The Case for Haitian Reparations

Haitians are asking the French government to return some of what was stolen.

Les Cayes, Haiti after Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. United Nations Photo / Flickr

For a brief moment recently, Haiti dominated the news cycle. As always, this American media attention only came in a moment of crisis.

According to the Washington Post, local Haitian officials reported that Hurricane Matthew, the region’s most dangerous Category 4 storm in nearly a decade, killed at least 900 people, destroyed livestock, and wreaked havoc on farmers’ crops. The storm flooded rivers, leveled bridges, and in some towns, 80 to 90 percent of homes were destroyed. In the hurricane-ravaged south, 500,000 people were stranded and 30,000 homes have been destroyed. UN officials reported some 800,000 people are facing food insecurity, including 315,000 children.

As unavoidable as a natural disaster seems, Hurricane Matthew was also a human-made catastrophe, the cumulative effect of five hundred years of environmental degradation before and after French colonialism. Haitians know — even if the rest of the world forgets — that every rainy season brings a potential humanitarian crisis.

And yet, the global response has been the same as usual: rather than examine how the complex intersections of history, politics, economics, and ecology conspire to make Haiti susceptible to natural disasters and epidemics, journalists, pundits, and NGO operatives instead shift blame onto Haitians themselves. They present Haitians as a people incapable of managing their nation. This view has guided the international response to Haiti since its independence two hundred years ago.

Immune to Progress

The hurricane came after Haitians achieved a rare victory in August. Six years after the 2010 cholera outbreak that killed ten thousand people and sickened seven hundred thousand more, the United Nations admitted that it caused the epidemic. Poor sanitation at a peacekeeping camp allowed cholera-infected sewage to seep into Haiti’s largest tributary, the Artibonite River.

Officials from Doctors Without Borders noted that the public-health crisis that followed was one of the worst cholera outbreaks in recorded history. A United Nations special rapporteur called the organization’s refusal to admit guilt “morally unconscionable, legally indefensible, and politically self-defeating.” The United Nations had opted instead to follow in the footsteps of foreign occupiers: shift blame onto Haitians, seen as inferior people in a “backwater” country.

This rhetoric can also be found in the responses to the 2010 earthquake. Detractors like New York Times columnist David Brooks argued that Haiti’s problems come from “a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” Brooks blames the victims, promoting a baseless cultural pathology in place of a historical explanation.

But a quick glance at the nation’s history reveals that the Haitian people are immune to progress only insofar as they’ve continually lived under a ruling class that works in favor of foreign accomplices.

The Haitian physician and ethnographer Jean Price Mars, considered the intellectual godfather of the Négritude movement, accused the Haitian elite of practicing collective Bovarysme, or a form of mass, escapist daydreaming, at the expense of the largely traditional African-heritage population. Historically, the country’s political and moneyed elites have preferred an export-oriented economy over the internal development of the people’s economic and political autonomy.

Today, Haitians are working to win another international victory to follow their success against the United Nations. They have challenged the French government’s colonial record and the 150-million-franc indemnity it levied in 1825 as punishment for Haiti winning freedom and expelling slaveholders. In 2004, during Haiti’s bicentennial year, president Jean-Bertrand Aristide called for $22 billion in reparations.

Reparatory demands stem from the fact that the French indemnity crippled the Haitian state and civil society. It intensified an already predatory state and accelerated the vulnerability of the economic infrastructure, easing the floodgates for foreign exploitation, especially by American financiers. To make matters worse, chauvinist nationalists divested the economic and political welfare of the Haitian people in favor of foreign interests. This same elite ruled like landed lords over serfs.

In 2004 and again after the 2010 earthquake, French authorities denied that the indemnity stunted Haitian growth. However, were the same UN special rapporteur to investigate the historical aftershocks of this arrangement, evidence would show that a cloud of debt peonage covers the country’s distressed past and present. It would show that France — which used capital from peasant Haitians to enrich former planters and their offspring — bears responsibility for Haiti’s human catastrophe.

Gilded Negroes and Anticapitalism

Nowhere was the brutality of slavery more on display than in the Caribbean. Slaves born in Haiti could hope to work for about fifteen years before dying. The average enslaved woman performed enough labor to remain sick or disabled for nearly 60 percent of her life.

