Cancel Haiti's Debt

There's a growing movement to cancel Haiti's foreign debt as a way to return to the Haitian people the authority to rebuild their lives and their country.

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 Simon Bolivar, 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
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

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.

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.