New leadership in Haiti must press for reparations

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The enslavement of African peoples meant they were captured, bound and transported in hellish conditions for several days to lands distant from their homes. They were then sold to plantation owners to work their fields, without pay and, again, under hellish conditions.
The enslaved Africans of Haiti who were subjected to this kind of treatment rose up against their masters to claim their freedom. That rebellion led to Haiti being the first independent nation led by ex-enslaved Africans.
Today, Haiti is in crisis – again – and certainly one of the worse. This is a country which, in modern times, has seen dictatorships, hurricanes and earthquakes that have left the country in very desperate conditions. Now, reportedly, gangs have taken over the capital, Port-au-Prince, leaving people dead in the streets, and other citizens taking flight away from the city.
The gangs that have taken control of the city also control the airports and harbours which prevents incoming relief. The conditions are such that, according to reports, the country is in a state of near famine.
The gangs not only barred the country’s prime minister from returning home but forced his resignation, preventing him from returning home from a mission to get help.
As the United Nations and some countries tried to come up with a plan to try to restore order, Kenya offered to send troops but on condition that some form of leadership be established. In the meantime, Canada has just completed the training in Jamaica of a group of military personnel, taken from other Caribbean countries. Their task would be to provide support to the Haitian police.
A transitional council has now been sworn in to do the business of government until, one hopes, things have settled down and a formal government can be elected.
On reporting on the state of things in Haiti, a few journalists have mentioned, in passing, the fact that the people of Haiti had to pay their former slave masters for the loss of their “possessions” through an agreement made to avoid being overcome by threatened military action against the then newly independent Haiti.
The New York Times, in 2022, published an extensive article on Haiti which traced some of the root causes of the country’s troubles today. Faced with the threat of a massive French attack, “Haiti’s president, eager for the trade and security of international recognition, bowed to France’s demands. With that, Haiti set another precedent: It became the world’s first and only country where the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters – for generations.”
The article continues: “Even the first installment was about six times the government’s income that year…But that was the point, and part of the plan. The French king had given the baron [Baron of Mackau] a second mission: to ensure the former colony took out a loan from young French banks to make payment.”
The New York Times’ research estimate that Haiti paid about $560 million in today’s dollars and believes that if that money had stayed in Haiti, it would have generated about $21 billion over time.
According to the Times’ article, the last slaveholder payments were made in 1888. However, the debt incurred through loans to make the payments continued.
France was not the only “benefactor”. The United States began occupying Haiti in 1915 and payments to those officials for salaries and expenses came from the people of Haiti.
When Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former priest, became president of Haiti, he began a campaign to have France repay the money paid to the former slaveholders. Not surprisingly, France and the United States arranged the removal of Aristide from power taking him in exile to the Central African Republic.
Now that other stories have taken over the headlines, it is not clear where things stand in Haiti. Some news reports have noted that gang attacks have continued even after a new prime minister has been sworn in. It is also unclear when the UN-supported Kenyan police will take up the assignment to help quell the violence.
Governments appear to have taken the position that reparations will never be paid. It would appear, as David Cameron, the former UK prime minister (and current foreign affairs minister) told Jamaicans some years ago: “It’s time to move on.” Notwithstanding that position, CARICOM, of which Haiti is a member, intends to press for reparations for slavery.
To their credit, some institutions have taken steps towards some form of reparations for their role in the enslavement of African peoples. Some families, including the British Royal family, have begun to examine their role as well. France, on the other hand, seems to have put forward the position that reparations will never happen, even though they are aware of their role in Haiti’s history.
Pursuing this objective has to be a main priority for the transitional council and any future elected government. It is perhaps one of the most immediate ways to help solve Haiti’s economic mess.
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