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Debt, Coups & Colonialism in Haiti: France & U.S. Urged to Pay Reparations for Destroying Nation

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Image Credit: January Suchodolski (Wikimedia Commons)

We look in depth at “The Ransom,” a new series in The New York Times that details how France devastated Haiti’s economy by forcing Haiti to pay massive reparations for the loss of slave labor after enslaved Haitians rebelled, founding the world’s first Black republic in 1804. We speak with historians Westenley Alcenat and Gerald Horne on the story of Haiti’s finances and how Haitian demands for reparations have been repeatedly shut down. Alcenat says the series “exposes the rest of the world to a knowledge that actually has existed for over a hundred years,” and while he welcomes the series, he demands The New York Times apologize for publishing racist Haitian stereotypes in 2010 by columnist David Brooks. Horne also requests The New York Times make the revelatory documents that the series cites accessible to other historians. He says the series will “hopefully cause us to reexamine the history of this country and move away from the propaganda point that somehow the United States was an abolitionist republic when actually it was the foremost slaveholder’s republic.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “The Ransom.” That’s the name of a major series of articles published by The New York Times detailing how Haiti became one of the poorest countries in the world, while bankers in France and the United States made a fortune.

The story dates back to the early 19th century. In 1804, the enslaved people of Haiti rose up, leading a rebellion against French colonial rule, founding the world’s first Black republic. Under military threat from France in 1825, Haiti agreed to pay reparations to France for lost so-called property, including enslaved people, that French owners lost in the rebellion. France threatened to invade and reimpose slavery if Haiti did not agree to a staggering amount in reparations: 150 million francs — 30 times Haiti’s annual revenue. Haiti began taking out loans from French banks, leading to an economic crisis that continues through to this day. The New York Times estimates Haiti paid the equivalent of what’s now $560 million to France over the next seven decades. The true economic cost to Haiti is estimated to be an astounding $115 billion. And that only tells a part of the story.

In 1880, a French bank established Haiti’s first national bank, essentially putting France in control of Haiti’s treasury. That bank, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, used some of its massive profits to help finance the Eiffel Tower. The bank’s current owner has just launched an investigation into its dealings with Haiti and its role in what’s called the ecosystem of colonialism — that bank, CIC.

The Times series also looks at the U.S. military occupation of Haiti that lasted from 1915 to 1934. A key backer of the U.S. occupation was the National City Bank of New York, the predecessor of Citibank. Former U.S. diplomat Patrick Gaspard, who now heads the Center for American Progress, has called on Citigroup to pay reparations to Haiti. Gaspard wrote on Twitter, “A silent scream has been in throats for decades about the role U.S. played in depleting Haiti. No one would listen. Finally some truths,” he said.

Over the years, Haitian demands for reparations have been repeatedly shut down — sometimes with force. France’s former ambassador to Haiti, Thierry Burkhard, admitted to The New York Times that France and the United States effectively orchestrated the 2004 coup that ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Burkhard said one benefit of the coup was that it ended Aristide’s campaign demanding France pay financial reparations to Haiti.

To talk more about Haiti and the devastating impact of colonialism and this massive series in The New York Times, we’re joined by two guests. Westenley Alcenat is a Haitian American professor at Fordham University, where he teaches courses on the Atlantic slave trade, the American abolition movement and Afro-Caribbean history. Gerald Horne also joins us. He’s professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, author of many books, including Confronting Black Jacobins: The U.S., the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Alcenat, let’s begin with you. So, this series has come out in The New York Times to both criticism and praise. It’s come out in both Creole and in English. That’s a first for The New York Times. Can you explain the significance of what many are calling revelations — at least, to the general public — but certainly people in Haiti have been alleging for centuries, not only alleging but, of course, having proof of this?

WESTENLEY ALCENAT: Yes. Thank you, Amy. Thank you for having me today. I’m glad to be here in conversation with you.