Financial investment in the exploitation of black slaves resulted in a simple cruel logic: it was cheaper to work slaves to death and then import another boatload of men and women than to provide them with bare subsistence. Because of this, Saint-Domingue, as colonial Haiti was known, became the wealthiest European colony in the world. It produced much of the cotton, tobacco, indigo, and sugar that fattened the pockets of France’s wealthiest aristocrats.

The colony’s breakneck productivity accounted for more than a third of French overseas trade and 40 percent of all sugar traded in the Atlantic markets. Given the high rate of mortality, Olaudah Equiano, an enslaved African, wrote in his Narrative of fearing that he and others were being trafficked so that Europeans can “fatten and afterwards eat them as delicacy.” As the historian Vincent Brown noted, terrorized Africans even “believed that black bodies had been pressed to make cooking oil, that European red wines contained the blood of the enslaved; and that cheese had been pressed from their brains.”

Had the Haitians not defeated France, they would have faced a “war of extermination.” As French general Charles V. E. Leclerc wrote in a letter to Bonaparte, his brother-in-law: “Here is my opinion of this country . . . We must destroy all the blacks of the mountains — men and women — and spare only children under twelve years of age.”

Napoleon wanted Leclerc to “Rid us of these gilded negroes” or “we will have done nothing, and an immense and beautiful colony will always remain a volcano, and will inspire no confidence in capitalists, colonists, or commerce.” The French saw the Haitian Revolution as not only a threat to slaveholders, but to the ideology of colonial capitalism and the racism upon which it was anchored.

While Haiti’s victory gave men and women of color everywhere hope that they might eventually escape slavery, it was also a pyrrhic victory that left 180,000 Haitians dead. France and the other European powers continued to resist the country’s independence even after the war ended. Their efforts ensured that the ideology of black self-uplift, in the example of Haiti, would fail as an anticolonial project.

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1814 and the subsequent restoration of the Bourbon monarchy under Louis XVIII, France secured a full guarantee from other European powers that they would not interfere in its dealings with Haiti. In fact, France negotiated a secret article during the 1815 Congress of Vienna allowing “whatever means possible, including that of arms, to regain Saint-Domingue [Haiti] or to bring the population of that colony to order.”

Restoring order meant restoring French rule — which most likely included a return to slavery.

Haitian leaders needed to avoid a second, costly war. Moreover, France was standing as a commercial barrier between Haiti and the rest of the Atlantic world, barring full engagement in international trade networks. To prevent an invasion by France, president Alexandre Pétion proposed a compromise. He hoped the “French government would do better for itself and for the former owners, by selling us Saint-Domingue, just as it sold Louisiana to the United States.”

The aspiration was that this exchange would de-escalate the threat of more wars while accelerating Haiti’s access to world markets. However well-intended, this idea disregarded the Haitian people’s right to consent to a deal with their despised former colonists. French officials rejected the compromise. This was because the Haitian officials would not concede that the people are, legally speaking, human stocks of French property.

The government of King Charles X eventually pressed on with their demand for an indemnity. On July 3, 1825, an international crisis was brewing in Caribbean waters. French diplomat Baron de Mackau arrived in Haiti with a royal decree in hand demanding Haitians pay reparations or face the consequences of an invasion. The slaveholders argued that they deserved restitution for destroyed wealth and commercial ventures. By their accounting, the value of the five hundred thousand humans who worked the hundreds of cotton, coffee, and sugar plantations rounded to approximately 150 million francs.

Jean-Pierre Boyer, Pétion’s successor, wanted desperately to nullify this military threat and agreed to the indemnity. As part of the agreement, Haiti was strong-armed into reducing taxes on French imports by 50 percent.

Decades later, an investigative report issued by the US Congress, An Inquiry Into the Occupation and Administration of Haiti, noted that fear of “the continual expectation of the offensive return of the French [navy] and weary of maintaining the country [hostage] for more than twenty years in a state of war the Government of President Boyer accepted the arrangement of the King of France.” The report went on to note that the French stipulated very painful conditions for how the first debt payment would be issued: “By means of a loan of 24,000,000 francs issued at Paris at the rate of 80 percent and bearing 6 percent interest to which was added 6,000,000 francs paid in specie by the Haitian treasury the first installment of the indemnity was paid.”

