On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that it had cancelled Haiti’s $268m debt. Furthermore, the impoverished nation is being given a $60m loan to help rebuild the country after January’s catastrophic earthquake. The loan will be interest free until the end of 2011 after which rates will remain low (between 0-0.5%). That’s the good news. The IMF, though, is a bit like a shady used car salesmen (no offence to used car salesmen)—all the talk of a generous deal is usually to mask the fact that the buyer is getting screwed. Sure enough, buried in the IMF’s press release is the following statement: “The new program also includes important policy commitments from the authorities that will help protect macroeconomic stability, and strengthen fiscal governance.” While it’s still too early to know what these “policy commitments” entail (to my knowledge, the Haitian government’s Letter of Intent to the IMF, wherein these commitments are detailed, has not been made public), if the history of the IMF is any indicator, they will likely include a set of neo-liberal reforms aimed at privatizing the public sector and easing restrictions on corporations intent on doing business in Haiti (often at the expense of Haitians themselves). Given the history of the West’s treatment of Haiti, further exploitation would simply be business as usual.

To understand that history, and to understand why Haiti is in such a desperate situation today, we have to go back over 200 years to the 1791 Haitian Revolution, when Haitian slaves, drawing inspiration from the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, rebelled against the French colonialists and established the world’s first independent nation run by former slaves. Though the revolution was a success, the death toll was high: 24,000 out of 40,000 whites killed and 100,000 out of 500,000 blacks killed. On top of this, the young nation struggled to gain recognition from the world’s major economic and military powers and had to contend with invasions and trade embargoes from France, the UK, and the US—all of whom, despite their claims of liberty and equality for their own citizens, feared that the success of the Haitians might put a few ideas into the heads of their own slaves. It wasn’t until Haiti defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 that France finally agreed to recognize Haiti’s independence, but such independence came at a price: 150m francs, in gold. This was later reduced to 90m in the 1830s, but it was still an obscene price (about 10 times its national revenue) and to this day Haiti remains the only country where ex-slaves were forced to pay a foreign government for their own freedom. With 80% of the national budget going into repayments by 1900, the debt load prevented Haiti from developing the infrastructure and services that the nation needed to survive. In order to pay down its debt, Haiti had to acquire loans from U.S. and French banks, which only helped to exacerbate an already impossible financial situation. When it become clear that the nation would not be able to pay back these debts, the U.S. government stepped in on behalf of its own banks and occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934.

It was not until 1947 that Haiti was able to pay off its original reparations to France—122 years after independence and 99 years after slavery was abolished in France. By then, Haiti was vulnerable to political corruption and was subjected to the dictatorship of François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) from 1957 to 1971. Papa Doc received tacit, if not entirely enthusiastic, support from the U.S. government who, for the sake of a bulwark against communism, managed to look beyond his killing and expulsion of political opponents and his pillaging of the nation’s resources. Papa Doc was followed by another 15 years of dictatorship with his son, Jean-Claude Duvalier (“Baby Doc”), at the helm.

Though Baby Doc was overthrown in 1987, it was not until 1990 that Haitians were able to elect their own leader, Jean-Bertrande Aristide. Now you would think by now the West would have learned its lesson, that it would have realized that maybe Haitians could do a better job of running Haiti than France or the U.S. could, that maybe, just maybe, the West would take responsibility for the crimes committed against Haitians and provide some form of compensation for over 200 years of oppression. Instead, Aristide was overthrown in 1991 with the support of the CIA and Haitians were subject to CIA funded death squads until 1994 when the U.S. allowed Aristide to return to office, along with an IMF loan to assist the country in rebuilding. The loan, however, required Haiti to engage in neoliberal “structural adjustments,” the most devastating of which was opening its markets to highly subsidized US rice and ending the subsidization of its own rice. The result? Haitian rice growers were unable to compete with the US, rice production collapsed (this in a nation that had formerly produced nearly all of its own rice), and Haiti had to start importing the majority of its rice from the US. Furthermore, rice growers who were now out of work had no choice but to seek employment in the cities and from 1995 to 2009 Port-au-Prince ballooned from 2.5 million to 3.6 million, compounding the problem of already overcrowded, poorly constructed neighbourhoods. It should come as no surprise then that when Port-au-Prince was struck by an earthquake this January, 230,000 people lost their lives.

Aristide the second time around, however, still refused to be the lackey the West was hoping for. First, he had the audacity to demand France repay Haiti $21 billion in reparations for slavery and the 122 years of debt forced on the country. France replied by telling Aristide to step down. Second, and far more offensive, he raised the minimum wage in Haiti from $1 to $2 a day. American business leaders, which relied on cheap Haitian labour, were outraged at the prospect of having to pay their workers $2 a day—not an hour, but a day!—and demanded Aristide’s removal. In 2004 they got just what they asked for: Aristide was whisked off to Africa by the US and his Fanmi Lavalas party (largely supported by the poor and opposed to IMF austerity measures) banned from the elections. Today, Aristide, despite demands for his return by the country’s poor, remains in exile.

As Naomi Klein has written, Haiti should be considered a creditor, not a debtor and, indeed, with the background of abuse Haitians have put up with at the hands of Western governments, we should consider it an outrage to even suggest another loan is somehow fair or even generous. What Haiti needs and deserves is not loans and further “policy commitments” to an unelected and discredited organization like the IMF, but reparations for hundreds of years of exploitation and for Western governments to allow Haitians to run Haiti as they see fit. Unless Haiti is treated like an equal and allowed to rebuild on its own terms, the spiral of violence and poverty that it has been forced into for centuries will remain.

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