So, first, let me start by saying that — a great acknowledgment to the many reporters and producers who put this very special issue together and to have given it a front-time exposure. And it will mean a lot — not really for Haitians per se, because the facts that are being revealed throughout the report are very well known even to the most illiterate Haitian and even to the youngest Haitian growing up. In fact, given the level of underdevelopment that is prevalent in Haiti today, one knows — at least the Haitian people know — that this could have only been the legacy of an external force, rather of their own making.

So, I think the significance of the piece will be that it exposes the rest of the world to a knowledge that actually has existed for over a hundred years and shares multiple partners, both in the private sector with regards to the financial industry, as well as United States government, Germany, Great Britain and, most certainly and most influential, France, having played a role in imposing the debt that in many ways will explain Haiti’s poverty today.

So, I welcome the piece. I think it’s great in terms of the many research that it brought together both from academic literature that had already existed, as well as new revelations that are coming up. But in terms of calling it “revelations,” that would be a misnomer. I myself have written very extensively on the subject. Many other fellow academics, historians have written about it. There have been movements over the decades to get the United States, France and the other parties responsible for this, to get them to some accountability. And I believe a large reason why this never got the fair sort of ear of listening that it should have gotten is because it’s coming from Haitians, whom many people view as sort of the Africans of the Western Hemisphere, but which is an identity that Haitians pridely wear — wear proudly, for reasons that reasonably make sense in terms of the freedom that they fought and established for all Black people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring in professor Gerald Horne to the conversation, another historian who has covered the issue of colonialism, imperialism and slavery throughout the Americas for decades. I, too, had the same feeling that a lot of this is only new to people who haven’t paid attention to the history of the Western Hemisphere over the last several hundred years. I’m wondering your reaction to the piece, because the Times really is delving into history much more than news. I think the most interesting aspect of it was the particular individuals in France and the institutions that directly benefited from the ransom that Haiti was forced to pay, but, largely, this is history that is known by people who know any part of the history of Latin America and of the Western Hemisphere. So I’m wondering your reaction to the piece as a historian who’s studied this carefully?

GERALD HORNE: Well, first of all, I would urge and encourage The New York Times to follow through with their point that they have uncovered new documents, by putting these documents online so that other historians can take advantage of their excavations and/or, secondly, placing them at The New York Times archive, which I believe has been sited at the New York Public Library.

But I think that the story also is of significance and of moment for us in the United States, for we in the United States, because there has been this myth that has been created that the United States and the Haitian Revolution were twins, even though we know, as I begin my book on the Haitian Revolution, George Washington, the Founding Father of this country, was quite nervous about the eruption in Haiti in August 1791. And this was understandable, because the Haitian Revolution, culminating in 1804, led to a general crisis of the entire slave system in the Americas that could only be resolved with its collapse. Therefore, the United States was probably second to France in being an antagonist of the Haitian people. From their point of view, this was a reaction to the fact that many of the slave revolts in the United States had Haitian fingerprints all over them. I’m speaking of Gabriel’s revolt in Virginia in 1800, the revolt in Louisiana circa 1811, Denmark Vesey about a decade later in South Carolina. In fact, Vesey had sailed in and out of Haiti before that eruption in Charleston, South Carolina. And then, culminating this hostility to Haiti, there is substantial evidence to suggest that when the island, the island that we refer to as Hispaniola, was split in 1844 with the secession from Haiti of what became the Dominican Republic, that this was an early success for U.S. covert operations.

So, this story in The New York Times is of significance for we in the United States. Hopefully, it will cause us to reexamine the history of this country and move away from the propaganda point that somehow the United States was an abolitionist republic, when actually it was the foremost slaveholders’ republic.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering also if it wouldn’t have been worthwhile for The New York Times to do another piece on its own coverage of Haiti over the past hundred years or so. I’m thinking back, for instance, during the first coup against President Aristide, when there were numerous articles in The New York Times about how Aristide was considered to be mentally unstable and erratic in his behavior, all of it fed to it by intelligence sources, and even the Times's coverage perhaps of the U.S. occupation, that long occupation in the early 20th century. The Times seems to be willing to go after France and the U.S., but really doesn't look at its own role in creating the narrative of Haiti as a dysfunctional country. I’m wondering what you think about that, Gerald.

