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Finding the Receipts – France’s $21B Debt to Haiti

Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer receiving Charles X’s decree recognizing Haitian independence on July 11, 1825. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

In 2003, Haitian firebrand and authoritarian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide put the Haitian economy front and center of his platform. One of his biggest arguments: the $21 billion the nation of France extorted from the little island nation throughout the majority of the last two centuries.

The nation, formerly known as Saint-Domingue, was once the most profitable slave colony in the eighteenth-century because that’s what you get when you work thousands of people without pay. Just ask Mississippi, which housed half the nation’s millionaires at the height of slavery. Unlike the U.S., however, Haiti’s slave class threw down its bondage and then waged a nationwide war against French slaveowners, often slaughtering them from house to house. It was the only successful slave revolution in Western history, and it immediately pitted the young free nation against its slaving regime neighbors. Those neighbors included Brazil, the colonized neighboring island of Cuba and the heavily-militarized slaving nation of the United States. Immediately after being born, the fledgling nation had to deal with a 60-year global embargo from these nations. The U.S. refused to even consider Haiti a legitimate nation until 1862.

This isolation made Haiti an easy target for European nations. France took advantage of the situation by bullying Haiti into paying it for all those slaves Haiti dared to liberate from the French. And they demanded Haiti use successive loans to keep paying for its freedom all the way up until 1947, after Nazi Germany came along and showed France what a real monster looks like.

In 2004, the Haitian government and international critics finally demanded France repay Haiti for the $21 billion in today’s dollars that it extorted. In 2015, France refused.

After months of studying information and archives, The New York Times estimated that France and other nations did indeed steal at least $21 billion from the new world’s first liberated nation.

“… for generations after (its) independence, Haitians were forced to pay the descendants of their former slave masters, including the Empress of Brazil; the son-in-law of the Russian Emperor Nicholas I; Germany’s last imperial chancellor; and Gaston de Galliffet, the French general known as the “butcher of the Commune” for crushing an insurrection in Paris in 1871,” the New York Times writes.

These “burdens continued well into the 20th century,” the paper says, with “the wealth … (bringing) wild profits for a French bank that helped finance the Eiffel Tower, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, and its investors.”

That same bank “eventually became part of one of Europe’s largest financial conglomerates” by controlling Haiti’s treasury from Paris for so many decades. “Haiti’s riches lured Wall Street,” as well, delivering the kind of profits that created Citigroup—all while Haiti’s people lived without running water.

That ransom money to slaveholders could have been used to invest in the Haitian economy. It could have created businesses, developed infrastructure, and constructed schools. Instead, it was used as a global slush fund for opportunistic countries. U.S. soldiers raided Haiti’s gold reserves, stealing more than half a million dollars just before invading and occupying Haiti between 1915 and 1934. Haiti was a defenseless ATM, and everybody made withdrawals.

In addition to onerous poverty, the long-gone French ruling class also managed to curse the populace with rabid U.S.-style colorism, which I reported on last year. This colorism fostered a resilient classism based on skin shade. That classicism, according to University of Virginia political professor Robert Fatton, Jr. and author of Haiti’s Predatory Republic: The Unending Transition to Democracy, led the way to exploitative leaders who, in turn, raided the Haitian budget for themselves.

Fatton says parasites like François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his family ransacked the nation’s budget for decades. They rose to power on a wave of ‘noirisme,’ which was a kind of ‘Black power’ reaction to centuries of resentment at Haiti’s privileged mulatto class. Mulattoes only comprise about five percent of the population but owned most of the nation’s wealth since Haitian independence.

This set the stage for the kind of enmity that Duvalier was able to exploit. Fatton says colorism was so critical to social status in Haiti that the population devised 30 different versions of perceived “Blackness,” from “grimaug” to “bongenmulaté,” to “marabout,” and every available shade and countenance between. See Color Ideology and Social Classes in Haiti to see more examples, but prepare your translator for French.

These days Haiti may be coming to terms with its rampant colorism, but its lingering economic failures can be traced directly to its exploitative western neighbors. Haiti’s struggles are deep and entrenched but can be overcome. An important first step would be for the rest of the world to acknowledge its theft and make amends.


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