Haiti makes its case for reparations: The meter is running at $34 per second

By J. Damu
-Guest Columnist– | Last updated: Feb 10, 2004 - 9:29:00 PM

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( - You’ve got to hand it to Haiti. Not only was it the world’s first country of enslaved workers to stand up and demand their freedom and independence; now they are the world’s first country to stand up to their former slavery-era master, France, and demand the return of its stolen wealth. Everyone say "Amen."

Haiti’s president and other government officials claim their country was held-up at gunpoint in broad daylight in 1825 and now they want the admitted thief, France, to replace the stolen wealth to the tune of $21.7 billion. This, despite massive attempts, well documented elsewhere, by the United States and world lending institutions to destabilize and overthrow the democratically elected government of Jean Bertrand Aristide.

Government officials also say, due to forced efforts to hand over its wealth in a timely manner to France, the coerced payments so distorted and stunted the economy that Haiti feels the effects to this day and that Haiti became saddled with a form of class oppression that resembles racism.

In a soon to be published booklet provided to a U.S. reporter by the foreign press liaison to President Aristide, Haitian government officials dissect the 1825 "agreement" that initially forced Haiti to pay to France 150 million francs in exchange for liberty.

The booklet, as is Haiti’s restitution claim, is based largely on the research of Dr. Francis St. Hubert, a member of the government’s Haiti Restitution Commission. He did most of his research in New York at the Columbia University Library and the Schomburg Center.

According to the booklet, which will soon be published under the name of the Haiti Restitution Commission, following the 1804 revolution that expelled France, Haiti was divided into two districts, northern and southern, but was re-united following the death of Henri Christophe in 1820. Under the new president, Jean Pierre Boyer, diplomatic notes began to be exchanged with various French functionaries on the diplomatic recognition of Haiti.

Finally in 1825, France, which was being encouraged by former plantation owners to invade Haiti and re-enslave the Blacks, issued the Royal Ordinance of 1825, which called for the massive indemnity payments. In addition to the 150 million franc payment, France decreed that French ships and commercial goods entering and leaving Haiti would be discounted at 50 percent, thereby further weakening Haiti’s ability to pay.

According to French officials at the time, the terms of the edict were non-negotiable and to impress the seriousness of the situation upon the Haitians, France delivered the demands by 12 warships armed with 500 canons.

The 150 million franc indemnity was based on profits earned by the colonists, according to a memorandum prepared by their lawyers. In 1789, Saint Domingue (all of Haiti and Santo Domingo) exported 150 million francs worth of products to France. In 1823, Haitian exports to France totaled 8.5 million francs, exports to England totaled 8.4 million francs, and exports to the United States totaled 13.1 million francs, for a total of 30 million francs.

The lawyers then claimed that one half of the 30 million francs went toward the costs of production, leaving 15 million francs as profit. The 15 million franc balance was multiplied by 10 (10 years of lost revenues for the French colonists due to the war for liberation) which coincidentally totals 150 million francs, the value of exports in 1789.

To make matters worse for Haiti, the French anticipated and planned for Haiti to secure a loan to pay the first installment on the indemnity. Haiti was forced to borrow the 30 million francs from a French bank, which then deducted the management fees from the face value of the loan and charged interest rates so exorbitant that, after the payment was completed, Haiti was still six million francs short.

The 150 million franc indemnity represented France’s annual budget and 10 years of revenue for Haiti. One study estimates the indemnity was 55 million more francs than was needed to restore the 793 sugar plantations, 3,117 coffee estates and 3,906 indigo, cotton and other crop plantations destroyed during the war for independence.

By contrast, when it became clear France would no longer be in a po-sition to capitalize on further westward expansion in the Western hemisphere, they agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory, an area 74 times the surface area of Haiti, to the U.S. for just 60 million francs—less than half the Haitian indemnity.

Even though France later lowered the indemnity payment to 90 million francs, the cycle of forcing Haiti to borrow from French banks to make the payments chained the Black nation to perpetual poverty. Haiti did not finish paying her indemnity debt until 1947!

According to the Haitian government’s reparations booklet, the immediate consequence of the debt payment on the Haitian population was greater misery. The first thing President Boyer did to help pay the debt was to increase from 12 to 16 percent all tariffs on imports to offset the French discount.

The next step he took was to declare the indemnity a national debt to be paid by all the citizens of Haiti. Then, he immediately brought into being the Rural Code.

By Haitian First Lady Mildred Aristide’s account in her book, "Child Domestic Service in Haiti and its Historical Underpinnings," the Rural Code laid the basis for the legal apartheid between rural and urban society in Haiti. With the Rural Code, the economically dominant class of merchants, government officials and military officers who lived in the cities legally established themselves as Haiti’s ruling class.

Under the Rural Code, agricultural workers were chained to the land and allowed little or no opportunity to move from place to place. Socializing was made illegal after midnight and the Haitian farmer who did not own property was obligated to sign a three, six or nine-year labor contract with a large property owner. The Code also banned small-scale commerce so that agricultural workers would produce crops strictly for export.

The Rural Code was specifically designed to regulate rural life in order to more efficiently produce export crops with which to pay the indemnity. The taxes levied on production were also used predominantly to pay the indemnity and not to build schools nor to provide other social services to the generators of this great wealth, the peasants. 

Mr. St. Hubert and the national bank compute the exact amount Haiti is demanding from France as $21,685,135,571.48 at five percent annual interest.

"France is getting off easy," Mr. St. Hubert told a U.S. newspaper. If Haiti charged 7.5 percent interest on the money, "France would owe $4 trillion today and much more tomorrow.

"The French can debate whether they want to pay as long as they like," the researcher said, "but at five percent interest, it will cost them $34 per second."

(For more information, contact the Haiti Action Committee (510) 483-7481, write them at HAC, P.O. Box 2218, Berkeley, CA, 94702 or visit their website at the following address: J.Damu is the acting Western Regional Representative for N’COBRA—National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. He can be contacted at [email protected].)