The Ransom of France – The New York Times

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and a new series of investigations from The Times explores why. One astonishing detail: France has demanded reparations from the Haitians it once enslaved. This debt crippled Haiti’s economy for decades – and prevented it from building even basic social services, like sewers and electricity.

The series is based on over a year of reports, treasure troves of centuries-old documents, and analysis of financial records. I spoke to my colleague Catherine Porter, one of the four journalists who led the project, about what they found.

Why tell the story of Haiti now?

I’ve covered Haiti since the 2010 earthquake and been back dozens of times. Any journalist who spends time in Haiti is continually faced with the same question: Why are things so bad here?

The poverty is incomparable to anywhere else. Even countries that are impoverished compared to the United States or Canada, or many western countries — they still have some level of social services. Haiti simply does not.

Even if you are rich, you have to bring your own water and you need a generator for electricity. There is no real transportation system; it’s basically privatized. There is no real sewage system so people use outbuildings or the outside. There is no real garbage collection so garbage is piling up. There is little public education – it is mostly privatized – so the poor do not get much, if any, formal education. Health care is abysmal.

The usual explanation for Haiti’s problems is corruption. But the series suggests something else is also to blame.

Yeah. This other answer lodged in the corner of my mouth as I read more history books about Haiti. One of Laurent DuBois evokes this “debt of independence”, but he does not go into details. This was my first time reading about it and I was like, “What is this?”

So what was it?

After Haiti’s independence in 1804, France returned and demanded reparations for lost property – which turned out to include enslaved humans. French officials encouraged the Haitian government to take out a loan from French banks to pay.

This was called a double debt: Haiti was indebted to the former owners—the settlers—and also to the bankers. From the start, Haiti was in an economic hole.

It’s Wild: Settlers demanded reparations from former slaves.

We must remember that at the time, no one came to help Haiti.

It was the only free black country in the Americas, and it was an outcast. The British didn’t want to recognize it because they had Jamaica and Barbados as colonies. The Americans certainly did not want to acknowledge this; they still hadn’t ended slavery.

What would Haiti look like today without this double debt?

An example is Costa Rica. It also had a strong coffee export industry, like Haiti. While Haiti was spending up to 40% of its income to pay off this debt, Costa Rica was building electrical systems. People were setting up sewage treatment plants and schools. It would be closer to what Haiti could have been.

We didn’t even get into the American occupation from 1915 to 1934 and the family of the dictator of Haiti, who both plundered the country further. It was one crisis after another inflicted on Haitians.

It’s true. A dictator, François Duvalier, came to power in 1957. Before that, the Haitian government had finally erased most of its international debts. The World Bank had said that Haiti had to rebuild itself. Instead, Duvalier and then his son plunged the country into increased misery.

As if that weren’t enough, after the Haitian president demanded reparations in 2003, France removed him from office, with the help of the United States. Have France and the United States recognized the damage?

France experienced a slow easing. In 2015, its president, François Hollande, declared that France had imposed a “ransom” on Haiti, and that he would reimburse it. But soon, his aides correct him, saying he means he’s going to repay the moral debt; he wasn’t talking about money.

The Times translates these stories into Haitian Creole. What is the point ?

If I talk to someone on the street in Haiti, they will only speak Haitian Creole. So I thought that if we were to do a story about the history of Haiti, surely it should be accessible to the people of this country.

The most popular form of media in Haiti is radio, especially in rural areas where illiteracy is high. I hope we will be able to put the Creole version in the hands of certain people to read parts of it on the radio, so that people in Haiti can hear it, discuss it and form an opinion.

It’s a Haitian story. It should be made as accessible as possible to Haitians.

Learn more about Catherine Porter: She grew up in Toronto and got her first full-time job as a reporter at the Vancouver Sun. In 2010, she traveled to Port-au-Prince for the Toronto Star to report on the earthquake — a mission that changed her life. She returned there more than 30 times and wrote a memoir about her experiences there. She joined The Times in 2017, leading our Toronto office.

The Times published several articles on the history of Haiti this weekend, including:

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