June 2022 Newsletter: Haiti in the News – Understanding the Historical Context

Aerial view of Cap-Haitien, Haiti.

As an organization working in Haiti for over 15 years, we have become very familiar with the term “Haitian resilience” as an expression to capture the enduring spirit and strength of Haitians amidst the ongoing challenges faced by the small island nation.  However, this term doesn’t even begin to  capture the two centuries of determination for social justice and equality that have been obstructed by the prevailing global powers and the continued economic colonization of the country.

We see Haitian resilience everyday, in forms that many of us have never had to experience – hauling water to our homes, finding a safe space outside of home to use the bathroom for our children and ourselves, traveling to work on foot because the roads are impassable, to name a few. It is important to remember that while this determination for survival is admirable it is also  unacceptable for families to be forced into the position of fighting daily for their survival. Many of these challenges can be solved with basic infrastructure in place, but even in its early establishment as a new country, Haiti was uniquely denied  this investment in its people and its infrastructure as a result of an unprecedented debt forced upon Haiti by the defeated colonial powers. Although all Haitians, and most foreigners who have worked in solidarity with Haiti are acutely aware of Haiti’s post-colonial history, we were grateful to see Haiti’s historical context analyzed in a recent series published by the New York Times that was able to shine a light on the centuries of economic oppression suffered by Haiti at the hands of its former colonial powers. In this month’s newsletter we wanted to share more about the eye-opening series and research, and we hope you get the opportunity to read further on this topic beyond our newsletter.

Haiti’s History in the News

Last month the New York Times published an in-depth report titled “The Ransom: Haiti’s Lost Billions” that laid out the history of France’s demands for money from a newly independent Haiti and the ongoing economic suffering that resulted when Haiti was forced to pay this ransom for their freedom.  The investigation stirred reactions from around the world, particularly in Haiti, where renewed cries for reparations have begun to sound.

Reparations for Haiti now! (The Haitian Times)

Haitians to France: Return the debt money (The Haitian Times)

The series provides an overview of the entirety of Haiti’s history but focuses closely on the events of 1825, more than twenty years after it declared independence, when the French returned and demanded that Haiti pay them “reparations” or else face a war, setting the stage for decades of debt and exploitation. The paper asks: “For years, as New York Times journalists have chronicled Haiti’s travails, a question has hovered: What if? What if the nation had not been looted by outside powers, foreign banks and its own leaders almost since birth? How much more money might it have had to build a nation?”

The cost of the reparation demands was high. Haiti’s previous colonizer, France, demanded 150 million francs — an amount far too much for the young nation to pay outright and so it took out loans with hefty interest rates from French and American banks. It took Haiti 122 years to pay the debt off and severely damaged the country’s ability to prosper in the meantime. The paper concluded—and fourteen experts agreed—that the payments amounted to at least twenty-one billion dollars in today’s currency and the economic losses experienced as a result are likely greater than $100 billion.

By forcing Haiti to pay for its freedom, France essentially ensured that the Haitian people would continue to suffer the economic effects of slavery for generations. Imagine, instead, a Haiti that had maintained the capital that was paid out to foreign banks all of those years? Imagine the infrastructure that could have been built with that money instead…the schools, the roads, the hospitals, the homes, the water and sanitation infrastructure.

Poverty changes a person and a place

In nature, soil transforms organic matter, sustaining ecological systems by converting one organism’s wastes into another’s resources. It is from the soil that our organization has borrowed both our name and our philosophy. We believe that the path to sustainability is through transformation and investment in, both marginalized people and discarded materials, turning disempowerment and pollution into participatory production and resilience.

The social injustices created by the debt that was hoisted on Haiti (and the corruption that resulted as it was paid off) is critical to understanding why Haiti has remained as impoverished and underdeveloped as it is today. And our work at SOIL is guided by a continual commitment to understanding the impacts of these historical injustices.

Justice implies more than a short-term fulfillment of needs based on dependency. It implies a commitment to social change whereby impoverished communities are liberated from their suffering in this lifetime through active participation in, and transformation of, their reality.

Haiti was, and still is, a unique and exceptional place. Its revolution inspired abolition movements across the world and was pivotal in ending slavery globally. With the NY Times placing Haiti in the news again, it is our hope that the world will step aside and support Haiti in its endeavor to recreate itself as a country freed to reach its full potential through local innovation and agency, the fundamental building blocks for development that it has previously been denied.

Thank you for your enduring support and advocacy.

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