By Guest Contributor Shannon Joyce Prince
Ou konn kouri, ou pa konn kache – You know how to run, but you don’t know how to hide.
Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which one tells of the whole by evoking a part. In my original piece “Why Haiti Matters,” I said that one reason the nation matters is that it is the world’s teacher. Haiti’s poverty and misery are the result of a mammoth crime that is two hundred years old and continues to this day, but the crime that destroyed Haiti is not exceptional. By studying the historical and contemporary situation of Haiti in detail, we can learn how poverty and injustice worldwide are created, perpetuated, and framed by powerful and wealthy individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments.
Dye mon, gen mon – Beyond the mountain is another mountain.
I mentioned in my previous essay that after the slave uprising that brought Haiti independence, the US helped force Haiti to pay 150 million francs to France as reparations to Haitian slave-owners for their loss of property. That act and its repercussions merit a detailed description because the mechanics of them reveal how poverty is created. Since Haiti’s former slaves didn’t have money to pay the reparations, they had no choice but to take out giant loans from American, German, and French banks.[i] Haiti’s “debt” to France was so great that it took nearly a century and a half to pay – and contributed to a century and a half of Haitian poverty. For example, in 1900 80% of Haiti’s economy was spent on repaying its debt. The debt, eventually lowered to the still exorbitant level of 60 million francs plus interest, wasn’t paid off until 1947. The total amount Haiti paid, in today’s currency, equals billions. Having to devote such vast resources to paying back its debt left little money for Haiti to meets its needs which caused the multifaceted and extreme misery Haiti suffers today. The country was so poor when it finished paying back France that it had to continue borrowing (often from those same countries who victimized Haiti in the first place) just to survive, and paying back those debts resulted in further poverty – a vicious circle.
The mere idea of slaves paying reparations to slave-owners is unspeakably evil. Haitian slavery was a brutal system of forced labor, sexual assault, maternal and infant mortality, torture, displacement, eradication of culture, separation of families, beatings, horrendous living conditions, rampant disease without healthcare, malnutrition, outright murder, and murder by premature death from the above mentioned situations. The average life expectancy of a Haitian slave was only 21 years.[ii] Haitian plantations were concentration camps. Haitian slavery meets the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide’s [iii] definition of genocide – that this fact has gone unrecognized is a travesty and a tragedy. Yet again, the situation is not anomalous. The enslavement of Africans on the Middle Passage and throughout the Western hemisphere, the conquest of American Indians, the deaths of ten million in the Congo under King Leopold, and other sufferings of the colonized and enslaved are unrecognized genocides – history notes far too infrequently white acts of barbarism against non-whites or labels such acts and their details incorrectly.
Imagine if, after the Holocaust, the victims who were used as slave labor in concentration camps had been forced to pay reparations to the Nazis – that the Nazis had convinced the world that they were legitimately owed because they had lost their human property. Imagine if those victims’ peoples were impoverished for the next century and a half paying back those who had enslaved and killed them. Then imagine if their maimed and miserable communities were trapped in an endless cycle of debt and poverty as a result. No one would tolerate such a crime – the punishment of slaves and their descendants for being enslaved and the continued enrichment of their enslavers and their descendants – when the majority of the victims are white. But for Haiti and throughout the “Third World,” such crimes are perfectly acceptable. I believe that Holocaust victims deserve all the respect and compassion in the world – so, too, do other victims of slavery and genocide.
My former Ghanian boyfriend once asked, “How is it possible for the formerly colonized nations to be in debt to the colonizers? How can we owe those who stole resources from us?” Everyone should ask these questions. When you hear that a poor country with a history of victimization by colonization, slavery, or overt or covert First World meddling owes wealthy nations or organizations such as the World Trade Organization, World Bank, or the International Monetary Fund, almost certainly their “debt” is as illegitimate as Haiti’s – a case of the victims being forced to pay their victimizers, a case of poor countries being locked in a cycle of debt due to poverty brought about by Western, First World, or European domination. Just as the First World first benefitted from reparations that wrecked Haiti’s economy and then from forcing Haiti to accept further debt due to its wrecked economy, First World nations benefitted from colonizing various nations and now continue to benefit since those nations, poor due to colonization, are forced to borrow money from the First World to survive – trapping themselves into debt.
Bourik swe pou chwal dekore ak dentel – The donkey sweats so the horse can be decorated with lace.
The crime against Haiti is all the more striking when we consider the discourse that surrounds reparations, who’s entitled to them, who should pay them, and the idea of statutes of limitations for historical crimes. Those who opposed reparations for slaves and their descendants were actively compelling Haitians to pay reparations to slave-owners immediately after Haiti’s independence and to the governments of slave-owners’ descendants a century and a half later. While the descendants of slaves are told to move on from the past when they seek to receive reparations, the descendants of slave-owners’ governments can claim reparations decades after the fact. In other words, there are different rules for whites, for First World nations, and for the rich than for non-whites, Third World nations, and the poor.
