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French Ransom – The New York Times


Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, and a new Times investigative series explores why. An astonishing detail: France is demanding reparations from the Haitians it had enslaved. That debt has gripped Haiti’s economy for decades — and made it impossible to build even basic social services, like sewage and electricity.

This series is based on more than a year of reports, a series of centuries-old documents, and analysis of financial records. I spoke with my colleague Catherine Porter, one of the four reporters leading the project, about what they found.

Why tell the story of Haiti now?

I’ve been to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake, and have been back dozens of times. Any journalist who spends time in Haiti is faced with the same question: Why are things so bad here?

Poverty far exceeds anywhere else. Even countries that are poor compared to the United States or Canada, or many Western countries – they still have some degree of social service. Haiti does not.

Even if you are rich, you have to bring your own water, and you need a generator to provide it. There is no real transportation system; It was basically privatized. There is no real sewage system, so people use it indoors or outdoors. There is no real garbage collection, so garbage piles up. Public education is scant – mostly privatized – so the poor have no formal schooling, if any. The health care is very bad.

The usual explanation for Haiti’s problems is corruption. But the series hints at something else that is also to blame.

YES. This other answer stuck in my mouth as I read more history books about Haiti. One by Laurent DuBois mentioned this “debt of independence,” but he didn’t go into detail. That was the first time I read about it and was like, “What is this?”

So what is that?

After Haiti’s independence in 1804, France returned and demanded compensation for the lost possessions – which turned out to include those enslaved. French officials encouraged the Haitian government to borrow from French banks to pay.

It is known as a double debt: Haiti is indebted to the former property owners – the colonists – and the bankers. From the very beginning of its operations, Haiti was in a difficult economic situation.

It’s a myth: Colonists demanded restitution from former slaves.

You have to remember that, at that time, no one came to help Haiti.

It’s the only non-black country in the Americas, and it’s a black person. The British did not want recognition because they had Jamaica and Barbados as colonies. Americans certainly don’t want to recognize it; they still haven’t ended slavery.

What might Haiti look like today without this dual debt?

An example is Costa Rica. It also has a strong coffee export industry, like Haiti. While Haiti spends up to 40% of its revenue to pay off this debt, Costa Rica is building the electricity system. People are dealing with sewage and schools. That would be closer to what Haiti could have.

We hadn’t even participated in the 1915-1934 American occupation and Haiti’s dictatorial family, both of whom continued to pillage the country. It is crisis after crisis for the Haitian people.

It’s correct. A dictator, François Duvalier, came to power in 1957. Before that, the Haitian government had eventually written off most of its international debt. The World Bank has said that Haiti should rebuild. Instead, Duvalier and later his son led the country into increasing misery.

As if that weren’t enough, after the Haitian president demanded compensation in 2003, France removed him from his position with the help of the United States. Have France and America suffered yet?

France has slowed down. In 2015, its president, François Hollande, said that France had imposed a “ransom” on Haiti and that he would return it. But very quickly, his assistants corrected him, saying that he meant he would pay back the moral debt; he’s not talking about money.

The Times is translating these stories into Haitian Creole. What is the goal?

If I were talking to anyone on the street in Haiti, they would only speak Haitian Creole. So I feel that if we’re going to make a story about the history of Haiti, definitely the people of that country have to reach out.

The most common form of communication in Haiti is radio, especially in rural areas where illiteracy rates are high. My hope is that we can get the Creole version in the hands of a few people to read parts of it over the radio, so that people in Haiti can listen and debate it and give their opinions.

This is a Haitian history. It must be made as accessible to Haitian people as possible.

More about Catherine Porter: She grew up in Toronto and got her first full-time journalism job at The Vancouver Sun. In 2010, she went to Port-au-Prince for The Toronto Star to cover the earthquake – a mission that changed her life. She returned more than 30 times and wrote memoirs about her experiences there. She joined The Times in 2017, leading our Toronto office.

The Times this weekend ran several articles on the history of Haiti, including:



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