Debt, Dictatorship and Disaster – A brief history of Haiti

Steve BellLike so many Christians, I was stunned  by Pat Robertson’s  suggestion that Haiti’s current woes issue from  a curse following some ancient “pact with the devil” in the days of Haiti’s founding (a statement for which Mr. Robertson received a sound Shakespeareanesque thumping from CBC’s Rex Murphy  – see HERE.)

And then again –  after posting a plea on Facebook for people to sign the ONE Campaign’s petition to erase Haiti’s odious debts to international financial institutions –   several responses surfaced the opinion that Haiti’s sufferings are largely self imposed.

Pickin 'n grinnin in Bangladesh
Pickin 'n grinnin in Bangladesh / click photo to enlarge

I don’t claim the smarts to understand the matrix of causes behind systemic poverty, and I certainly don’t hold to a simplistic idea of the noble poor and the evil rich. But I have lived for a decade in one of Canada’s poorest neighborhoods.  I have traveled to India, Bangladesh, Philippines, Ethiopia, Kenya, West Bank, Thailand and throughout the Caribbean. I have read many books on the dynamics of systemic poverty and sat in on many dialogues among folks who are leading advocates for the poor. Rarely, if ever, have I encountered individuals or societies whose poverty could be said to be deserved. And rarely, if ever, have I met those who are entirely innocent of complicity in the suffering of others.

In the case of Haiti, a quick bit of research reveals a brutal feedback loop of external and internal predatory malice,  international indifference and climactic shock that will require a patient, compassionate, wise and multifaceted response if healing and flourishing is to eventuate – for Haiti’s history has been birthed in debt, borne by dictatorship and bludgeoned by disasters – a legacy of suffering that perhaps now, might receive the attention it needs.


Brief History

(Culled from several articles cited at bottom of page)


  • DEBT

In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and Dominican) was populated by an estimated 8 million native Taino amerindians who were all but annihilated by Spanish settlers within 25 years of Columbus’ initial voyage. The Spanish eventually ceded the western half of the island to France in 1697. Named Saint-Dominique, the new colony, through heavy importation of African slaves and considerable environmental degradation, quickly became the wealthiest colony in the Caribbean.

By 1789,  twenty nine thousand African slaves were arriving each year in Saint-Dominique which meant enormous wealth for France and unspeakable horror for the slaves, one third of whom died within three years of their arrival.

Battle at San Domingo
Battle at San Domingo

In 1794, a slave uprising began and within ten years the French were expelled and Haiti became the only nation in the world’s history to be born of a successful slave revolt.

France, refusing to let  her “rights” to the land and its inhabitants go uncompensated, posted warships off Haiti’s coast, and after 25 years of international isolation and threat supported by the U.S. and Europe, Haiti agreed to take out a loan from a designated French bank and pay compensation to French plantation owners for their loss of “property,” including the freed slaves. The amount of the debt –  the modern equivalent of 21 billion dollars – was ten times that of Haiti’s total 1825 revenue and twice the price of the Louisiana Purchase, paid by the United States to France (a year before Haiti’s independence) for seventy-four times more land.

This imposition of compensation by a defeated power and reimbursement by freed slaves of their former owners is unique in history and violated international law even in 1825. The 1825 agreement began a cycle of debt that has condemned the Haitian people to poverty ever since  whose government has some years paid up to 80% of it’s annual revenues to service debt.  Needless to say,  money for the most basic infrastructure enjoyed by most western nations was not available. Haiti did not finish paying the loans that financed the debt until 1947. Over a century after the global slave trade was recognized and eliminated as the evil it was, the Haitians were still paying their ancestors’ masters for their freedom.



Although an independent government was created in Haiti in 1804, its society continued to be deeply affected by the patterns established under French colonial rule. The French established a system of minority rule over the illiterate poor by using violence and threats. The racial prejudice created by colonialism and slavery outlived them both. The post-rebellion racial elite continued  the legacy of oppressive rule with  military coups and kleptocracies that have been the relentless blight on Haiti since.

