Thursday, January 21, 2010


I haven't commented on what has been going on in Haiti. It seems too horrific to contemplate, but I came upon a quote from a French Minister that the Americans were not aiding but occupying Haiti.

Of course, I knew it was once a French colony and like much of the rest of the Caribbean, populated by the descendants of slaves. I also knew that it was the home of voodoo and that it had been ruled for a long time by Papa Doc Duvalier, but the attempt at a dynasty with Baby Doc had collapsed. I seem to remember a Catholic Priest winning an election a few years back. But really, I am very ignorant of the history of that part of the world, so I was interested to read this article in the Times today.<

Ben Macintyre writes: In the 18th century, Haiti was France’s imperial jewel, the Pearl of the Caribbean, the largest sugar exporter in the world. Even by colonial standards, the treatment of slaves working the Haitian plantations was truly vile. They died so fast that, at times, France was importing 50,000 slaves a year to keep up the numbers and the profits.

Inspired by the principles of the French Revolution, in 1791 the slaves rebelled under the leadership of the self-educated slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. After a vicious war, Napoleon’s forces were defeated. Haiti declared independence in 1804.

France did not forgive the impertinence and loss of earnings: 800 destroyed sugar plantations, 3,000 lost coffee estates. A brutal trade blockade was imposed. Former plantation owners demanded that Haiti be invaded, its population enslaved once more. Instead, the French State opted to bleed the new black republic white.

In 1825, in return for recognising Haitian independence, France demanded indemnity on a staggering scale: 150 million gold francs, five times the country’s annual export revenue. The Royal Ordinance was backed up by 12 French warships with 150 cannon. The terms were non-negotiable. The fledgling nation acceded, since it had little choice. Haiti must pay for its freedom, and pay it did, through the nose, for the next 122 years.

Historical accountancy is an inexact business, but the scale of French usury was astonishing. Even when the total indemnity was reduced to 90 million francs, Haiti remained crippled by debt. The country took out loans from US, German and French banks at extortionate rates. In 1900 some 80 per cent of the national budget was still being swallowed up by debt repayments. Money that might have been spent on building a stable economy went to foreign bankers. To keep workers on the land and extract maximum crop yields to pay the indemnity, Haiti brought in the Rural Code, instituting a division between town and country, between a light-skinned elite and the dark-skinned majority, that still persists.

The debt was not finally paid off until 1947. By then, Haiti’s economy was hopelessly distorted, its land deforested, mired in poverty, politically and economically unstable, prey equally to the caprice of nature and the depredations of autocrats. Seven year ago, the Haitian Government demanded restitution from Paris to the tune of nearly $22 billion (including interest) for the gunboat diplomacy that had helped to make it the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Cheese-eating surrender monkeys, indeed!

However, America cannot pat itself on the back.

The United States occupied the island from 1915 to 1934. This occupation was initially resisted by a peasant revolt termed the "cacos" insurrection which was led by Charlemagne PĂ©ralte. Accusations of "indiscriminate" killing by US Marines were formally investigated by US Brigadier General George Barnett who concluded that 3250 "natives" were killed. A later investigation noted that 98 Marines perished in the conflict as well. The Haitian administration dismantled the constitutional system, built roads, and established the National Guards that ran the country after the Marines left.

Scholars agree that Haiti was in much better shape after the occupation than before, but some accuse the US of establishing a "shaky" foundation that left the country with a doomed financial structure. This was due to a 1922 $40 million loan owed to the US as well as the country's national treasury and to the Banque Nationale owned by a New York bank. The result was a financial system that siphoned the country's wealth to offshore creditors instead of reinvesting it in the country's economy.

The US occupation forces established a boundary between Haiti and the Dominican Republic by taking disputed land from the latter. When the US left in 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo – in an event known as the Parsley Massacre – ordered his Army to kill Haitians living on the Dominican side of the border. In a "three-day genocidal spree", he murdered between 10,000 and 20,000 Haitians. He then developed a uniquely Dominican policy of racial discrimination, Antihaitianismo ("anti-Haitianism"), targeting the mostly-black inhabitants of his neighboring country.

Reference: Paul Farmer, Aids and accusation: Haiti and the geography of blame 2006 California University Press ISBN 9780520248397, pp. 180-181.

Haiti was perhaps the least prepared of any country to suffer such an earthquake. It is no surprise that relief has been so difficult to apply.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I had no idea. I've been of the opinion that Haiti must leverage its way to solvency and (at least) second-world status.

What France did was unconscionable.

Where is France now? Have they contributed massively to the earthquake relief.

Randy Shannon said...

I don't think I will toss and turn all night, worrying what the french might think...

Wayne said...

Very enlightening. too often judgments are made for what is seen on the surface without consideration for any foundational context.

It is easy for those born in cultures of functional opportunity to condemn those without. Fewer yet acknowledge the connection for how some societies become rich.