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Jan. 13 2010 - 11:15 am | 6,890 views | 1 recommendation | 31 comments

US debt policies left Haiti vulnerable to catastrophe

Haitians protest against the cost of living on...

Haitians protest against the cost of living in Port-Au-Prince in 2008. Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

The same message is resonating from all corners of the Internet: Poor Haiti. That little, miserable island just can’t catch a break, can it? Yes, thousands are feared dead, and the pictures coming in from Haiti are heartbreaking, but no one can be blamed for an earthquake.

And sure, Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere (more than half the population of 9 million lives on less than $.50 cents a day,) which explains the construction of those flimsy houses that collapsed like card houses during the quake (Haiti’s ambassador calls the country’s infrastructure “among the world’s worst.”)

But this is just rotten luck, or God’s work! Surely, this is one of those things we can write off as “unlucky,” or “Shit happens.”

KT McFarland asks, what will become of those impoverished, feeble blacks Haitians when America can’t “ride to the rescue” anymore? I mean, really, when are these poor countries going to get their acts together?

In news story after news story, there are reports of Haiti’s “flimsy” shacks with no mention of why Haitians live in such extreme poverty. The impression one is left with is that these people are just inherently poor savages who don’t know how to construct decent homes for themselves (see these numerous examples of the “flimsy” line). The language almost implies Haitians deserved to be crushed during the quake. That’s what they get for living in such squalid conditions!

The media is missing a valuable opportunity to explain why Haiti is so poor. Once again, Americans are receiving a hefty dose of miseducation. They are learning that Haiti is simply a poor country where bad things happen all the time. In reality, the country has a rich, fascinating story, but unfortunately its history is also dominated by western exploitation.

Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery (though Napoleon later reinstated it.) Meanwhile, the western world scorned the tiny island. Thomas Jefferson, that famous slave owner and champion of liberty, warned Haiti had created a bad example during its revolution, and argued it was necessary to “confine the plague to the island.”

Haiti was not born poor, but rather saddled with debt, first by the French and now by the United States. When the slaves fought for their independence in 1804, and won, the French punished them by demanding payment for damages (the equivalent of $21.7 billion in today’s dollars, or forty-four times Haiti’s current yearly budget, according to journalist Eduardo Galeano). Even as they began to pay that debt, France was the only country to recognize the newly independent Haiti, the country that transformed from a slave colony to an invisible, autonomous society. Yet, Haiti was never really free. No indebted country is ever free as debt takes the place of shackles.

The United States began its occupation of Haiti in 1915 when Woodrow Wilson sent 330 U.S. Marines to Port-au-Prince. The reason for the invasion, according to the Secretary of the Navy, Admiral William Deville Bundy, was to “protect American and foreign” interests. Of course, the public was told the purpose of the mission was to “re-establish peace and order.” Sound familiar? Galeano writes:

The occupying army suspended the salary of the Haitian president until he agreed to sign off on the liquidation of the Bank of the Nation, which became a branch of City Bank of New York. The president and other blacks were barred entry into the private hotels, restaurants, and clubs of the foreign occupying power. The occupiers didn’t dare reestablish slavery, but they did impose forced labor for the building of public works. And they killed a lot of people. It wasn’t easy to quell the fires of resistance.

The guerrilla chief, Charlemagne Peralte, was exhibited in the public square, crucified on a door to teach the people a lesson.

And those were the acts of Marines, the civilized people.

When the occupiers left in 1934, they left behind a National Guard that they had created, and the ruler François Duvalier, who Galeano compared to such tyrants as Trujillo and Somoza. Duvalier was responsible for the deaths of around 30,000 people and the exile of thousands more. In 1971, Duvalier died and his son became ruler. In 1986, the son, Jean-Claude Duvalier, was overthrown in a popular uprising.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the rebel priest, and enemy of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, became president in 1991. He only lasted a few months before

the U.S. government helped to oust him, brought him to the United States, subjected him to Washington’s treatment, and then sent him back a few years later, in the arms of Marines, to resume his post. Then once again, in 2004, the U.S. helped to remove him from power, and yet again there was killing. And yet again the Marines came back, as they always seem to, like the flu.

Worse than the destruction of ongoing occupation, however, was the “help” Haiti received from The World Bank (the pet project of the United States,) and IMF. Haiti obeyed all orders from its financial overlords. It slashed tariffs and subsidies, and other protectionist policies, and yet its credit was frozen. The majority, rice farmers, became beggars. Now, Haiti imports rice from the United States since national production has practically been outlawed.

