Sir Hilary Beckles reminds us in his recent article in the “The hate and the quake” (Barbados Advocate, 17 January 2010) that “for too long there has been a popular perception that somehow the Haitian nation-building project, launched on January 1, 1804, has failed on account of mismanagement, ineptitude, corruption” and that the independence project was “was defeated by an aggressive North-Atlantic alliance that could not imagine their world inhabited by a free regime of Africans as representatives of the newly emerging democracy.”
Especially today, when so many are struggling to find funds and some are rallying to eliminate Haiti’s debt with the International Monetary Fund, the Inter-American Development Bank, and others, we must not forget that Haiti has always paid a steep price—from the beginning and at many levels—for daring to proclaim itself a sovereign country. It was “isolated at birth” with many colonial powers still yearning to claim it as their own. On the material level, from its inception as a free country Haiti was “ostracized and denied access to world trade, finance, and institutional development,” with France, England, and the newly-formed United States refusing to recognize its sovereignty. By 1825, the economically and politically strangled republic was forced to find a way to be inserted back into the world economy and decided to invite the French government to a summit. Beckles explains:
Officials arrived and told the Haitian government that they were willing to recognise the country as a sovereign nation but it would have to pay compensation and reparation in exchange. The Haitians, with backs to the wall, agreed to pay the French. The French government sent a team of accountants and actuaries into Haiti in order to place a value on all lands, all physical assets, the 500,000 citizens were who formerly enslaved, animals, and all other commercial properties and services. The sums amounted to 150 million gold francs. Haiti was told to pay this reparation to France in return for national recognition. The Haitian government agreed; payments began immediately. Members of the Cabinet were also valued because they had been enslaved people before independence.
Thus began the systematic destruction of the Republic of Haiti. The French government bled the nation and rendered it a failed state. It was a merciless exploitation that was designed and guaranteed to collapse the Haitian economy and society. Haiti was forced to pay this sum until 1922 when the last installment was made. During the long 19th century, the payment to France amounted to up to 70 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Jamaica today pays up to 70 per cent in order to service its international and domestic debt. Haiti was crushed by this debt payment. It descended into financial and social chaos.
The republic did not stand a chance. France was enriched and it took pleasure from the fact that having been defeated by Haitians on the battlefield, it had won on the field of finance. In the years when the coffee crops failed, or the sugar yield was down, the Haitian government borrowed on the French money market at double the going interest rate in order to repay the French government. When the Americans invaded the country in the early 20th century, one of the reasons offered was to assist the French in collecting its reparations.
The collapse of the Haitian nation resides at the feet of France and America, especially. These two nations betrayed, failed, and destroyed the dream that was Haiti; crushed to dust in an effort to destroy the flower of freedom and the seed of justice. Haiti did not fail. It was destroyed by two of the most powerful nations on earth, both of which continue to have a primary interest in its current condition. The sudden quake has come in the aftermath of summers of hate. In many ways the quake has been less destructive than the hate. Human life was snuffed out by the quake, while the hate has been a long and inhumane suffocation—a crime against humanity.
During the 2001 UN Conference on Race in Durban, South Africa, strong representation was made to the French government to repay the 150 million francs. The value of this amount was estimated by financial actuaries as US$21 billion. This sum of capital could rebuild Haiti and place it in a position to re-engage the modern world. It was illegally extracted from the Haitian people and should be repaid. It is stolen wealth. In so doing, France could discharge its moral obligation to the Haitian people. For a nation that prides itself in the celebration of modern diplomacy, France, in order to exist with the moral authority of this diplomacy in this post-modern world, should do the just and legal thing. Such an act at the outset of this century would open the door for a sophisticated interface of past and present, and set the Haitian nation free at last.
A leading Caribbean economic historian, Hilary Beckles is Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the West Indies-Cave Hill Campus.
For full article, see http://www.barbadosadvocate.com/newsitem.asp?more=letters&NewsID=8490
For more information on Sir Hilary Beckles, see http://www.cavehill.uwi.edu/principal/biography_two.asp
[Many thanks to Wendy Singh and Linda Rodríguez for bringing this article to our attention.]