marlienebastien_fc.jpgHaiti’s legacy of debt began before 1804.

On August, 22, 1791, on the eve of the general insurrection of Haitian slaves against the French slave
owners in Saint-Domingue, U.S. President George Washington urged Napoleon to quell the nascent rebellion.

He ordered his Treasury secretary and Defense secretary to supply Napoleon with weapons, ammunitions and money to dwarf the revolution in its infancy. After Haiti successfully defeated the mightiest army in the world at that time, France threatened to reinvade Haiti and reestablish slavery, unless Haiti compensated it for the loss of “property,’’ including slaves.

President Thomas Jefferson introduced legislation to impose an economic embargo on Haiti. In 1806, the embargo became effective to set the stage for 200 years of a policy of isolation and economic strangulation.

After breaking the chain of slavery, Haiti quickly spread its emancipation movement throughout Latin America. While the U.S. recognized these newly liberated nations, it waited until 1863 to recognize Haiti’s.

Emboldened by the U.S. support, France continued to pressure Haiti. With French warships positioned off the coast, Haiti gave in to French demands in 1825 and agreed to pay 150 million francs. Compounded with interest, this amount is equivalent to $2.1 billion today.

This astronomical debt, equal to 10 times Haiti’s export revenues, placed a heavy burden on the new country.

Haiti was forced to send any available cash to France, thus diverting badly needed revenues from investment in infrastructure, education, health, roads and other social services.

The world’s first free black republic descended in no time into a spiral of debt and under-development from which it has never recovered.

Should it have buckled under pressure and paid?  I’d say a resounding, “No!”

We should have mustered the same courage that defeated the Napoleon army to fight off the French. Our African ancestors’ spirits, millions strong, were with us, guiding our arms, protecting us. We were invincible.

From 1957 to 1986, Haiti suffered under the Duvalier dictatorship. Supported by the U.S. and the other superpowers, it used the worse kind of repression against the Haitian people.

During the last five years of the 30-year Duvalier reign, former president Jean-Claude Duvalier diverted $500 million in foreign loans to their personal account. His wife, Michele, spent $20,000 in a single shopping spree in Manhattan, on fur coats and dozens of designer shoes.

Today, Haiti owes $1.3 billion to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank.
This year, it will pay $48 million to service the debt, (nearly $1 million every week) to the above-referenced institutions.
Break the cycle. Eliminate Haiti’s debt!

The recent food riots in Haiti, and the tragic death in shark-infested waters of 20 Haitians, underscores the need for effective policy actions now to help Haiti recover. Gov. Charlie Crist should urge President Bush to immediately grant Haitians here
Temporary Protected Status.

Senators Bill Nelson and Mel Martinez should immediately co-sponsor the Jubilee Act in the U.S. Senate to cancel Haiti’s debt.
The Jubilee Act, including an amendment by Congressman Alcee Hastings, passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin on April 22, with broad, bi-partisan support. Once it passes in the Senate, President Bush should sign it.

The immediate cancellation of Haiti’s debt would free much-needed resources to fight poverty.  How do we know?  Social spending has risen by 75 percent in countries that have received debt relief, with funds used to abolish school fees, provide free immunizations, fight HIV/AIDS, and improve access to something as simple as clean drinking water.

The environmental budget would increase tenfold, reversing the systematic soil degradation that leaves the country susceptible to tropical storms and mudslides that have claimed the lives of thousands in recent years.

Give the burgeoning democracy a chance to thrive, and the Haitian people a chance to live free of fear, interminable wants, and dire poverty.

One hundred percent debt cancellation is the answer! Do your part. Call senators Martinez and Nelson now!

Ask them to co-sponsor the Jubilee Act in the U.S. Senate!

Marleine Bastien is the founder and executive director of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami (FANM), or Haitian Women of Miami, Inc.

Marleine Bastien •