Back in 2003, Marie Clarke, National Coordinator of the Jubilee USA Network, wrote

Creditors are denying Haiti new loans and desperately needed humanitarian aid. They claim that this is because the current government cannot service its debt. Because debt payments must be made in the form of foreign capital and Haiti has only two weeks’ reserve in their central bank, it cannot service its debt. Jubilee USA and Jubilee Haiti argue that the debt is illegitimate and should not be serviced at all. Forty percent of Haiti’s current debt was accrued by the dictator Duvalier. According to international law, this debt is odious as it was a debt incurred in the name of the people but has not served the interest of the people. The people of Haiti have been handed a bill for their oppression.

Because Haitians were saddled with the debt of a dictator installed by the west, they are kept in perpetual poverty.

The dangers of this forced poverty policy were extremely clear. Clarke wrote in 2004:

Haiti’s loans from the 1994 reconstruction aid package will come due this year, doubling the country’s debt service payments. Before entering into new loan agreements, the best way that the donor community can start to assist in Haiti’s development is to release desperately needed resources by canceling Haiti’s odious debts. The pending loans are odious debt in the making. There are no guarantees that these funds will benefit the Haitian people. Creditors should heed the example of Iraq; they can not expect the Haitian people to repay these loans in the future.

And in 2009, $1.2 billion (2/3 of Haiti’s overall debt) was cancelled, which some saw as cause for celebration, but others realized the debt cancellation could only partly begin to right the wrongs of the past. Now that a large portion of the debt was gone, how could Haiti hope to begin to rebuild its economy and infrastructure? Instead of focusing on national production, the Haiti government seems determined to focus on the export sector. Haiti, like the west, is being told the cure to all her woes is the free market:

[A] few months ago UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and British economist Paul Collier made yet another proposal for international aid to fund garment assembly production in new Free Trade Zones.

Indeed, Corinne Delechat, IMF mission chief for Haiti, commenting on the debt cancellation, told Reuters that Haiti is a ‘land of opportunity if you’re an entrepreneur and an investor,” adding, “It is a golden moment for Haiti to start investing in export capacity, particularly in textiles.”

So therein lies the answer to why Haiti is so poor, and why so many citizens laid huddled in those paper shacks that immediately collapsed during the quake.

The media doesn’t like to focus on the details of Haiti as a rule. It pretty much ignored the 2008 floods from Hurricane Hanna that killed at least 537 people, and the ongoing food shortages. That could be because we have a superficial, shallow media that finds such suffering boring, or it could be because examining Haiti’s plights forces the US to uncomfortably self-examine its policies and history. Or maybe it’s because Haiti disturbs Americans at an almost subconscious level: horrific environmental disasters, food shortages, civil unrest. It’s a little like looking into a mirror that shows the future.

As for positive policy changes that could benefit Haiti and the US, I like Juan Cole’s idea of asking Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase CEOs to donate some of their $47 million in combined bonuses to Haiti.

The US government only puts in about $200 million a year into aid to Haiti. Although Americans tell pollsters that they think we give away too much in foreign aid, it is only about $22 billion, much less as a percentage of our national income than most advanced countries. A third of it goes to Israel and Egypt.

Instead of Congress having to borrow money to increase the aid budget to help Haiti, or raise taxes, why don’t the nice folks on Wall Street do the right thing? Just give 10 percent of their bonuses to Haiti. It might help change the public perception of them.

When pigs fly, right? In the meantime, you’re nice people, so give what you can to the people of Haiti.


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  1. collapse expand

    If the American government ignored New Orleans in the days following August 29th, 2005, why would you expect it to care for Haiti? But, I’m with the last statement you made: Forget governments and politics. Donate to those in need today.

  2. collapse expand

    This is a good post, but I think it’s a little simplistic. For one thing, U.S. debt policy is not unique to Haiti – and many other countries which owe us money do not have similar levels of poverty. Nor does the past few decades of U.S. economic policy explain the problems the country has faced for nearly two hundred years (nor the past actions of the U.S. military given that we were not nearly the occupiers that many European nations were).

    Post-colonial economics are extremely complex. I’m not saying you’re wrong – only that you’re simplifying a very complicated, multifacted problem down into “US debt policy is to blame” which may be part of the equation, but only part.