GERALD HORNE: Well, you’re absolutely correct. Obviously, criticism should be accompanied by self-criticism, and there is much work to be done in that sphere by The New York Times. You mentioned the occupation, 1915 to 1934. The United States did not — excuse me, The New York Times did not necessarily stress and emphasize in their coverage the mass opposition to the U.S. occupation, particularly by Black Americans, particularly by a founder of the NAACP, speaking of W.E.B. Du Bois, who, as you know, his ancestral roots were in fact on the island. And he led a vigorous campaign against this murderous and bloodthirsty occupation, that in some ways involved the reassertion of unpaid labor, the so-called corvée, as it was called euphemistically, in Haiti. And The New York Times would do well to reexamine its own coverage, because hopefully that would improve today’s coverage.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to 2004. Juan just referred to this. France’s former ambassador to Haiti has admitted France and the United States effectively orchestrated the 2004 coup that overthrew Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president. The former French ambassador, Thierry Burkhard, told The New York Times one benefit of the coup was that it ended Aristide’s campaign demanding France pay reparations to Haiti. I want to turn to an interview we did with Kim Ives of Haïti Liberté. This was right after President Aristide was put on a plane and sent to the Central African Republic. This was what Kim Ives described.

AMY GOODMAN: This is a U.S.-French-led operation. In fact, didn’t Aristide say he holds the French ambassador to Haiti, as well, responsible for his kidnapping and wants to bring charges?

KIM IVES: Yes, the French were involved in all this pressure and, in fact, were in some ways leading the charge. … This was a purely U.S.-French operation.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, France, probably more than the United States, had more to lose from Aristide continuing in the presidency, since he was beginning to lay claim to reparations from France —

KIM IVES: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — for the period of colonialism and slavery.

KIM IVES: Well, this is precisely it. You had the restitution for $21.7 billion, which was on the table, and we saw a lot of rivalries were put aside to get Aristide out, between the ruling groups in Haiti of the comprador bourgeoisie and the big landowners, who generally are constantly squabbling throughout Haitian history for power. They put aside their differences to get together, which we see with Andy Apaid representing the bourgeoisie and Guy Philippe and Jodel Chamblain, more the Macoute wing. And we saw France and the U.S., who have also been sort of vying, put aside their differences. So you saw this union, unity, come between rivals against Aristide, because he represented the people and because he was a representative of popular will in Haiti.

AMY GOODMAN: So, just to be clear, this is mid-March 2004 that Kim Ives was speaking. Right after that, Democracy Now!, I flew to the Central African Republic on a small plane, covering a group of African American activists and politicians, including Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, as well as Congressmember Maxine Waters, who went to the Central African Republic to retrieve the Aristides and then brought them back to the Western Hemisphere as the U.S. government was saying, “How dare you bring them to this hemisphere?” to which Randall Robinson responded, “Whose hemisphere?” They eventually brought them to Haiti, and the Aristides then went into exile in South Africa for years, before they eventually went back to Haiti, where they are today. I’d like to get response, starting with Professor Horne and then Professor Alcenat, about the significance of these coups, whether we’re talking about Aristide in the early ’90s or again in 2004, the coups against them, and what that meant for this country. I mean, no president again would demand reparations.

GERALD HORNE: Well, the reparations question is obviously key. Keep in mind that what makes the United States unique is that the slave owners were expropriated. Their property, in the bodies of enslaved Africans, was taken without compensation. That helped to give rise to the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. In Haiti, as we’ve been discussing, the Haitians were obligated to pay back, believe it or not, the enslavers. And likewise, if you look at the British possessions, so-called — Jamaica, Barbados, etc. — you had London compensate the enslavers, and, by some measures, that total was not paid off until just a few years ago. And so, this question of reparations is quite key.

