How the U.S. impoverished Haiti

By J. Damu
-Guest Columnist- | Last updated: Sep 10, 2003 - 12:02:00 AM

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Graphic: Ladelle Muhammad
( - Though the demand by Haiti for reparations from France is just, it obscures the role the United States played in the process to impoverish Haiti—a role that continues to this day.

Today, Haiti is a severely indebted country whose debt-to-export ratio is nearly 300 percent, far above what is considered sustainable, even by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Both institutions are dominated by the U.S.

 In 1980, Haiti’s debt was $302 million. Since then, it has more than tripled to $1.1 billion, approximately 40 percent of the gross national product. Last year, Haiti paid more in debt service than it did on medical services for the people.

 Haitian officials say nearly 80 percent of the current debt was accumulated by the regimes of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, Doc and Baby Doc. Both regimes operated under the benign gaze of the United States, which has had a long and sordid history of keeping Haiti well within its sphere of economic and political influence.

 It is now well known that the primary source of Haiti’s chronic impoverishment is the reparations it was forced to pay to the former plantation owners who left following the 1804 revolution. Some of the White descendants of the former plantation owners, who now live New Orleans, still have the indemnity coupons issued by France. So, in fact, at least part of the reparations paid by Haiti went toward the development of the United States.

 In 1825, Haiti was forced to borrow 24 million francs from private French banks to begin paying off the crippling indemnity debt. Haiti only acknowledged this debt in exchange for French recognition of her independence, a principle that would continue to characterize Haiti’s international relationships.

These indemnity payments caused continual financial emergencies and political upheavals. In a 51-year period, Haiti had 16 different presidents; each new president often came to power at the head of a rebel army.

Nevertheless, Haiti always made the indemnity payments, and following those, the bank loan payments—on time. The 1915 intervention in Haiti by the Marines on behalf of U.S. financial interests changed all of that, however.

For the next 19 years, the U.S. Marine Corps wielded supreme authority throughout Haiti, often dispensing medicines and food as mild forms of pacification. Within several years however, charges of massacres of Haitian peasants were made against the military, as Haitians revolted against the road-building programs that required forced labor.

 In one such incident at Fort Reviere, the Marines killed 51 Haitians without sustaining any casualties themselves. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded Major Smedley D. Butler the Congressional Medal of Honor; not unlike the awarding of Medals of Honor to the "heroes" of the massacre at Wounded Knee, in which hundreds of Sioux Native American/Indians were slaughtered in 1890.

 Reports of U.S. military abuses against the Haitians became so widespread that NAACP official James Weldon Johnson headed a delegation to investigate the charges, which they deemed to be true.

 While the U.S. Occupation was not without some successes—the healthcare system was improved and the currency was stabilized—it was in other economic spheres, however, where the most damage was done. For the entire 19-year duration of the intervention, maximum attention was given to paying off Haiti’s U.S. creditors, with little to no attention given to developing the economy.

In 1922, former Marine Brigade Commander John Russell was named High commissioner of Haiti, a post he held until the final days of the Occupation. Under Russell’s influence, all political dissent was stifled, and revenue from the custom houses was turned over to Haiti’s U.S. bond creditors, often months ahead of schedule, who had assumed loans originally extended to Haiti to pay the French plantation owners reparations!

By 1929, however, with the Western world’s economic depression and the lowering of living standards throughout Haiti, serious student strikes and worker revolts combined with Wall Street’s inability to lure serious business investors there, Washington decided it was time to end the military occupation. When then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Haiti in 1934 to announce the pullout, he was the first head of a foreign nation in Haiti’s history to visit.

Despite the American military pullout, U.S. financial administrators continued to dominate the Haitian economy until the final debt on the earlier loans was retired in 1947.

Soon after the U.S. withdrew from Haiti, a Black-consciousness movement, of sorts, took hold that was the precursor of the "negritude" movement popularized by Aimee Cesaire and Leopold Senghor. Francois Duvalier, an early believer in "negritude," came to power in the late 1950s, popularizing ideas that resonated with a population that had withstood a White foreign occupation for many years.

By the time Duvalier grabbed the presidency of the world’s first Black republic established by formerly enslaved peoples, Haiti had experienced more than 150 years of chronic impoverishment and discriminatory lending policies by the world’s leading financial institutions and powers. The economic forecast for Haiti has not improved, even with the democratic election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, since he has been consistently demonized in the U.S. and world press.

It is now time to do the obvious: Accede to Haiti’s demands for reparations and cancel her debt.