In other words, Haitians had to borrow from French banks to then pay their former masters, interests included. According to the US Congress Select Committee on Haiti, the balance of the “loan of 24,000,000 francs and the indemnity were known as the double French debt.” Just two decades after independence, Haitians faced the real possibility that they would be re-enslaved.

In case Haiti declined to pay, the French were ready to deploy the armada of fourteen war ships, armed with 528 canons, it had sent to surround the island. Since 1804, the enslavement of African-descended people skyrocketed throughout the Atlantic world while Haitian freedom remained an exception.

As countries like the United States were being enriched by enslaved labor, France resented having lost its most precious colony. Hence, as noted in plain terms by the Inquiry report: “By a royal decree King Charles X of France in return for 150,000,000 francs as indemnity for the losses incurred by the former colonists and payable in five equal installments granted to Haiti . . . an independence which the Haitians had conquered at the price of hard and bloody sacrifices.”

Haiti meanwhile, had hoped the agreement would open the door to diplomatic recognition from other countries. But the United States refused to do so until 1862. Decades later, a report issued by the 57th US Congress revealed the depth of American resentment towards the French-Haitian agreement. Officials at the US Treasury Department demanded that Haiti also guarantee the “most-favored-nation treatment to American shipping.”

Refusal to recognize Haiti had defined Haitian-American relations for decades. Following Haitian independence in 1804, the United States enjoyed an upsurge in the domestic slave trade, which made the American South the “King of Cotton” and the most powerful slave society on earth. Slaveholders in the United States surpassed French planters as the wealthiest in the world while Haiti struggled to rebuild its economy.

Although the end of Haitian slavery made the United States much richer, American politicians — many themselves slave masters — understood that Haiti was anathema to the Atlantic slavery system. For six decades, the Americans conspired with the French to quarantine Haiti’s freedom by not granting it diplomatic recognition. This interference would continue for another century.

How France Underdeveloped Haiti

Boyer and other Haitian leaders believed that the deal would pave the way towards a brighter future. Perhaps it might have. But the indemnity set a dangerous precedent in which the formerly enslaved paid reparations to their enslavers. Further, it produced a new kind of dependency for the Haitian people.

Haiti immediately began borrowing from French banks to keep up with debt obligations. As global power moved from Europe to the United States, Haiti turned to their northern neighbors for loans and financing. Therefore, one unexpected consequence of the French indemnity was that it cemented American intervention in Haitian domestic affairs. The double debt to France also became a triple debt to both French and US financiers. The full indemnity was paid off in 1893, after fifty-eight years.

Even then, as Congress acknowledged, “Haiti has always lived up loyally to its financial agreements . . . [and] the leaders of the country have always been able to find the necessary solution to the problems that confronted them . . . the Haitian Government found itself handicapped in meeting its most urgent budget expenses.” By the 1880s the country was borrowing to meet its obligations to national expenditures.

Foreign pressures for debt repayments required further borrowing, which resulted in the nation becoming even more indebted to French private interests. By the late nineteenth century, 80 percent of Haiti’s wealth was devoted to serving external debts, first to France and then to financial institutions in Germany — and, most notably, the United States. By the turn of the century, the relatively independent and sovereign Haiti had become entangled in a web of debt held by American financial firms.

By the 1890s Haitian national finances degenerated to crisis levels. To better service the debt, the Banque Nationale de la République d’Haïti (BNRH) was organized under the supervision of France’s Société Générale, one of the world’s largest multinational banks. The BNRH was granted the privilege to act as the official treasury of Haiti for the next fifty years and enjoyed the same rights and protection as Haitian citizens. Headquartered in Paris, it supervised the Haitian currency, scheduled debt payments, and handled customs revenue generated by the sugar and coffee industries. For all intents and purposes, Haiti’s national treasury and economy was managed offshore.

According to historian Peter James Hudson, controversy overshadowed the Banque Nationale from the moment of its charter. Various Haitian governments forced it to issue paper currency to cover up deficits while the bank’s foreign clerks and managers were accused of illegal bond issues, graft, and forgery — prompting one writer to describe Haiti as “the prey of modern finance.”

At the same time, Haiti’s debt began to switch hands. The inter-imperial shift from France to the United States required that the BNRH open a branch at the National City Bank (today’s US Citibank).

