Today Haiti is most commonly known for being the poorest country in the western hemisphere and a land wracked by destitution and despair. This picture has only been reinforced by the horrific consequences of the 13 January earthquake, 15kms southwest of Port-au-Prince.
While the media networks are falling over themselves to relay stories of its dreadful consequences - although it is still a distant second to the blanket coverage of the Lillis murder trial - the reporting has been conspicuous by the general absence of any attempt at in-depth analysis as to why the earthquake had such lethal consequences. In this respect the link provided by Donagh on Irish Left Review yesterday to The Real News: Haiti and the Devil’s Curse is well worth a look.
Article originally published in The Irish Left Review
Despite the many human stories of personal tragedies and losses, how (or how not) international relief efforts are assisting the people of Haiti and reports on ‘insecurity’ in the country and the deployment of US forces and EU police to establish order, we are left uninformed as to the context within which this earthquake took place. To understand this it is necessary to look at the history of Haiti. While this piece will only touch very briefly on certain key episodes, there are some books recommended at the end for those who are interested in getting a better understanding of the real reasons for Haiti’s current crisis.
As a starting point it has to be emphasised that the current overwhelming degradation and poverty suffered by the people of Haiti is particularly poignant, given Haiti’s proud inception to nationhood. Haiti has the proud claim of being the first republic led by people of African descent as well as being the second oldest country in the Americas after the US.
Between 1791 and 1804 the Haitian Revolution, predominantly comprised of slaves, fought and successfully overcame the forces of French, British and Spanish colonial empires. This was the first successful slave rebellion ever and was a particularly bitter struggle with little quarter given on either side. However, in the 200 years since then Haiti has sadly seen the abject failure to build on this globally momentous achievement. While the finger has been pointed at Haitians themselves with respect to their ‘willingness’ to accept and submit to dictators, such as the infamous Papa and Baby Docs, the real cause of their unwelcome status as the poorest nation in the ‘western hemisphere’ must assuredly be attributed to the continuous disruption and intrusion in their national affairs by foreign powers.
As Yves Engler writes: "Unfortunately, Haiti’s history also demonstrates how fluidly Europe (and North America) moved from formal colonialism to neo-imperialism. Technically 'independent' for more than two centuries, outsiders have long shaped the country’s affairs. Through isolation, economic asphyxiation, debt dependence, gunboat diplomacy, occupation, foreign supported dictatorships, structural adjustment programs and 'democracy promotion'."
A particular thorn in the side of Haiti’s development revolves around the issue of its international debt obligations. The plague of ‘debt’ dates right back to 1825 when France, backed by its warships, demanded that Haiti compensate the French loss of its slave colony. In order to be recognised by France as a ‘sovereign republic’, Haiti had to pay 150m francs, a sum comparable to France’s annual budget and equivalent to €15bn in current monetary terms. In other words, the newly liberated slaves of Haiti were obliged to somehow scrape this vast sum together in order to assume their rightful place in the international community.
A century ago in 1910, the country’s only commercial bank and national treasury, the Banque National d’Haïti was purchased by the US State Department-National City Bank of New York (Citibank). As a result, Haiti’s national debt now became the US consortium’s debt. This led to President Woodrow Wilson deciding in 1915 to dispatch US troops to occupy Haiti in order to protect its investment. US soldiers remained in Haiti for just under 20 years up until 1934, during which time 40% of Haiti’s GDP was appropriated and transferred to US bankers. Despite the troop withdrawal from Haiti in 1934, overall control of Haiti’s finances remained with the US until 1947.
Today the very lifeblood of Haiti continues to flow to international banks and creditors. Its current international debt stems largely from the despotic rule of the Duvaliers. In 1957, Doctor François Duvalier triumphed at the polls in a democratic election. However, upon obtaining the reins of power, he had no hesitation in establishing himself as an autocratic ruler, relying on force and terror to remain in power until his death in 1971. In the pursuit of this goal he was firmly supported by the US. Although it should be noted that in the early 1960s, the US tired of Papa Doc and in 1963 even suspended diplomatic relations with Haiti for a period.
During Papa Doc’s reign, some 30,000 Haitians were killed for opposing his rule. The Haitian killing fields were predominantly the work of the ton ton macouts - officially known as the Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale or VSN - who were primarily comprised of rural dwellers. By 1962, within five years of his electoral victory, Duvalier’s ton ton macoute were a larger organisation than the military and had also effectively usurped their authority.