And also quite key is the role of Haiti in helping to ignite this entire process of abolition, leading to capital loss, not least in the United States of America. The enslaving class and their descendants have a very long memory. They have not forgotten Haiti’s role. That’s why they continued to punish Haiti for having the temerity to rise up against slavery. And even today, they continue to punish Haiti because they see Haiti as a haven for low-wage labor. U.S. baseballs in the U.S. national pastime are largely manufactured by cheap labor in Haiti. So there is still much to sort out with regard to this entire controversy.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Alcenat, if you could also respond, right through to today, to the U.S. diplomat Patrick Gaspard, who now runs Center for American Progress, demanding Citibank launch an investigation, and the whole issue of reparations, whether you could see it actually being real, given the devastation of Haiti?

WESTENLEY ALCENAT: OK. Thank you, Amy. I think I want to quickly go back to what was asked with regards to The New York Times. Let me remind our audience that it was in 2010, just days after an earthquake had devastated the country and killed upwards of 200,000 and more people, that The New York Times provided a platform for one of its columnists, David Brooks, to say some of the most racist things that I’ve ever read in The New York Times about Haiti. So, if we are going to also give The New York Times the credit for what is a phenomenal job about talking on this issue, they should also start by apologizing for what Mr. Brooks had said then, which — let me quote real quick:

“Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

“We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

So I call on The New York Times to both acknowledge the statements of racist demagoguery on its pages from Mr. David Brooks, as anyone can judge for themselves. They can go back and look at the op-ed and its pseudo-intellectual anthropologizing of Haitians. So, that’s one.

And with regards to Mr. Gaspard, I believe he actually served in the Obama administration. And most people should know that President Obama, being himself the first Black African American president of the United States, actually never made an official visit to the first Black republic in the world, the very nation without which Mr. Obama would have not assumed the role of leading a society like the United States as he had. So, I would like to know from Mr. Gaspard why is that the administration never actually took the very official position that he is taking right now with regards to Haitian poverty and underdevelopment and the explicit role that the United States, France, Canada and Germany have played in all of that.

And then, lastly, I just want to respond to your question with regards to just the immensity of the debt and the destructive legacy it has had for Haiti. The tragedy of all of this is that even once this debt is paid, if it were to ever be paid, which, like Professor Horne, I believe there are parties that are invested in never actually making realizing that possibility — even if that debt were to be paid, we are already talking about decades of gaps in development that were missed in the process because of where the money was going — something like upwards to 80% of all Haitian expenditures up until the early part of the 20th century was going to financing the debt — and the fact that American firms from Wall Street in cahoots with the federal government in terms of the State Department, the Navy. And you have names like General Smedley Butler, who actually wrote about his role as the Marines in Haiti and how he secured the interest of the financial corporate groups, as well as working with the State Department to make sure that Haiti becomes a haven for capitalism, as he said. And also, we can even see FDR, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, himself had been secretary of the Navy upon the time that Haiti was invaded and becoming a protectorate, essentially, of the United States. And he, too, had professed to actually amending the Haitian Constitution to take out a very revolutionary constitutional clause that had banned white males from owning land in Haiti. Among the first constitutional clauses that the occupation targeted was that, and therefore opened the country up to internal meddling by the international powers.

But lastly, I just want to also note the fact that with regards to what you had said about the Eiffel Tower, Crédit Industriel, which is now a part of Crédit Agricole, one of the largest banks in the world, I think among the 10th largest banks in the world, having funded the building of the Eiffel Tower, which is now this massive monument to French industrial progress, that was happening at a moment in which the United States, France, Germany and parts of Western Europe were developing rapidly from the capital that they were extracting from many of their former colonies or their current colonies. So, imagine: What would the history of development in Haiti be today, if at the same time that the world is undergoing industrial transformations the likes of which we see today in the form of the Eiffel Tower — what if that money that was taken from Haiti, financing French infrastructure, was financing Haitian infrastructure instead? The fact of the matter is, there is no progress-resistant genes that somehow Haitians are born with. Perhaps someone like David Brooks was born with that, with some progress-resistant gene, as he is unable to fathom that Haitians can take care of themselves. But the truth goes to show where the receipts are in terms of why we know Haiti is in the position that it is today.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Gerald Horne — the bank aspect of this reporting, which to me is, I think, the most newsworthy, in that the Times actually was able to get a hold, in French archives, of financial arrangements that were made between banking interests in France and Haiti, as well as its uncovering — more deeply uncovering the role of First National City Bank in the early 20th century in Haiti. So, I think that this is some of the best stuff in this report, but it’s almost like, “Hey, New York Times discovers imperialism.” Isn’t the role of Wall Street and European banks in controlling the economies, not just of Haiti but of Honduras, of Nicaragua, of Cuba, of many of these countries in Latin America, part of the operational mold of American imperialism?