French Indemnity to American Occupation

Within decades of France imposing the indemnity, the United States noticed an opportunity to intervene more assertively in Haitian affairs. Even before Haiti had finished paying the debt, its treasury sold bonds to US banks to raise money. And as early as 1862, industrialists from Texas organized the American West India Company to promote mining, land speculation, and the annexation of both Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

In 1891, the New York Herald claimed that Haiti needed the benevolent guidance of white men: “To let Haiti alone” was “to allow her to follow her own path back to barbarism.” So the United States took charge, and, in 1914, President Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of state William Jennings Bryan deployed the Marines into Haiti for the sole purpose of recuperating $500,000 from Haiti’s national bank.

In his research on the invasion, highlighted in the forthcoming book Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean, Peter James Hudson shows how Wall Street’s unprecedented international expansion was enabled by the US State Department. This expansion played a seminal role in turning Citibank into a multinational corporation. Hudson notes that Citibank officials, with the help of Bryan, engineered to have Haitian treasury reserves “escorted by a cordon of Marines to the USS Machias and transported to National City’s vaults at 55 Wall Street.”

Before the American occupation, German merchants had taken to intermarrying Haitian women in order to bypass the constitutional ban on foreign land ownership. American racists refuted this practice of “racial miscegenation” that had created an integrated German-Haitian minority. Instead of taking this traditional route of the Germans, secretary of the US Navy and future president Franklin D. Roosevelt opted to rewrite the Haitian constitution by removing the ban on foreign ownership of Haitian land by white men.

Meanwhile, the Marines trained and modernized the Haitian Army into the Haitian Gendarmerie. According to anthropologist Sidney W. Mintz, the Garde d’Haiti effectively nullified the possibility of peasant uprisings. This domestic force was used to institute a ruthless forced-labor system called the corvée. Workers and peasants were coerced into building roads and railways, sometimes in chains and without pay. This was the same bondage-labor system that Douglas Blackmon in Slavery By Another Name found all but re-enslaved black Southerners after the American Civil War.

Colorism — not an American import but a vestige of the French preference for light-skinned Haitians over their darker sisters and brothers — became widespread. Segregation between lighter- and darker-skinned Haitians spread throughout professional and public life. In this same period, Haiti’s internal and external debts were fully consolidated under Wall Street financiers — National City Realty Corporation and the International Banking Corporation were among the bondholders of Haitian debt.

Meanwhile, the US Marines acted as an enforcer for Wall Street interests and US agribusiness. A single military regime ruled the country under the pretense of civilian control, enforcing the debt peonage of peasants, helping the Haitian American Sugar Company bust unions, and supporting the interests of the Haitian American Development Corporation, which was widely accused of expropriating peasant land and destroying farmers’ food supplies.

African-American scholar-activist W. E. B Du Bois, a man of Haitian descent, demanded accountability from the Wilson administration: it must assure “Americans of Negro descent that [the Marines] have no designs on the political independence of the island and no desire to exploit it ruthlessly for the take of selfish business interests.” His complaints fell on deaf ears.

But a coalition of Haitian- and African-American activists and intellectuals persuaded the Senate to investigate, exposing human rights abuses committed by the Marines. Among them were the assassination of Charlemagne Péralte, the rebel who led the uprisings of peasants, or cacos, against the occupation. Marine Corps photographers had distributed a photo of Péralte’s body, mutilated and crucified to a door, in hopes of pacifying anti-occupation rebels. On December 6, 1929, the Marines brutally repressed a national strike wave by murdering twelve people in the city of Les Cayes. The US Marines would not rest until they had subdued the “bandits,” “gooks,” and “cockroaches,” as the cacos were derisively called.

In 1934, the Roosevelt administration finally withdrew troops from Haiti. But the occupation did not end there. The United States controlled the country’s national debt for another fifteen years. American foreign nationals sat on the governing board of the country’s federal bank, a prize that wielded more power in economic governance than even the president could.

Ultimately, the American occupation left behind a brutally predatory state at war with its own people. Attempts to suppress the peasant rebellions were drastic, taking close to fifty thousand Haitian lives. More conservative estimates have confirmed some fifteen thousand deaths of Haitian peasants during the nineteen years of occupation.