The descendants of slave-owners and whites whose families didn’t own slaves get to claim they aren’t guilty and everyone who was a slave is dead, so reparations shouldn’t be paid to the descendants of slaves. Those claims ignore the fact that all white people past and present in slave-owning countries benefitted and continue to benefit from slavery[iv] and the disparities caused by it.[v] They also ignore the fact that reparations paid to slaves’ descendants wouldn’t take money from the pockets of whites or cause white suffering but would come from places such as excess military-industrial spending.[vi] But Haitians didn’t/don’t get to point out that all the slave-owners are dead, that slave-owners were not victims of either slavery or the uprising, that the slaves who rebelled are gone, or that they are not responsible for the long term debts previous generations were forced into accumulating – despite the fact that these debts devastate Haiti, forcing the poor to survive by literally eating dirt and condemning them to die in their fifties.
If you research a term called “debt bondage,” you might arrive at the website End Exploitation.[vii] There, as on many anti-slavery websites, you would learn that debt bondage is a form of exploitation considered as evil as crimes such as human trafficking and sex tourism, that debt bondage is a form of slavery. The website defines debt bondage as labor “demanded as a means of repayment of a loan,” with the laborer “accepting terms which are exploitive in nature, and in gross violation of their human rights,” and resulting in a “situation of perpetually increasing debt.” While the website acknowledges that debt bondage occurs in both “developed” and “under-developed” countries, it claims that the most guilty countries are South Asian. While I applaud End Exploitation for their commitment to stopping suffering worldwide, I disagree with their analysis of the situation. I believe Western First World countries are the ones most guilty of debt bondage, and I believe that the debts First World countries claim nations such as Haiti owe them are a form of exploitation, and, in a way, enslavement. Instead of demanding an individual’s labor in order to repay a loan, entire populations are forced to sacrifice education, their health, adequate housing, and even food, among other things, to pay back their debts. The extent of the misery caused by these debts is a testament to their exploitative nature and how they “grossly violate human rights.” And the structural adjustment plans and conditions tied to these debts that I described in my previous essay further explain their immorality. And as history shows such debts increase perpetually – Haiti’s debt began at the beginning of the nineteenth century and has yet to come to an end.
When non-white individuals in non-white countries force other individuals into “debt bondage,” the practice is recognized as an ethically indefensible form of slavery. When First World governments, banks, and organizations do the same thing – on an even greater scale – to poor nations, the practice is considered acceptable – and is even construed as “aid.”
In the face of all the talk about “aid” to Haiti and “debt forgiveness,” South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki has been a force for clarity.[viii] As Mbeki has noted, if we recognize that Haiti’s debt to the slave-owners was illegitimate, as we must, unless we also claim that the Nazis were owed a debt by Holocaust victims, then we accept that France, the US, and Germany, and possibly other co-conspirator countries, owe Haiti the billions of dollars in reparations Haiti paid the French government. I would add that if we accept that the original debt was illegitimate, we must also accept that the debts resulting from that original debt are also illegitimate. That money also should be paid back. Paying back what we owe Haiti isn’t aid, debt relief, or even reparations for the crimes against slaves under slavery, nor is it the sum total of what the First World owes Haiti, but it’s a crucial start. Those billions of dollars would turn Haiti around. Any other actions the First World takes to “help” Haiti are disingenuous and disproportionately small until the First World simply admits its debt to Haiti and pays back what it owes. If we recognize that Haiti’s debts were and are illegitimate, then it’s not enough for Haiti’s lenders to say, “You don’t have to pay me any more.” They must also say, “I will pay back the money I illegitimately took from you.” If the world can accept endless fictitious Third World debts to the First World, we should certainly find it reasonable for the First World to reimburse the Third World.
Ou we sa ou genyen, ou pa konn sa ou rete – You know what you have, but you don’t know what’s coming.
As I mentioned in my previous essay, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are each loaning Haiti 100 million dollars, so despite all the talk going on about debt forgiveness, the cycle of debt is just continuing. It took Haiti a century and a half to pay 60 million francs in reparations to France. How many centuries will it take Haiti to pay back 200 million dollars?
Le yo vle touye chen yo di’l fou – When they want to kill a dog they say its crazy.
As Haitian wisdom acknowledges, before the vulnerable are condemned, they are given fictitious reasons for their condemnation. Similarly, in order for Haiti to be condemned to another round of cloaked colonialism, inaccurate news coverage, or erroneous historiography, it must be defined as backward, hapless, incomprehensible, or wildly deficient. What’s especially scary about the mainstream media’s discourse on Haiti is that it’s much the same in sentiment and no more accurate than the discourse on Haiti on white supremacy websites – the language used is simply more tactful. Worse, if you examine antebellum documents and literature (available here: http://docsouth.unc.edu/ and here: http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/proslav/antitoms.html, for example) you will find the exact same arguments about blacks’ alleged failings and inability to govern themselves as individuals, families, and peoples.