Following Papa Doc’s death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (Baby Doc) although only 19, took over as ‘ruler for life’. Duvalier was invested with near-absolute power by the constitution. Although Baby Doc did release some political prisoners and soften the regime in certain respects, his administration mainly continued along the same path as his father with an absolute prohibition on opposition. In spite of US reservations regarding Papa Doc, the Duvaliers were generally supported by the ‘West’.
The Duvalier dynasty, which lasted longer than any other regime in Haiti’s history, also saw an explosion in its debt obligations. Over the 30 year period of the Duvalier dictatorship, between 1957 and 1986, foreign debt multiplied by 17.5. When Baby Doc fled the country in 1986, total debt amounted to US$750m. It has been estimated that loans extended during this period amounted to some 40% of Haiti’s total debt obligations.
However, the important thing to bear in mind here is that these funds were fraudulently borrowed by the Duvaliers for their own personal enrichment and to strengthen their position in Haiti. Furthermore, the international financial community and institutions who issued these loans were only too well aware of the corrupt and despotic nature of the borrowers. To all extents and purposes therefore these loans should now be regarded as odious debt and cancelled.
Despite the massive debt burden with which Haiti was faced and the dishonest method by which it had been incurred, Haiti was not considered for debt relief when the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries initiative (HIPC) was first launched in 1996 as the international process to grant debt relief and cancellation. It was only in 2006 that the World Bank and the Paris Club agreed to accept Haiti into the HIPC. By that stage, Haiti’s foreign debt amounted to well over US$1.337bn. It was agreed that debt of US$1.2bn would be cancelled in order to “make the debt bearable”. However, by the time the initiative was completed and the debt was cancelled in June 2009, Haiti’s total international debt had ballooned out to US$1.884bn. Therefore, even with the reduction of US$1.2bn, Haiti still had a debt of just under US$700m.
Moreover, while it was undoubtedly a positive development for 60% of Haiti’s debt to be cancelled, it is unforgiveable that it took so many years to do so. In the years that had passed while Haiti waited for its debt to be cancelled, it had to adhere to its repayment schedule while interest continued to accrue on its outstanding obligations, including those entered into by the Duvaliers.
Following the ousting of Baby Doc, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected as President on the back of his programme to implement land reforms, provide assistance to peasants, increase wages and establish union rights for sweatshop workers and invest in improved infrastructure. A coup in 1991, which was backed by the US, removed Aristide from power until 1994 when he was returned to power by Clinton. However, as a condition of his reinstatement he had to commit to implementing a neoliberal economic program, known to Haitian’s as the “plan of death”.
Although Aristide refused elements of the US plan, his implementation of other components undermined his own program of reforms. His demand for US$21bn in reparations in his final year and reluctance to toe the US line, led to US imposing severe sanctions on Haiti. These sanctions crippled the Haitian economy and pushed workers and rural peasants even further into poverty.
The end to Aristide’s efforts at reform came in 2004 when he was kidnapped and deported by an unholy alliance of certain sections of Haiti’s ruling class and the US. A puppet government, headed by an ex-UN official Gérard Latortue was installed and promptly proceeded to misappropriate as much as it could of the US$4bn of aid that flowed into Haiti after the departure of Aristide. This new regime also promptly halted the tentative reforms that Aristide had initiated thus speeding up the immiseration and impoverishment of the country’s citizens.
In 2006, René Préval an erstwhile ally of Aristide was voted into power. However, in his second term as President, his first being between 1996 and 2001 when Aristide was in exile, Préval room for manoeuvre has been extremely limited. Indeed, in 2008 his Presidency was rocked by food riots given the soaring cost of food items in Haiti. This shortage could be traced to the pressure put on countries such as Haiti to engage in producing export crops rather than food for domestic consumption and the consequent purchasing and consolidation of large parcels of land by foreign companies to grow food for export.
The rice industry provides an excellent example of this trend. Whereas 25 years ago, Haiti was growing 125,000 tons of rice annually with only some 7,000 tons being imported from the US, the market liberalisation process saw Haiti importing 225,000 tons of rice a mere 20 years later.