Is it just me, or did anyone else find the mainstream media coverage of Haiti’s earthquake confusing, misleading, inconclusive and, quite frankly, infuriating? OK, so that’s what I should expect from mainstream media sources, I hear you cry. But when all the countries now so involved in aid have been so recently implicated in the de-stabilisation of Haiti’s government and economy, not talking about it in over two weeks of constant prime time broadcasts constitutes pure misinformation.
Illustrations by Anieszka Banks
There was perhaps a fraction of an abstract half-mention about previous US intervention somewhere…but basically nothing. Instead, we heard vague statements about Haiti’s ‘history of violence’ and ‘bloody revolutions’ rolled out like a broken record as if this was actually meant to tell us something. It could easily lead us to conclude that Haitians’ economic poverty was down to themselves, their culture and their inability to sort their country out. Haitians are being represented as savage looters to justify the need for foreign military presence.
So how about the country that was the first ever to revolt against slavery and emancipate itself from centuries of barbaric colonial rule? And how about the socially, politically, environmentally and economically destructive role of France, the US and other Western nations in Haiti? I resolved to get back to BA French books, essays and notes for some intense history revision. This week I looked at Haiti’s colonial history and debt.
Haiti, now 98% deforested, was a rich and beautiful island before colonisation and debt. Haiti’s name comes from the native language, which described the island as ‘Ayti’ (mountainous), until the Spanish changed it to ‘Hispaniola’ (little Spain), which the French later changed to Saint Dominique. Columbus found it in 1492, tried to form a settlement, found the natives hostile to his ideas, and returned in 1493. Hispaniola was the first European settlement in the ‘New World’.
The Spanish colonisers gradually eradicated the native population with diseases and inhumane treatment, so hundreds of thousands of Africans were enslaved and transported to Haiti to meet the rising need for labour. The French started getting interested in the booming economy, and gradually gained possession of the island by 1659. By 1750 Haiti was Europe’s most important exporter of sugar, making it the main source of economic growth for the French government.
By 1791 the slaves had started organising themselves in revolt and what followed was a long battle for emancipation. Led by figures like Toussaint L’Ouverture , they freed themselves from their European masters and gained independence in 1804, the first colonised country ever to do so. They had managed to defeat the last-ditch attempts of the huge armies of three empires to recapture Haiti: Britain, who sent 50 000 troops in 1796, France in 1803 (the Haitians defeated 35 000 troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte), and numerous Spanish armies between 1791 and 1804. The US, another nation dependant on slavery, only recognised Haiti’s independence almost 60 years later, in 1862.
But by 1825, Haiti was again trapped by extreme debt. The French government, defeated and humiliated by the loss of its most prized colony, ordered Haiti to pay the ex-colonisers compensation for the property they had lost, and the estimated economic loss to the French government. This totalled $150 million: $150 million that ex-slaves had to pay back to their ex-masters. France and other Western powers, fearing that their other colonies would also start revolting, threatened Haiti with an economic embargo if they refused to pay the compensation, so Haitians had no choice. It was a sum that left the island crippled with debt to French, US and German banks, and one that it was only able to finish repaying about $90 million of in 1947. So until so recently, Haitians were still repaying this sum to the wealthy French government, preventing them from investing it in their own economic development.
Haiti also still owes the International Monetary Fund $165 million. IMF and World Bank loans came with strict conditions called Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). SAPs aim to reorganise a country’s government and economy so it can repay debt as rapidly as possible. Requirements include cuts in public spending, making more money available for debt repayment but meaning health care and education become inaccessible for the majority of the population. Cheap, intensive, trade-union-free labour needs to be made readily available for easy foreign investment. The economy needs to become export-led. Imported products become cheaper than domestic goods. Farmers and manufacturers within the country can no longer compete and lose their livelihoods meaning domestic agriculture industry and trade are stifled. The best land is used for intensive, large-scale, export-bound production, leading to soil erosion and deforestation.
Food production was so badly managed as a result of the structural adjustment free-market policies, that Haiti, once a huge exporter of rice, became a net importer of it. Growing starvation in the once self-sufficient rural regions meant that people had to migrate en masse to cities, forming slums on its outskirts. This is also why the devastation in Port au Prince was particularly severe.
Haiti continues to owe about $891million to international banks and governments and NGOs worldwide are calling for people to sign petitions for it to be dropped. So next time you see appeals for aid, remember how much of it Haiti will have to send back in debt repayment.
“It is one of the poorest countries in the world and yet the International Monetary Fund (IMF) response to the earthquake was to offer a $100 million loan. This loan would increase Haiti’s debt burden at this time of crisis. If Haiti’s debts aren’t cancelled, the country will be sending tens of millions to the IMF and other international bodies even as it struggles to rescue and rebuild” say Oxfam.
There are various petitions you can sign to pressure the IMF to drop Haiti’s debt, whether they help or not is another question. Haiti should, in fact be repaid every last penny of what it paid in compensation to ex-colonisers. But what certainly is needed is a rapid growth of consciousness about how sustainable development and democracy continue to be stifled by the economic policies of our governments and financial institutions.
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