Haiti and debt

After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold.

For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments.

In order to manage the original reparations, further loans were taken out — mostly from the United States, Germany and France. Instead of developing its potential, this deformed state produced a parade of nefarious leaders, most of whom gave up the insurmountable task of trying to fix the country and looted it instead.

In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.

Emphasis mine. From the London Times. Hat tip to Naunihal.

Having such a heavy weight round one’s neck is an onerous thing. But I would still look into early governance patterns and power relations, land distribution, and social control for clues to Haiti long struggle against poverty and disaster.

I am reminded of Coffee and Power, by Jeffrey Paige, that looks at the widely different paths four Central American nations took due to (somewhat idiosyncratic) patterns of land distribution and control for coffee production. Coffee is one of those rare crops that produces profitably at several levels of scale.  Costa Rica, which opted for smallholder production, would soar, while Guatemala, which moved towards haciendas and plantations, would crumble. This area remains understudied.

I’m conscious that historical ruminating is callous at a time of crisis. At the same time, the reason why we keep hearing that Haiti is devastated by earthquakes and hurricanes, and the Dominican Republic or Bahamas is not: one has remained poor and badly governed, while the other has not. There are nearly 20 earthquakes of similar magnitude a year on the planet. In some nations disasters kill masses, while in others they merely damage (and so don’t make the news).

In the meantime, my brother tells me that translators (Creole ones, especially) are the relief resource most scarce at the moment. If you speak it, maybe consider a trip. Otherwise, do consider giving.