GERALD HORNE: Most definitely. And I think that the series, laudable as it has been, could also have made a contribution if it had pointed out the close connections between France and the United States. That is to say, in the 20th century, they began to talk about Citibank and Citicorp and how it was involved in the depredations inflicted upon Haiti, but I think if you were to go back to the Haitian revolutionary period, you would also find similar connections. After all, we know that what became the United States was involved in a revolt against London that would not have succeeded without the assistance of France. We know that there was substantial French migration to [inaudible] States and that Frenchmen were involved in similar depredations in Louisiana and slave owning, for example. We know that when Texas seceded from Mexico in 1836, that Texas’s major diplomatic ally on the international front happened to be France. And we also know that when the United States Civil War erupted, 1861 to 1865, it was France that opportunistically chose that moment to try to seize and occupy Mexico, and then extend the lease on life of slavery in Texas and throughout the South by welcoming slave owners from Texas and from Dixie into French-occupied Mexico. And it took a mass revolt by the Mexican people to overturn that particular scheme. So there is much more digging and excavation that needs to be done. And I would like to reiterate my call for The New York Times to open the kimono and to disgorge these documents they say that they have uncovered in France, so that other scholars and other researchers can examine same.

AMY GOODMAN: We haven’t even talked about the Louisiana Purchase, but we can’t in this show. However, I want to end on the crisis that Haitians confront today when they try to come into the United States. I think it was last September the U.S. special envoy to Haiti resigned in protest over the Biden administration’s policies. In a letter, the longtime diplomat, U.S. envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote, wrote, “I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees.” Foote also criticized the Biden administration for meddling in Haiti’s political affairs, including its support for Ariel Henry as prime minister following the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July. Foote’s resignation came just days after U.S. Border Patrol agents on horseback were filmed chasing, grabbing and whipping Haitian asylum seekers who had gathered in that makeshift camp in Del Rio, Texas. We only have a minute, Professor Alcenat, but the issue of Haitian refugees being deported by the thousands back to a devastated Haiti?

WESTENLEY ALCENAT: Well, real quick, I think what you’ve just demonstrated is that Haiti stands as a singular metaphor for understanding the racial legacy of imperial powers like the United States and France. In fact, as the war in Ukraine is happening, the sheer magnitude of the difference in the treatment of certain refugees because of their European background relative to, say, Haitians, as you just showed in terms of what’s happening at the border, that’s a very revealing example of what Haiti not only means to the United States, but what it means to the world at large in terms of populations from formerly colonized geographies, as well as Black, Brown and Indigenous people in this country, who knows something about the treatment of racism at the hands of the U.S. government. So, in many ways, Haiti should be looked at as a singular metaphor for explaining so many of these various mistreatments and levels of preference for different groups. And I think the more we learn about Haiti, the more we realize how our fate — and this is not an overstatement — our fate is actually directly connected to it, if we are going to better understand what world we’re living in with regards to how the powers that be intend to engineer the world towards imperialism.

AMY GOODMAN: Our fates intertwined, going right back to the U.S. not recognizing Haiti’s independence for decades, fearing that a slave uprising would inspire enslaved people in the United States to rise up. Westenley Alcenat, thanks so much for being with us, Haitian American professor at Fordham University, where he teaches courses on the Atlantic slave trade, the American abolition movement and Afro-Caribbean history. And thank you, Gerald Horne, professor of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, author of many books, including Confronting Black Jacobins: The U.S., the Haitian Revolution, and the Origins of the Dominican Republic.

Next up, in his first trip to Asia as president, Joe Biden has promised to defend Taiwan militarily if it’s invaded by China. Is this new U.S. policy? Stay with us.

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