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  • Hazel Montgomery-Walsh

Haiti and the Case for Reparations

Image depicting plantations burning during the first ever successful slave revolt.

In 1803, modern-day Haiti completed the unimaginable: within two weeks, the rebel group, made up of escaped enslaved people called “Maroons” set every plantation within 50 miles of Colonial Cap-Francais to flames. They defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, marking the first-ever successful slave revolt. Haiti should have gone down in history as one of the greatest resistance movements in world history. Instead, today it is discussed heavily surrounding its entrapment in a cycle of political instability, socio-economic crisis, gang violence, natural disasters, and displacement. Like most colonies of Eruope, Haiti’s lack of economic growth can be linked to the exploitation of its gold by the Spanish and over-harvesting by the French. Likewise, United States (U.S.) imperialism has cost Haiti’s economy greater debts. Arguably, all former colonies that relied on enslaved labor should receive due reparations. However, Haiti’s history of exploitation and debt goes beyond the common narra tube. Not only was this territory stripped of wealth and fertility, but Haiti paid reparations to France. A seeming paradox, Haiti is the only nation to have paid back its former oppressor. Due to this debt, Haiti is disproportionately worse off. As such, the U.S. and France are called to pay reparations. 

The case for reparations traces back to as early as the end of the 16th century when the Spanish killed off almost all of the indigenous population of the island, consisting of Arawak and Taino people with structured systems of trade. When the Spanish arrived, indigenous groups were forced to mine for gold, which was sent back to the Spanish crown. Such compensation to indigenous groups has been seen in the U.S., where in 1971 the U.S. granted $1 billion and 44 million acres of land to Alaskan natives, and in 1990, the U.S. issued a formal apology and monetary amount to Japanese Americans during the period of internment. While reparations do not make up for lost lives, they do help to contain the ethnic and racial wealth gaps that were born during the institution of enslavement and forced labor during the mass genocide of non-Europeans. They also make symbolically clear that these actions are a mistake, never to be repeated. While it is unlikely that Spain will ever be held accountable for this stolen gold and murder of indigenous groups, the history of a call for reparations began very early. 

Once Spain exhausted gold from present-day Haiti, they were no longer interested in supporting it as a colony, so they ceded this territory to France in 1967. Since the French had no more indigenous people to force into labor, they initiated the African slave trade to Haiti. Between 1697 and 1804, the French imported around 500,000 African people, making up 89% of the total population on the island. In what became one of the harshest systems of slavery in the Americas, the French subjected Africans to kidnapping, public acts of violence, and sadistic punishments. In 1971, the escaped enslaved people carried out the first-ever successful slave revolt. After struggling for several years, in 1803, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Henry Christophe declared independence. 

And so should have marked the freedom and flourishing of Haiti. However, Haiti’s exploitation did not end with independence. Haiti was forced into a double-debt ransom that kept it indebted to France for years. When France agreed to recognize Haiti as an independent state in 1825, they did it under one detrimental condition: in exchange for independence, Haiti would have to pay nearly one million francs annually to the French until 1887, to supposedly “pay back” slave owners for their lost capital. Prepared with 500 cannons and warships off of the coast of Haiti during the time of the ultimatum, if Haiti did not agree, there would be war. Similar to the systemic inequality of education, wealth, and capital in the U.S. between the white and Black populations due to the period of enslavement, this debt has brought consequences to Black Haitians that exist today. Over generations, this lack of accumulation of wealth and stolen labor has resulted in an extremely poor and deprived population. The total amount demanded by the French was more than 10 times Haiti’s annual budget. Not only did Haiti have to pay France, but it was also required to take loans out from France banks to pay the debt. Including these loan payments, it is estimated that Haitians ended up paying double the amount of money that was originally claimed by the French. 

On many accounts, this debt is directly linked to Haiti’s lack of education, healthcare, and infrastructure, pushing the country into further poverty. Even conservative estimates show that if this money had remained in the Haitian economy over the years, it would have contributed to at least $21 billion. Other estimates say it would have contributed over $115 billion.

As Haiti grappled with its indebtment to France, the U.S. occupation of 1915 further exploited the country of its riches and stripped it of its autonomy. As such, the U.S. is also called to pay reparations to Haiti. When the U.S. invaded in 1915, it took over Haiti’s national bank, replacing it with a puppet government that utilized control for its own benefit.  According to civilians, U.S. Marines instilled racism into Haitian society and took more money than was spent on new infrastructure projects. Further, the U.S. took over the national bank, forced Haitians to do unpaid work, and even after the occupation transferred money from Haitian banks to banks in New York. To continue, when Haiti had its first democratically elected president in 2004, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the U.S. worked in tandem with France to oust him from office. Arguably, this is due to the fact that Aristide was the first leader to publicly demand reparations at the amount of $21,685,135,571.48 from France. 

The United Nations (UN) estimates today that it will take $210.3 million to meet the humanitarian needs of Haiti, and at least another $23.4 million to respond to recent cholera outbreaks. Haiti experiences upticks in food insecurity, malnutrition, cholera, fuel shortages, lack of healthcare and infrastructure, and displacement. 

Luckily, one solution that has yet to be put into practice is reparations. The sums the UN estimates are needed to help Haiti would be well covered by even conservative reparation amounts. Not only this but since large sums of the Haitian economy have gone toward building the Eiffel Tower–which brings in high revenue–the revenue from this landmark in Haiti can be used to fund reparations. 

The call for reparations globally comes with a modern struggle to reckon with the tumultuous past and come closer to equity. While some may oppose the idea of paying for violent acts committed by their ancestors, this is a small price to pay in the fight for an overall better world. By no means will reparations take away the trauma, pain, and struggle of Black communities in the Americas, but they are a small token of a promise for a better future.


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