Before anyone accuses me of denying emergency aid to the people of Haiti, I want to point out that I’m all for giving Haitians every bit of help we can afford — just not only now, in the form of food deliveries and water tanks and search-and-rescue teams. The world needs to look at Haiti (and almost all so-called Third World countries) in the bigger picture, looking at what goes into the country and, more importantly, what comes out of the country.
A clue: foreign debt plus interest.
This article in The Nation outlines quite nicely how instantaneous help in the form of food and credits may seem a noble gesture, but on the flipside of this uneven relationship between Haiti and the “world community”, these same measures create more long-term problems than they solve in the short run, much like giving a homeless person a heroin habit instead of a job — and charge them for the drug, too. Haiti is still unashamedly being bled out: food aid at dumping prices, sponsored by the US govt, is good money for the US farming industry, while rice prices in Haiti (a former rice exporter) fall into the cellar, robbing farmers of their livelihoods. And to add interest to injury, the cost of paying back its foreign debt outweighs all the “help” the country gets. To think that Haiti was the very first slave nation to gain independence (on paper), but that has since spent the roughly two centuries under the yoke of financial pressure, would seem to give enough reason to just scratch the slate clean and give them a real, new chance at independence.
Haiti’s vulnerability to natural disasters, its food shortages, poverty, deforestation and lack of infrastructure, are not accidental. To say that it is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere is to miss the point; Haiti was made poor–by France, the United States, Great Britain, other Western powers and by the IMF and the World Bank.
Now, in its attempts to help Haiti, the IMF is pursuing the same kinds of policies that made Haiti a geography of precariousness even before the quake. To great fanfare, the IMF announced a new $100 million loan to Haiti on Thursday. In one crucial way, the loan is a good thing; Haiti is in dire straits and needs a massive cash infusion. But the new loan was made through the IMF’s extended credit facility, to which Haiti already has $165 million in debt. Debt relief activists tell me that these loans came with conditions, including raising prices for electricity, refusing pay increases to all public employees except those making minimum wage and keeping inflation low. They say that the new loans would impose these same conditions. In other words, in the face of this latest tragedy, the IMF is still using crisis and debt as leverage to compel neoliberal reforms.
For Haiti, this is history repeated. As historians have documented, the impoverishment of Haiti began in the earliest decades of its independence, when Haiti’s slaves and free gens de couleur rallied to liberate the country from the French in 1804. But by 1825, Haiti was living under a new kind of bondage–external debt. In order to keep the French and other Western powers from enforcing an embargo, it agreed to pay 150 million francs in reparations to French slave owners (yes, that’s right, freed slaves were forced to compensate their former masters for their liberty). In order to do that, they borrowed millions from French banks and then from the US and Germany. As Alex von Tunzelmann pointed out, “by 1900, it [Haiti] was spending 80 percent of its national budget on repayments.”
It took Haiti 122 years, but in 1947 the nation paid off about 60 percent, or 90 million francs, of this debt (it was able to negotiate a reduction in 1838). In 2003, then-President Aristide called on France to pay restitution for this sum–valued in 2003 dollars at over $21 billion. A few months later, he was ousted in a coup d’etat; he claims he left the country under armed pressure from the US…
Then of course there are the structural adjustment policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank in the 1990s. In 1995, for example, the IMF forced Haiti to cut its rice tariff from 35 percent to 3 percent, leading to a massive increase in rice-dumping, the vast majority of which came from the United States. As a 2008 Jubilee USA report notes, although the country had once been a net exporter of rice, “by 2005, three out of every four plates of rice eaten in Haiti came from the US.” During this period, USAID invested heavily in Haiti, but this “charity” came not in the form of grants to develop Haiti’s agricultural infrastructure, but in direct food aid, furthering Haiti’s dependence on foreign assistance while also funneling money back to US agribusiness…
A 2008 report from the Center for International Policy points out that in 2003, Haiti spent $57.4 million to service its debt, while total foreign assistance for education, health care and other services was a mere $39.21 million. In other words, under a system of putative benevolence, Haiti paid back more than it received.