The Western origins of Hati's 'curse'

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Haiti is a country that has seen unfathomable suffering, and has been at the epicenter of natural disasters in recent years. The poverty and powerlessness that is so widespread (even before the earthquake, three-quarters of Haitian people lived in poverty) left the people defenseless against the horrific events of 12 January. It's no wonder people are asking whether this nation is cursed.

Across the world there arose an extraordinary spirit of generosity and solidarity in the wake of the earthquake, but sadly this is unlikely to last. Tearful comments projected onto our television screens have ceased, and as the coverage starts to diminish, the plight of the Haitians will fade from our minds and our consciences.

But what if events took another course? What if the momentary sorrow we felt led to some deep searching about why this Caribbean nation has been so unlucky?

If we did indeed do this thoughtful analysis, we would find that the story of Haiti, even from the earliest decades of its independence, is one of a downward spiral into debt and underdevelopment. As a nation, it has been at the short end of the stick, time and time again, in its relationships with richer and powerful countries. Haiti, it turns out, never stood a chance.

The story of Haiti

Until the late 18th century, Haiti was a French colony used to produce food, principally sugar, for a prosperous France. In 1803 the Haitian people staged the only successful slave revolt in history, defeating Napoleon's French army and winning freedom for themselves and their nation.

But the cost was high. The fighting destroyed infrastructure and killed thousands of the country's people. And Haiti was punished for its 'rebellion' — not by God, as some have dared to suggest, but by the European colonisers who were angered by the dangerous precedent that the Haitian liberation movement had set.

In 1825, with warships positioned off the coast, France threatened to reinvade and re-establish slavery unless Haiti compensated slave owners for the loss of 'property'. With other western powers also threatening an embargo, Haiti agreed to pay a sum of 150 million francs in return for recognition of sovereignty.

The new debt, equivalent to US$20 billion in today's currency, was 14 times larger than Haiti's annual export revenues, so instead of spending its income on infrastructure and public services, the government was forced to divert up to 80 per cent to western banks for the right to self-govern.

The freedom won in the previous century didn't last. In 1914 a marine expedition from the US landed on Haitian soil, at least in part to facilitate the establishment of US plantations. For 20 years the US illegally occupied the country, only withdrawing when the government agreed to remove the constitutional provision prohibiting foreigners to own and run businesses.

The military occupation was followed by more of the same. For nearly three decades, between 1957 and 1986, the infamous father/son dictatorship of 'Papa Doc' and 'Baby Doc' Duvalier ruled the country. With the US, international institutions, and other western donor governments turning a blind eye, the Duvaliers used foreign aid to pay for Manhattan shopping excursions, fur coats and government death squads.

Despite widespread reports of the brutality, corruption and mounting foreign debt, the loans and political backing continued to flow so long as the dictators remained ideological allies in the Cold War. When the reign of the family ended, Haiti was left with an external debt totalling more than $1 billion, while $900 million worth of expropriated funds awaited the Duvalier's in French and Swiss bank accounts.

Even at the end of the dictatorships, foreign powers continued to exert strong influence over the political and economic scene of Haiti. In the 1980s and '90s the IMF was used to bail out the commercial banks who'd lent more money to developing countries like Haiti than the countries could ever afford to repay.

The IMF, which claimed to be helping countries like Haiti fight poverty, began to dictate policy to ensure that repayment of foreign debt continued. Spending on public services was cut, tariff protections on export industries were removed, and new 'aid' loans were diverted almost directly back to the banks in wealthy countries. The government was left with little to no capacity to invest in nation building.

In just one example of this phenomenon, the IMF forced the Haitian government to drop tariffs on agricultural production. As a result, the USA began to dump their own subsidised agricultural production on the Haitian market, putting most local rice farmers out of business. As many as two million people relocated from farming areas to the slums of Port-au-Prince, and this desperate pool of workers became the cheapest labor in the world.

The country has since become home to a booming sweat shop industry.

Does this history matter today?

Haiti's impoverishment can't be viewed independently from a global economic system and a model of international development that is dysfunctional — that works in the interests of wealthier countries and powerful developing country elites.

Yet the real events are not reported by the popular media. To this day there has been no acknowledgement of the odious nature of the debt accrued by Haiti's dictators, nor any recognition of bad policy advice by donor countries and international institutions. As a result it is all too easy for us to live in ignorance.

Instead, the people of Haiti have been characterised by a narrative depicting them as miserable, violent and incapable of solving their own problems. It should come as no surprise then, that recent proposals to 'help' the benighted country in the aftermath of this most recent tragedy offer solutions cast from the same mould.

It is hard to imagine what more could be extracted from this country where half the population struggle for one meal a day, and yet the international community's political interventions are as much about pushing its own agenda as helping Haiti become independent and self-sufficient, and the results will thus again be ineffective.