    Regarding “free trade” vs. “protectionism” – again, this is lacking nuance. Why do some poorer countries benefit so much from free trade policies while others do not? Perhaps it is not the fault of free trade, but the problem with pushing free trade too quickly on countries with very poor infrastructures and unstable governments. Free trade may be, in the end, the best thing for them – but pushing it too quickly may lead to ruin.

    Anyways, I enjoyed the post. My thoughts and prayers are with the Haitian people.

  3. collapse expand

    Odd to read through a lengthy article on Haiti’s political-economic woes without a single mention of corruption: the country is #1 on the BBC’s list of most corrupt states [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/6120522.stm].

    • collapse expand

      Yes, maybe Haiti is the world’s #1 most corrupt states. But do not forget that the United States and French government became a big part in creating that corrupt government. U.S. has been known in the world as a supporter and creator of corrupt regimes. At the time acting as a “police of the world” and bossing around poor countries like Haiti. So, you should know to which government should you point your finger to.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    RE:The United States began its occupation of Haiti in 1915 when Woodrow Wilson sent 330 U.S. Marines to Port-au-Prince

    Let’s had Wilson was a democrat

  5. collapse expand

    Bad USA Bad… Another America hater…

  6. collapse expand

    Here’s from one of your other contributors “Haiti cut its colonial ties too early, rebelling against the French in the early 19th century and achieving complete independence. Guadaloupe and Martinique are still riding the gravy train and French aid is a huge chunk of their gdps.”

  7. collapse expand

    Terrific post. The IMF hates public services – water, electricity, schools, healthcare.
    If public services are eliminated they can be replaced by corporate services, so we someone can charge for the necessities of life, like here in the U.S.A. – fwdpost.com

  8. collapse expand

    Thousands upon thousands lay dead and dying and the author of this post just sees another opportunity to push her pseudo-intellectual political garbage.
    What a ghoulish way to live.

  9. collapse expand

    I created a short video based on your document (with your references of course). I hope you will not disagree with it. Your text has not been modified.

    “Scapco – What Medias Don’t Tell You About Haïti Earthquake”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tV0Zme6yJM



  10. collapse expand

    Haiti is not now saddled with debt to the United States. As you noted, US groups helped obtain forgiveness from the World Bank for the entirety of Haiti’s debt in increments, the last of it being entirely forgiven in July 2009:
    http://omiusajpic.org/2009/07/01/haitian-debt-cancellation/ “In April 2009, the Obama Administration announced it would cover up to $20 million in debt service payments from Haiti until Haiti reached completion point.”

    On top of the forgiven debt, the US has provided about $3 billion in taxpayer funds since 1992 to Haiti.

    Even assuming Eduardo Galeano is not biased, and the US truly is responsible for Haiti’s debt, rather than just the biggest lender who forgave a struggling country, this entire article still argues better for Americans obtaining a tab each year that spells out where our tax funds are going than for our always cleaning up the messes that took place with our money, behind our backs. That policy has left us with a pretty hefty debt of our own.

  11. collapse expand

    Ugh. After looking into this a little more, I must tell readers to not let it be the last article you read on the matter. Yes, America has often occupied Haiti – to protect the citizens from corrupt officials. Aristide was voted in by only 10% of voters, with the others claiming they’d been manipulated out of voting. The Bush administration claims Aristide was brought to America at his own request, by armed guards, because of Haitian rebellions against him. They claim he called in the middle of the night during a rebellion, fearing for his life and wanting to be removed, and he resigned then. True, Aristide then claimed he was kidnapped. He also claimed that the US government was responsible for the rebellions against him. This with only 10% voter turnout. After he resigned, the Haitian government filed a RICO suit against Aristide, claiming he stole millions of dollars from the Haitian people. All of that is on Wikipedia.
    Read this argument in favor of continuing peacekeeping operations in Haiti, to protect them from corrupt government officials, made in 1997:
    “This ability for Haiti to flourish and the success of the U. S. military efforts can be seen by the fact that, ‘Haiti’s gross domestic product grew 2.7% in 1995 after declining about 30% in the previous three years. Inflation fell from 52% in 1994 to 25% in 1995. Exports expanded sharply, to $100 million in 1995 from $52 million in 1994.’[18] Overall, the military accomplished its strategic objectives of restoring democracy and providing humanitarian relief. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/library/report/1997/Goddard.htm
    The same story sounds so different BEFORE the Earthquake. The meanies are the ones who want to stop the Haitian occupation. Those are the heartless Americans who don’t care about Haitians. Haiti’s debts are not the fault of the Haitians, but this definitely throws too much blame on America.

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