Country Struggles to Repay International Debt
Washington Afro, Commentary, Nicole C. Lee, Posted: Mar 08, 2008
Editor’s note: Nicole C. Lee is the Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum and has had a longstanding interest in Haiti.
There is an old Haitian Creole saying that roughly translates �things are so bad, we are eating dogs.� Today, things are so bad in Haiti that mothers, fathers and children are starving while their country is forced to pay an international debt burden of almost 1 million U.S. dollars per week.
source: New York Times
Once again, the plight of the people of Haiti is in the news. There are terrible stories from the nation�s capital, Port au Prince, where times are so difficult that many Haitians have no alternative but to eat dirt. �Dirt cookies� — cakes made from salt, butter and dirt, while not a new survival tactic — highlight the grim reality of day-to-day life for many Haitians. Some 80 percent of the country�s people are forced to live on $2 a day, 50 percent survive on a $1 a day or less. One in four children is chronically malnourished.
Haiti�s once arable land continues to be deforested as the poor cut down trees in order to burn them for cooking and heat. Health care is inaccessible for so many and the conditions that cause disease �- contaminated water, poor shelter, and malnutrition -� are rampant. While Haiti has a democratically-elected government, the needs on the ground remain enormous, largely because of straining natural disasters and the effects of structural poverty.
President Preval has recently requested that �temporary protective status� be granted to Haitians in the U.S. who face deportation.
The roots of Haiti�s impoverishment run very deep. Born of a slave rebellion in 1804, Haiti was forced to pay the French for �the loss of its colony,� even the loss of slave labor.
This so-called debt was not paid off until the early 20th century and left the country virtually bankrupt. From the 1950s through the 1980s, Haiti�s dictators were granted loans by International Financial Institutions (or �IFIs�) such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.
The U.S. has a majority vote in many of these institutions, sets the rules, and provides much of the financing. While these institutions were created to eradicate poverty, notorious dictators, such as Francois Duvalier and Jean Claude Duvalier, were provided loans that furnished their lavish lifestyles and repressive regimes rather than assist the people. This behavior by dictators went on with a wink and a nod and today, Haiti has nothing to show for these loans except a legacy of repression.
Nevertheless, Haiti is forced to pay off these debts. Every week, the government pays almost 1 million dollars to IFIs, in large part, to pay off these odious and onerous debts. One million dollars per week the government could use for poverty alleviation programs and democracy building. One million dollars spent on debt that could afford each child an education, healthcare and a real future.
When world-wide debt relief initiatives began to take root, Haiti was left out of those programs. While Haiti had an overwhelming debt for a country of its size and production, it did not meet the debt burden threshold necessary to be eligible for relief programs, such as HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative). Despite paying on the debts, from 2000 until the coup that removed President Aristide, Haiti remained under a defacto humanitarian aid embargo. IFIs, under the watchful eye of Washington, withheld $146 million dollars of aid for potable water, roads and, healthcare.
Only recently, the IFIs have committed themselves to cancelling some of Haiti�s debt. Although this is a good sign, the cancellation is conditional based on further reduction of public services for the Haitian poor and will take a year or more to be effective.
Stopping these conditions and speeding up Haiti�s debt relief has received bi-partisan support. But Congress must act now to alleviate the suffering in Haiti. The U.S. government must use its profound influence with the International Financial Institutions to demand immediate cancellation of Haiti�s debt. There is no reason to wait. What could we possibly be waiting for?