The historical record shows that the best chances Haiti has had to be a healthy, functioning nation have been when it was in control of itself – immediately after the revolution, for example, or upon the election of Aristide. Haiti’s problems largely stem not from Haiti’s expressions of its sovereignty but First World interference. Thus, the argument that if Haiti had been enslaved or colonized longer it wouldn’t be such a miserable place or that more domination/guidance/“aid”/loans from the First World are needed to heal Haiti are both fictitious and ahistorical. First World governments and corporations have been destroying Haiti since the early 1800’s – why should they be given another chance with Haiti now? After awhile the claims of the batterer to have changed ring hollow. Poor countries and their allies must recognize that the gifts of roses are simply followed by more beatings.
Sonje lapli ki leve mayi ou – Remember the rain that made your corn grow.
One of the cruelest ironies of the discourse surrounding Haiti is that Haiti’s poverty and misery were created by the immorality and racial prejudices of the First World yet is blamed on the moral values of Haitians and Haitian culture in particular or blackness in general. Yet concomitant with the recognition that Haiti was made poor by the First World is the recognition that the First World was made wealthy by Haiti and other Third World countries. While the First World likes to attribute it’s wealth to positive qualities it supposedly possesses, the fact is the First World has profited from the plunder of other nations. What’s framed as Third World debt is really First World welfare. Furthermore, while First World countries recoil in horror at the idea of taking resources from the wealthy for the benefit of the poor, calling it socialism, they deem it appropriate to take resources from poor nations to redistribute them to wealthy nations.
Kreyol pale, kreyol komprann – Speak plainly, don’t try to deceive.
In the face of all the dishonest discourse surrounding Haiti and other Third World countries, we need new language that accurately reflects historical and contemporary realties – perhaps a language that recognizes the Third World/developing world and the First World/developed world as the Plundered Nations and Plundering Nations. Perhaps we should call “aid” what it is – debt bondage. Debt forgiveness could be more accurately termed “cessation of extortion.” We will also need a word parallel to anti-Semitism to describe anti-voodoo prejudice and misrepresentation. We should employ “Maafa,” the Swahili word used to describe the holocaust that entailed slavery, colonization, and the deaths of tens of millions of black peoples, when we speak of Haitian slavery. The Council of Europe criminalizes “denial, gross minimisation, approval or justification of genocide or crimes against humanity.”[ix] We should use the Council’s definition of inappropriate behavior as a guideline for discourse on Haiti, and slavery and colonization worldwide and punish those who violate that guideline with the special opprobrium directed at Holocaust deniers. While racists will claim that our new language reflects revisionist history, we must recognize that the current terms are euphemisms at best and lies at worse, that they hide innocence, guilt, and agency.
Bay kou bliye, pote mak sonje – The giver of the blow forgets, the bearer of the scar remembers.
There are some crimes in history almost unfathomable in scale such as apartheid in South Africa or the purges of Stalin. The suffering of Haiti at the hands of the First World stands alongside those crimes. From slavery to the present day that suffering is almost incalculable. The First World owes Haiti a financial debt, but beyond that, we owe them the truth. We owe them a truth and reconciliation commission – and that debt of veracity makes Obama’s Newsweek article all the more egregious. To lie about or omit the details of America’s complicity in a human rights abuse horror the scale of Haiti’s is an obvious moral wrong. What Obama did is known as “historical revisionism” or “negationism” and is considered a serious ethical failing.
We owe Haiti and other poor nations a truth and reconciliation commission, but unlike other commissions, the ones we owe the Third World must not allow the guilty to go unpunished. Unless given a deterrent, the powerful will continue to abuse the weak. How can one go to jail for shoplifting food from a grocery store but not for condemning an entire nation to malnutrition? People rightfully end up in prison for snatching children off street corners – why not for kidnapping presidents and forcing them off to foreign countries? The First World’s varied acts of political, human rights, and economic sabotage of the Third World are criminal – and the wrongdoers must be punished.
I began this essay by stating that Haiti was both our teacher and a synecdoche. Haiti teaches us by offering us the opportunity to invert the gaze through which we are normally invited to regard the country. Haiti is a synecdoche because it is not exceptional. Other nations are poor because they have received the kind of treatment from the First World that Haiti has. Too often the media shows us images of children starving until they’re merely skin and bones or corrupt Third World dictators without showing us the First World’s hand in the creation of both. That an earthquake broke the country of Haiti is a terrible tragedy. If that earthquake doesn’t also shatter the way we think of the First and Third Worlds, that tragedy will be redoubled.
P.S. Please consider donating to Partners in Health’s “Stand with Haiti” campaign http://www.standwithhaiti.org/haiti. The organization has been serving Haiti since the 1980s, and their commitment and skill in extending healthcare as well as justice and dignity to Haitians is unparalleled.