Haiti has a painful history with debt. When it won its independence in 1804 — just the second country in the hemisphere to do so — it was required to pay restitution to France. Haiti went millions of dollars (billions in today's dollars) into debt to compensate the French for their loss of property — including the lost profits from slave trading. Only by paying this restitution could Haiti end a crippling embargo by the French, British, and Americans. Money that the new government might have invested in building a new nation poured into loan payments that continued until the loan was paid off in 1947.
Today, in the wake of the earthquake that has flattened Port-au-Prince and killed more than 150,000, there is a quickly growing movement to forgive Haiti's nearly $1 billion debt, and to insure that aid to earthquake victims takes the form of grants, not more loans.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced this week that he is canceling Haiti's $295 million debt to Petrocaribe, Venezuela's energy regional energy distributor. "Haiti has no debt with Venezuela — on the contrary, it is Venezuela that has a historic debt with Haiti," Chavez said. Chavez was referring to Haiti's historic assistance to Simón Bolívar, who led Venezuela's war of independence.
Also this week, the anti-poverty group, One, handed over a petition with 150,000 signatures to the International Monetary Fund. The petition asks that the IMF cancel Haiti's $165 million debt repayment obligation when the board meets later this week. "Swift action by the IMF would increase momentum and pressure on all creditors," One said in a statement.
The head of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, plans to bring a plea for debt cancellation to the World Economic Summit meeting in Davos, Switzerland, later this week.
Noting that more than half of Haiti’s debt stemmed from loans extended to the "brutal father-son dictatorship of Francois ('Papa Doc') and Jean-Claude ('Baby Doc') Duvalier," a WCC statement says: "Many of these loans did not benefit the people of Haiti. The Duvaliers appropriated tens of millions from the national treasury in their almost 30-year stay in power from 1957-1986."
The WCC also warned the IMF against "imposing detrimental economic policy conditions on the country such as the privatization of public services." Such conditions are frequently part of IMF and World Bank lending, and advocates for the poor point out that those conditions frequently undermine democratic governance and economic well-being.
The New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, a brand new organization, has posted a petition that likewise calls for the cancellation of debt.
Jubilee USA, a group that has led other debt cancellation efforts, called on President Obama to press international lending agencies to make grants, not loans, and to place a moratorium on all debt payments. "All of Haiti's limited resources should be directed at recovery, not repayment," the group said in a statement.
Natural disasters and human suffering should not be used to open doors to outside interference in Haitian affairs, which history tells us would extend the suffering. Debt is one of the key ways that such influence is often accomplished, along with military occupation and the "shock doctrine" author Naomi Klein so clearly describes.
Dr. Joia Mukherjee, of Paul Farmer's famous group, Partners in Health, described what was needed during a conference call on Tuesday: The solutions to Haiti's problems will come from the Haitian people and from the government they choose, she said. "The greatest resource of Haiti is the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people," she said. But they must be unshackled from international debt.
Note: My January 13 blog lists organizations that need your donations to help the Haitian people.
Sarah van Gelder wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sarah is executive editor of YES! Magazine.
Debt Relief: The Results Are In :: Debt relief has allowed poor nations to pay for schools and health care instead of loan interest.