” (PRSP). In exchange for contracting more loans, Haiti was given some insignificant amount of debt relief or cancellations, which cast the creditors in a positive light. The Highly Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC), for which Haiti was accepted, is a typical debt laundering manoeuvre. Odious debt is replaced by new so-called legitimate loans.
In 2006, when the IMF, the World Bank and the Paris Club accepted that the HIPC initiative include Haiti, the whole stock of public foreign debt totalled 1,337 million dollars. At the time of completion of the initiative (in June 2009), the debt totalled 1,884 million. The cancellation of a debt totalling 1,200 million dollars was decided so as to “make the debt bearable”. Meanwhile, the structural adjustment plans wreaked havoc, especially in the agricultural sector, the effects of which reached its peak at the time of the 2008 food crisis. Haitian peasant farming suffered tremendously indeed from US dumping of agricultural goods.
As stated in the recent international appeal, signed among others by Jubilee South, “Haiti calls for solidarity and respect for the sovereignty of the people”:“Together with many Haitian organizations, over recent years we have denounced the military occupation of the country by United Nations (UN) troops and the impact of the domination imposed via the mechanisms of debt, free trade, the looting of its natural habitat and the invasion of transnational interests. The vulnerability of the country to natural tragedies – provoked to a large extent by environmental devastation, the non-existence of basic infrastructure, and the systematic weakening of the state’s capacity to act – should not be seen as something disconnected from these policies, which have historically undermined the sovereignty of the people”.
Now is the time for the governments that form part of the MINUSTAH, the UN, the governments of Latin America, and in particular France and the United States, to revise this action that is contrary to the basic needs of the Haitian people. It is imperative to replace the military occupation with a true mission of solidarity and to take action to ensure the urgent cancellation of the debt that is still being collected of Haiti.
Irrespective of the debt issue, it is feared that the aid will take the same form as that provided after the tsunami hit several Asian countries at the end of December 2004 (Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh). Promises were not kept and a large part of the funds were used to line the pockets of foreign or local elites. The majority of these “generous donations” came from the creditor countries. Rather than giving donations, it would be preferable that they cancel Haiti’s debt: totally, unconditionally and immediately. Can we really speak of donations when we know that most of this money will either be used to repay foreign debt or to implement “national development projects” decided on the basis of the interests of these creditors or local elites? It is clear that without these immediate donations, it will not be possible to secure repayment of this debt, at least half of which corresponds to odious debt. The major international conferences, whether G8 or G20, expanded to include IFIs, will not produce any progress whatsoever in terms of Haiti’s development. Rather, they will rebuild instruments to help them secure neo-colonial control of the country. The purpose is to ensure that debt repayments continue the basis for submission, as has been the case since the recent debt relief initiatives.
On the contrary, in order for Haiti to rebuild itself in dignity, national sovereignty is the fundamental issue. A total and unconditional debt cancellation for Haiti must be the first step towards a more general course of action. A new alternative development model to the IFIs and the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA signed in December 2009 for instance), is necessary and urgent. The majority of industrialized countries, which have systematically exploited Haiti, beginning with France and the United States, must pay compensation towards a fund aimed at financing the reconstruction of the country, controlled by the Haitian people’s organizations. That is the price of the road to genuine reconstruction. Otherwise, calls for solidarity are nothing more than a way to ease our consciences.