France’s Ransom

France’s Ransom

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and a new Times investigative series explores why. One stunning detail: France demanded reparations from Haitians it once enslaved. That debt hamstrung Haiti’s economy for decades — and kept it from building even basic social services, like sewage and electricity.

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

Why tell Haiti’s story now?

I’ve been covering Haiti since the earthquake in 2010, and returned dozens of times. Any journalist that spends time in Haiti continually confronts the same question: Why are things so bad here?

The poverty is beyond compare 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 just doesn’t.

Even if you’re rich, you have to bring in your own water, and you need a generator for electricity. There’s no real transportation system; it’s basically privatized. There’s no real sewage system, so people use outhouses or the outdoors. There’s no real garbage pickup, so trash piles up. There’s little public education — it’s mostly privatized — so poor people don’t get much, if any, formal schooling. The 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 into the side of my mouth as I read more history books on Haiti. One by Laurent DuBois mentioned this “independence debt,” but he didn’t go into much detail. That was the first time that I read about it and was like, “What is this?”

So what was it?

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

It became known as a double debt: Haiti was in debt to former property owners — the colonists — and also to the bankers. Right from the get-go, Haiti was in an economic hole.

It is wild: The colonists asked the former slaves for reparations.

You have to remember that, at the time, no one came to help Haiti.

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

What might Haiti look like today without this double debt?

One example is Costa Rica. It also had a strong coffee export industry, like Haiti does. When Haiti was spending up to 40 percent of its revenue on paying back this debt, Costa Rica was building electricity systems. People were putting in sewage treatment and schools. That would be closer to what Haiti could have been.

We haven’t even gotten into the U.S. occupation from 1915 to 1934 and Haiti’s dictator family, both of which further looted the country. It was one crisis after another inflicted on Haitians.

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

As if that wasn’t enough, after Haiti’s president asked for reparations in 2003, France removed him from office, with U.S. help. Have France and the U.S. owned up to the damage?

France has had a slow softening. In 2015, its president, François Hollande, said that France had imposed a “ransom” on Haiti, and that he would pay it back. But very quickly, his aides corrected him, saying that he meant he was going to pay the moral debt back; he wasn’t talking about money.

The Times is translating these stories to Haitian Creole. What’s the goal?

If I’m talking to anyone on the street in Haiti, they’ll speak only Haitian Creole. So I felt that if we’re going to do a story about Haitian history, surely it should be accessed by the people of that country.

The most popular form of media in Haiti is the radio, especially in rural areas where illiteracy is high. My hope is that we can get the Creole version in the hands of some people to read parts of it over the radio, so people in Haiti can hear it and debate it and form their opinions.

This is a Haitian history. It should be made as accessible as possible to Haitians.

More on Catherine Porter: She grew up in Toronto and got her first full-time journalism job at The Vancouver Sun. In 2010, she went to Port-au-Prince for The Toronto Star to report on the earthquake — an assignment that changed her life. She has returned more than 30 times and written a memoir about her experiences there. She joined The Times in 2017, leading our Toronto bureau.

The Times this weekend published several articles on Haiti’s history, including:

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