The IMF has offered the Haitian Government a new loan of $102 million, attached to which are the same harmful economic policy conditions that have to date undermined the country's ability to chart its own development future. The private sector is preparing to seize the opportunity, with a 'Haiti Investment Summit' to take place in Miami soon. Corporations will be pressuring their governments to make sure they win reconstruction contracts through tied bilateral aid, or through influence in the international development banks.

While this may sound crude, it is not unprecedented. Most Australians remain unaware that 50 percent of our Government's one billion dollar 'Tsunami package' to Indonesia post-Tsunami was in the form of reconstruction loans which must be paid back.

When the Coalition Government was putting the bill through Parliament early 2005, the Greens attempted to have it amended, arguing for the full amount to be made in grants. However concessional the terms of the loans, they said, in the medium to long term this would worsen Indonesia's debt problems and further impair the Government's ability to manage its own budget.

Even Kevin Rudd, then spokesmen for the Labor opposition, cautioned the Coalition against thinking that in extending the $500 million in loans they would be buying some political advantage for Australian contractors.

In terms of foreign debt, Haiti's deficit still stands at over one billion dollars. The G7 nations have agreed to cancel 100 per cent of the bilateral debt owed to them in response to massive public pressure. Now we must put weight on the international financial institutions, particularly the IMF, to do the same.

People will be asking whether cancellation of this debt will simply reward a corrupt government and continue a cycle of dependence. But playing the corruption card is all too often a convenient way of avoiding some uncomfortable truths. If Haiti's elites were corrupt and venal, it was only be because we in the West taught them to be that way, and more often than not supported them because it served our interests to do so.

In fact, a more profitable line of questioning would be: Who is holding the international community accountable for its role in Haiti? Beyond the immediate relief, how will aid money be spent in Haiti?

Will big donors and international institutions continue to dictate how the money must be spent, giving preference to those parts of the reconstruction process which benefit foreign companies the most, and which encourage the exploitation of cheap labor in foreign owned export industries? Or will the aid money be spent in a way which puts the people's basic needs first; to build a system of efficient free public education, a new public health system and a sustainable local agricultural industry?

Most of us wish greater democracy for Haiti. But authentic democracy cannot be imposed from the outside. It must be home-grown. We should be asking how we can support self-empowerment of Haitian people and public institutions. This means listening to the voices of grassroots groups and civil society movements who for decades have been on the front line of the struggle for democracy and the fight against their nation's underdevelopment.

In an open letter to international NGO partners, the coordinating committee of Haiti's progressive civil society movements made its desire clear: 'We are advocating a humanitarian effort that is appropriate to our reality, respectful of our culture and our environment, and which does not undermine the forms of economic solidarity that have been put in place over the decades by the grassroots organisations with which we work.'

One thing is certain: the people of this embattled nation are facing the challenges with courage and optimism. Days after the earthquake, at a public gathering in the Court of Human Rights to honour the victims, those present declared in solidarity that they are not a people cursed, but a brave people who will rise from the ashes. As for me, I'm choosing to be on the side of the brave.


Adele WebbAdele Webb is National Coordinator for Jubilee Australia, a Sydney based anti-poverty NGO researching the root causes of poverty, and lobbying to challenge the economic policies and structures that perpetuate it. Jubilee Australia emerged out of the successful international Jubilee 2000 Drop the Debt Coalition.

Topic tags: adele webb, haiti, davalier, papa doc, baby doc, imf, earthquake, curse, pat robertson

 

 

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Thanks for putting the situation in Haiti in historical and political perspective. Even critics of the 'cursed' argument have tended to gloss over the terrible price Haiti has continued to pay for its 'independence'. Corrupt dictators and their coteries have been tolerated because they were not 'communists' and posed no threat to powerful neighbours. al. Let's hope the earthquake's devastation provides real opportunities for the development of civil society and a genuine democracy with equality of opportunity for all.
Myrna Tonkinson | 06 March 2010


Thank you for such a revealing article on the devestating history of this nation.

We need to know the truth, if we are to address social injustices, and these seem to loom large in Haiti's history.

We are so far removed from this type of suffering, that after the initial shock and some donations to assuage our conscience,it is easy to drift back into being 'comfortable' again.

I hope this article will 'fire us up' to do something which will make a difference in lives less fortunate than our own. That we will realise that following Christ,requires prayer followed by action!

I will look up Jubilee Australia, to try to find the most effective to help.

Many thanks!!
Bernie Introna | 06 March 2010


Dear Adele Webb,
I am an MD/PhD student at University of Tx Health Science Center. Many students at my school are involved in humanitarian aid programs directed at Hati. I feel they are being ineffective and wish to write a paper about how best to help Hati from an economic perspective thereby affording them the ability to pursue higher quality medical care that is both sustainable and targeted.

Having read your above article, I am interested in your thoughts.

Cheers,
Daniel Barron
Daniel Barron | 12 September 2010


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