Since a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti on Tuesday–killing tens of thousands of people–there’s been a lot of well-intentioned chatter and twitter about how to help Haiti. Folks have been donating millions of dollars to Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti (by texting "YELE" to 501501) or to the Red Cross (by texting "HAITI" to 90999) or to Paul Farmer’s extraordinary Partners in Health, among other organizations. I hope these donations continue to pour in, along with more money, food, water, medicine, equipment and doctors and nurses from nations around the world. The Obama administration has pledged at least $100 million in aid and has already sent thousands of soldiers and relief workers. That’s a decent start.
But it’s also time to stop having a conversation about charity and start having a conversation about justice–about recovery, responsibility and fairness. What the world should be pondering instead is: What is Haiti owed?
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."