Haiti’s Inconvenient History

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Haiti’s Inconvenient History
by Chigozie Onyema

The earthquake in Haiti is now over a month old. The media attention it once garnered is slowly fading, while calls to raise money from cable networks, such as BET, persist. Natural disasters seem to bring out the best in the international community, both state and private actor. NYU Law students quickly responded to the disaster with creative fundraising efforts. Cuba sent over 400 doctors and medical personnel to supplement the over 400 hundred Haitian doctors freely trained in Cuban medical schools. [1] Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade offered to resettle homeless Haitians in Senegal, stating that “The repeated calamities that befall Haiti prompt me to propose a radical solution -- to take measures to create somewhere in Africa... the conditions for Haitians to return.” [2] President Barack Obama initially responded with a robust aid package of $100 million, but according to the Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget the U.S has already spent over $300 million. [3] It is unclear, however, how much of that $300 million is aid.

Haiti is often cited as the poorest country in the western hemisphere, hence the international response was sorely needed. But, few, if any, of us ask how or why Haiti remains so poor. Perhaps the answer to this question could provide some insight on how to make our well-intentioned response more productive and responsive to the needs of Haitian people. As such, this op-ed will take a cursory look at Haiti’s early history in search of some answers.

Haiti liberated themselves from French colonial rule in 1804 to become the first free black republic in the world. During their liberation struggle Haiti defeated three European armies: Spain, Great Britain, and France. [4] From this struggle emerged liberation heroes Toussaint L’Ouverture and Henri Christophe who would outmaneuver the best and brightest European generals and rival the United States’ George Washington and Henry Knox in prominence. In spite of their military victory, Haiti would pay an additional price for freedom. France refused to recognize them and imposed crippling blockades and embargoes that other countries would also adopt. [5] Haiti looked to the United States for recognition and support, believing the author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, meant the words in that (in)famous document. However, Jefferson feared a slave revolt in his own country and refused to recognize Haiti. [6]

The French government eventually agreed to recognize Haiti and lift its embargo if they agreed to compensate France for losing its richest colony. Crumbling as a result of the economic embargo and under imminent threat of French invasion and possible re-enslavement, Haiti would capitulate and agree to pay France 150 million gold francs in 1825. [7] The amount was five times Haiti’s export revenue, [8] forcing Haiti to borrow the money from France at usurious interest rates. They would not finish paying off their “debt” until 1947, the final payment of which was made to the United States who bought the debt from France.

Haiti’s last legitimate leader former President Jean Betrand Aristide, who was forced to leave the country in exile, in part, by the United States and France, [9] prepared a legal brief asking France for nearly $22 billion in restitution. [10] This figure was calculated by Haiti’s national bank using a five percent annual interest rate. [11] Over sixty years after the final payment Haiti is still feeling the heavy burden of the debt, evidenced by it perennially being ranked as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Perhaps our efforts to help Haiti would be better served by creating a critical mass of people in the most powerful country in the world that supports Haiti’s demand for restitution. I imagine that some people will greet the idea of fair compensation with cynicism, as such an outcome is unpopular and unlikely. However, as Randall Robinson once wrote “The indefatigable amongst us never sally forth to policy wars needing as sustenance victory or recognition. Neither outcome is ever likely. Those of us who do this work do it often to small reaction and are met more frequently with defeat than success. But we do it still, for no clearer reason than that we somehow viscerally know we must. For bound up therein, more with the fight than its improbable fruit is the lifelong defense we make of our very souls." [12]

Works Cited:
01) Castro, Fidel Ruiz. “The Lesson of Haiti.” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/castro160110.html. (January 16, 2010)

02) American Free Press. “Resettle Haitians in Africa: Senegalese President.” http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5hMcQ3akHeBvtnGynUahV7XeCWomw. (January 17, 2010)

03) Ryan, April D. “U.S. Haitian Relief Hits 300 Million.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/april-d-ryan/us-haitian-relief-hits-30_b_450429.html. (February 5, 2010)

04) Danner, Mark. “To Heal Haiti, Look to History, Not Nature.” http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/22/opinion/22danner.html. (January 21, 2010)

05) Varadarajan, Tunko. “Why Haiti’s Earthquake is France’s Problem.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-01-14/why-haitis-earthquake-is-frances-problem/ (January 14, 2010)

06) Moyers, Bill. “Haiti’s Problems are Rooted in Its Colonial Legacy.” http://www.alternet.org/world/145388/bill_moyers%3A_haiti's_problems_are_rooted_in_its_colonial_legacy. (January 27, 2010)

07) De Cordoba, Jose. “Haiti Pins Hopes for Future on Very Old Debt.” http://www.odiousdebts.org/odiousdebts/index.cfm?DSP=content&ContentID=9636 (January 2, 2004). Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

08) Id.

09) Robinson, Randall. An Unbroken Agony: From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President. (New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2007).

10) De Cordoba, Jose. “Haiti Pins Hopes for Future on Very Old Debt.”

11) Id.

12) Robinson, Randall. Defending the Spirit: A Black Life in America. (New York: Penguin Group, 1998), 165.