Wednesday, January 27, 2010

As We Help Haiti...

Why Is Haiti Poor?

While we help Haiti and also listen to newscasters incessantly remind us that it is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, let’s look briefly at how it got that way.

Haiti was wealthy when it was a French colony. The country’s poverty originated in 1825, when Haiti was pressured into agreeing to pay France reparations for daring to infringe on French property by freeing the slaves. France demanded 150 million francs in gold (which is equal to $21 billion today) as reparations for lands lost by former slave owners. In addition to the 150 million franc payment, France decreed that French ships and commercial goods entering and leaving Haiti would be discounted at 50 percent, thereby further weakening Haiti’s ability to pay.

To add insult to injury, France forced Haiti to borrow 30 million francs from a French bank with interest that was so astronomically high that even after Haiti repaid the money, they were still 6 million francs short. Haiti took massive loans from American, German and French banks at exorbitant rates of interest to pay back France.
The repayments to Haiti's former colonial master trapped the Caribbean nation in a downward economic spiral that has helped make it the Western Hemisphere's most impoverished nation, according to Alex von Tunzelmann, a British historian who is writing a book about Haiti and its Caribbean neighbors.

Instead of welcoming Haiti as the Western Hemisphere’s second independent country, the U.S. government shunned it. President Thomas Jefferson, fearing that the Haitian slave revolt would spark an American slave rebellion, imposed a trade embargo on Haiti that lasted until 1862. By 1900, Haiti was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. The need for hard currency forced Haitian farmers to favor financially or environmentally risky cash crops such as coffee and hardwood, rather than development of a diverse national economy. Over-farming and over-logging led, in turn, to catastrophic deforestation and soil erosion which put more pressure on the remaining arable land.

In 1915 the United States invaded Haiti and occupied it until 1934. Woodrow Wilson was President during the invasion. US troops broke into Haiti’s treasury, stole all the gold and shipped it to the First National City Bank in New York. The US installed a puppet government, writing a new constitution for Haiti favorable to US investment & control and forcing the government to accept a treaty ratifying American control. The US employed a policy of forced labor against the population; Haitian peasants were forced at gunpoint to build railroads, buildings and other infrastructure for American companies and the neocolonial administration. Charlemagne PĂ©ralte and Benoit Batraville organized and led a guerilla army called the Cacos against the US occupation. The US brutally suppressed the “insurgency”. Haitians who resisted were forced into concentration camps and innocent civilians mercilessly slaughtered. There were several massacres committed by US troops; in 1929 US marines gunned down 264 protesting peasants in Les Cayes.

(The United States built up a brutal proxy army that was used to suppress resistance and maintain Haiti as an American satellite state after the occupation ended. The US supported several dictators after the end of the occupation, including Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Under their rule over 30,000 Haitians were killed and even more tortured by their death squads. They enriched themselves by exploiting the population and stealing foreign aid, including $16 million from a $22 million 1980 IMF loan.)

In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so, of course, left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile.

Jean Bertrand Aristide started to discuss French reparations for the 150 million extorted from Haiti in Dec. 2003. "France was getting off easy," it was reported, “if Haiti charged 7.5 percent interest on the money, France would owe $4 trillion today.” In an amazing coincidence, three months later US marines were rousting Aristide from his slumber as part of a US / French designed coup.

Some say Haiti is the only country in the world with a last name—“Haiti, poorest country in the western hemisphere”. Why does the media all carry the same descriptive sentence while providing so little background?


Patrick said...

Thanks for the history lesson. I knew some of the history but did not know about the U.S. occupation.

What if all the Black people spread across the world because of slavery, got together and helped to return Haiti to a fully functioning country economically. What if we as Black people got together and celebrated the history of this country that rose up against oppression and defeated it. We could help to develop a model country in terms of infrastructure, culture, education, politics, government, etc. It could also become a tourist destination that we go to recognize and celebrate not to exploit. Imagine the messages that could be sent to people about their purpose and capabilities. Something to think about!

Alan Dixon said...

That is something to think about. The U.S. has always been called an "experiment"- kind of a model for Enlightenment Principles.

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