By Isabel MacDonald, TheStar.com
Academics, authors and activists from around the world are proposing a bold solution to the shortfall
Nearly seven months after a devastating earthquake killed upwards of 250,000 people in Haiti, UN special envoy to Haiti Bill Clinton told Associated Press on Aug. 6 that international donors have yet to make good on their promises of billions of dollars to help the country rebuild.
Haiti’s rebuilding could cost $14 billion, according to a recent Inter-American Development Bank study. Yet only “five countries — Brazil, Norway, Australia, Colombia and Estonia — have so far provided $506 million, less than 10 per cent of the $5.3 billion pledged for Haiti at a March donors’ conference,” according to an Aug. 6 AP article.
Today, dozens of leading academics, authors and activists from around the world proposed a bold solution to this desperate financial shortfall.
Why not reimburse Haiti for the illegitimate “independence debt” it paid France?
In an open letter to French president Nicolas Sarkozy published today in the French national daily newspaper Liberation, 90 leading academics, authors, journalists and human rights activists from around the world urged the French government to pay Haiti back for the 90 million gold francs Haitians were forced to pay as a price for their independence.
There are “powerful arguments in favour of the restitution of the French debt,” as Harvard medical professor Paul Farmer (who was recently appointed deputy UN special envoy to Haiti) pointed out in his testimony at the 2003 hearings in France on the independence debt.
This historic payment was patently illegitimate, and, on several different scores, it was also illegal, according to a 2009 paper produced by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.
Prior to independence, St. Dominique — the country that is now Haiti — was France’s most profitable colony, thanks in no small part to its particularly brutal system of slavery. In 1791, the slaves revolted, and in 1804, after defeating Napoleon’s armies, founded the world’s first black republic.
Following Haiti’s independence, former French slave owners submitted detailed tabulations of their losses to the French government, with line items for each of “their” slaves that had been “lost” with Haitian independence. In 1825, French King Charles X demanded that Haiti pay an “independence debt” to compensate former colonists for the slaves who won their freedom in the Haitian revolution. With warships stationed along the Haitian coast backing up the French demand, France insisted that Haiti pay its former colonizer 150 million gold francs — 10 times the fledgling black nation’s total annual revenues.
Under threat of a French military invasion that aimed at the re-enslavement of the population, the Haitian government had little choice but to agree to pay. Haiti’s government was also forced to finance the debt through loans from a single French bank, which capitalized on its monopoly by gouging Haiti with exorbitant interest rates and fees.
The original sum of the indemnity was subsequently reduced, but Haiti still disbursed 90 million gold francs to France. This second price the French exacted for the independence Haitians had won in battle was, even in 1825, not lawful. When the original indemnity was imposed by the French king, the slave trade was technically illegal; such a transaction exchanging cash for human lives valued as slave labour represented a gross violation of both French and international laws.
And Haiti was still paying off this “independence debt” in 1947 — 140 years after the abolition of the slave trade and 85 years after the emancipation proclamation.
A lawsuit launched by the Haitian government to recuperate these extorted funds was aborted prematurely in 2004, with the French-backed overthrow of the government that had the temerity to point out that France “extorted this money from Haiti by force and . . . should give it back to us so that we can build primary schools, primary health care, water systems and roads.”
The French government was similarly quick to suppress a Yes Men-style prank announcement last Bastille Day pledging that France would repay Haiti. On July 15 — one day after the hoax — a spokesperson for the French ministry told Agence France Presse that the French government was pursuing possible legal action.
The open letter to Sarkozy, signed by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, Canadian journalist Naomi Klein, Princeton professor Cornel West, Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, and several renowned French philosophers — Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar and Jacques Ranciere — called the French government’s measures against those advocating restitution “inappropriate responses to a demand that is morally, economically, and legally unassailable.”
“In light of the urgent financial need in the country in the wake of the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, we urge you to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due,” stated the letter, which was also signed by European, French, Filipino and Quebec parliamentarians, and scholars, journalists and activists in France, Haiti, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Germany.
The letter added that the sum France owes Haiti today stands at well over 17 billion euros.
Isabel Macdonald is a Montreal-based scholar whose research on Haiti has been published by the Canadian Journal of Communications, Development Journal and the Nation magazine. She helped draft the letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
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