"Pap Doc" Duvalier
"Papa Doc" Duvalier

As recently as 1957-86 Haiti was ruled by U.S. supported “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son who for thirty years diverted foreign assistance to their own personal  interests accounting for over half of Haiti’s current debt to foreign lenders. It is estimated that over 30,000 of Duvalier’s political enemies were executed under his repressive rule.

Today, there are almost 10 million people in Haiti who share the collective debt of roughly 900 million dollars.  Do the math – considering that the average annual income in Haiti is $270, – the recently orphaned 4 year old Haitian child owes the world almost half of an annual adult income.


Hurricaine Gustav / 08
Hurricane Gustav / 08

There is much debate about the cause of global warming, but little about it’s reality and it’s profound effect on the world’s poor. A few years ago, Nance and I were in the Afar desert in Ethiopia where we met  native inhabitants  mercilessly  beleaguered, as they were, by the increased frequency and intensity of drought as a result of global warming. A year later, we visited the coast of Bangladesh and met several who had just survived Cyclone Sidr which produced a 25 foot sea swell that killed tens of thousands of people and millions of livestock in a single wave of terror. The frequency of storms there is increasing in tandem with  the droughts in Ethiopia.

haiti-7Haiti has had a similar misfortune of geography in the last several years. In 2004, flooding left 5000 dead and many homeless. And then last year, the hurricane season of 2008 was the cruelest ever experienced in Haiti. Four storms–Fay, Gustav, Hanna, and Ike–dumped heavy rains on the impoverished nation. The rugged hillsides, stripped bare of 98% of their forest cover thanks to deforestation (largely denuded because people can’t afford more expensive forms of fuel), let flood waters rampage into large areas of the country. Eight hundred people were killed, millions left homeless and 70% of crops were wiped out.

Then, this past week’s earthquake will likely have taken well over 100,000 lives and leveled a city of over a million people. The aftermath of this disaster is incalculable.

* * *

Andrei Rublev's The Savior of ZvenigorodThis morning, my devotional took me to Luke’s Gospel (chapter 4). Having just  endured demonic temptations to engage  the beleaguered world through  power, spectacle and manipulation, Jesus –  full of the Spirit – takes up and reads from the book of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me… to preach good news to the poor… bind up the broken-hearted… proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. ”

Isaiah 61 says more about God’s heart, “ to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve… to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes… the oil of gladness instead of mourning… a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair… and they will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour.”

May our responses to Haiti –  to all suffering humanity and the groaning creation – reflect the character and intentions of the One whose word and deed are one.



Dessert Eyes | Afar Region | Ethiopia

One night, while visiting a growing project in the Afar Desert in Ethiopia, the villagers gathered to sing and dance for us.  As long as I live I will not forget the power and beauty of that dance, the exquisite clothing, the searing proud eyes and the setting African sun turning the billowing dance-loosed dust into visual beatitude.  After returning home, I sat down with my friend Glen Soderholm and together we wrote this song taken from Isaiah 61 cited above. It could just have easily been written for Haiti. The song focuses on God’s delight in persons and place.

Click on song title to listen:

The Fast I Choose

The Fast I Choose (Steve Bell | Glen Soderholm)

Beauty for a crown
Oil of gladness raise
Comforting those who morn
Royal robes of praise

As the soil conceals what’s sown
The garden causes seeds to grow

These are the work of my hands
These are the shoot I have planted here
For the display of my splendour here
In these beleaguered (enchanted) lands
These are the ones I have loved
These are the ones I have called my own
These are the priests of a sacred home
These are the ones
These are the ones I love

This, the fast I choose
The song I want to hear
Let the bonds be loosed
The day is drawing near

Blessed be these lovely ones
Dancing in the setting sun…

To view video of this Song click HERE

For some ideas on how to help Haiti, I’ve posted some of the things we, at Signpost, are doing HERE.


Articles used for this blog:

Haiti’s Unhappy History

A Pariah History – some promising starts and now this

External Debt Of Haiti

Odious Debt – in international law, odious debt is a legal theory which holds that the national debt incurred by a regime for purposes that do not serve the interests of the nation should not be enforceable.   The debt belongs to the regime, not the nation.

Haiti Needs Justice, Not Charity

Haitian Revolution