The scholar Patrick Bellegarde-Smith argues that rebellion against occupying forces may have involved one-fifth of the population. The cruelty of the Marine Corps degenerated into swift reprisals that involved concentration camps, torture, forced labor, and religious persecution against voodoo practitioners. One Marine wrote that he had spent most of his career as “a gangster for capitalism”: “I helped make Haiti . . . a decent place for the National City Bank Boys.”

The Case for Reparations

The congressional Inquiry Into Occupation was clear in its indictment and did not mince words: “For a long time Haiti has borne the weight of a heavy debt which has hindered her economic development.” In the eighteenth century, planters used the lash to extract profits from slaves, but in nineteenth-century post-emancipated Haiti, political elites, domestic and foreign, used economic coercion and gunboat diplomacy by all means to quarantine and undermine Haitian independence.

To any observer of Haitian history, the success of these policies is obvious. Haiti today is the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Much emphasis is placed on how Haiti is a classic example of a failed nation-state. Development papers churned out by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank often discuss the country’s misery as if it exists in a historical vacuum. Rarely do they mention that Haiti’s history is a textbook case of the traumatic effects with slavery.

Much has been made of the notion that Haiti is suffering under the weight of its corrupt officials. Trinidadian scholar C. L. R James once quipped that a true democracy is one where “every cook can govern.” Focusing on Haiti’s elites dismisses its peasants, among the earliest pioneers of a democratic project that sought to prove that every former slave was a citizen who could govern.

Whatever conditions Haiti finds itself in today has little to do with the faults of the Haitian people. As one street vendor put it: “We Haitians know that a big reason why we are suffering today is because we were forced to pay France for our freedom. If we were not punished for our independence long ago, we would have had a better time.” French president François Hollande acknowledges that “a moral debt exists,” but argues that Haitians should be asking for “investment” over welfare. This false equation of reparations as tantamount to a request for European welfare masks the fact that Haitians are demanding socio-economic and reparative justice, not paternalistic donations.

In fact, it is France that thrived on the direct taxes-to-welfare payments extracted from the Haitian peasants. Whatever capacity Haiti had to support its citizens was, immediately after independence, stalled by the French indemnity. The initial 150 million francs was equal to the annual revenue of Haiti before independence, or 15 percent of France’s annual budget. By 1830, President Jean-Pierre Boyer had to institute a tax specifically for the debt.

In short, historians only need to follow the money to find one of the major culprits of Haitian underdevelopment, for which Haitian peasants paid dearly in taxes. For example, family-owned land parcels that had been a staple of post-independence Haiti were under constant pressures to be reorganized into plantations for commercial use. By the time of the American occupation, the recurring pressures to finance the debt by taxing the peasantry, devastated the Haitian countryside.

Indeed, even after Haiti serviced its full debt to American financiers in 1947, 120 years after the French indemnity, the legacy of the American occupation can be seen in the uprooted labor force. Today, the Haitian diaspora consists of a proto-Haitian peasantry of migrant laborers scattered throughout the Caribbean economies of the Bahamas and most notably the Dominican Republic. According to Bellegarde-Smith, “As many as 600,000 peasants out of a population of 2 million may have left the country for US plantations in Cuba and the Dominican Republic as a result of land pressure, financial inducements, and US massacres.”

In the 1970s, what remained of the Haitian peasant economy was further fractured as people flocked to the cities in search of opportunities. Agricultural activities in the countryside declined from 40 percent in the 1970s to less than 20 percent in 2012. In 1984, for example, Haitian workers produced the majority of American baseballs, but within a decade, that industry also disappeared. Today, Haiti stands at 143 out of 148 countries on the Global Competitiveness Index.

The peculiarity of Haiti’s demand for reparations is the fact that it has absolutely nothing to do with restorative justice with regards to enslavement. The reparative demand is solely concerned with the siphoning of one national treasury to another through coercion. Haitians are asking the French government to return stolen money. The debt France owes Haiti is not just moral, but also deeply financial and political.

For their part, French officials are quickly running out of excuses. By the calculation of the Aristide administration in 2004, the French indemnity extracted between $22 and $40 billion from the national treasury. With 80 percent of its population living in poverty and 54 percent in abject poverty, Haiti’s GDP today is just $18 billion. Even as it imposed the indemnity in 1825, French observers admitted that Haiti was too impoverished to carry on such debt obligation.

France should heed the call to make a restitution in full to Haitians for its part in slowing the nation’s internal development two hundred years ago.