Haiti: Enslaved by Debt
by Marie Clarke, Jubilee
Marin Interfaith Task Force
on the Americas newsletter, Summer 2003
"Debt costs lives." Nowhere
is this more evident than in Haiti, where people are literally
paying for the debt with their lives and livelihood. As an "indebted"
nation, Haiti is not only required to pay down its debt, but also
forced to adhere to economic policy prescriptions of the creditor
nations and institutions that have crippled Haiti's health, education
and water systems and eroded their food security. In short, the
debt in Haiti has brought a proud nation, the first nation built
out of a successful slave rebellion, to its knees. In a country
where in 1804 the people threw off their bonds of oppression,
they have been captured and enslaved by debt.
Haiti's first "debt" was 150
million francs owed to France as the price of their freedom. After
winning their freedom, slaves were required to pay for that freedom
in order to be eligible participants in the world market. That
payment was considered "debt." Haiti is currently paying
down a $1.2 billion debt at $50-80 million each year, twice the
public health budget, three times the education budget and four
times the agriculture budget. Debt makes up 35% of Haiti's GDP.
Creditors are denying Haiti new loans
and desperately needed humanitarian aid. They claim that this
is because the current government cannot service its debt. Because
debt payments must be made in the form of foreign capital and
Haiti has only two weeks' reserve in their central bank, it cannot
service its debt. Jubilee USA and Jubilee Haiti argue that the
debt is illegitimate and should not be serviced at all. Forty
percent of Haiti's current debt was accrued by the dictator Duvalier.
According to international law, this debt is odious as it was
a debt incurred in the name of the people but has not served the
interest of the people. The people of Haiti have been handed a
bill for their oppression.
The real impact of the debt is felt more
deeply than the red numbers on a budget line. It is felt in the
daily lives of the Haitian people, 40% of whom have no access
to clean and potable water in the best of times. During the dry
season, even those with intermittent access to potable water have
days, weeks or months with no water or water only for a few hours
during the day.
In some urban areas the only running water
is the sewer. We saw pictures of children standing in the sewer
trying to collect clean water from a broken spot in the pipe.
These children are forced to steal the water because their families
cannot pay the fees. The loans that are being held up, allegedly
because Haiti is unable to service its debt, would fund water
Debt is felt at breakfast time, as most
of the population is not able to feed their families more than
once a day. Food security has been eroded as Haiti has been forced
to depend on food imports. Rice production provides a good example.
In 1985, Haiti produced 125,000 metric tons of rice annually and
imported only 7,000 tons from the U.S. After almost two decades
of commercial liberalization imposed by creditors, today Haiti
imports 225,000 metric tons from the U.S. Haitian farmers cannot
compete with foreign rice as Haiti has been forced to take away
agricultural subsidies as a part of their agreements with creditors.
The U.S. in their leadership role at the IMF has been one of the
primary agents in forcing developing nations to strip away subsidies,
while granting huge subsidies to the agricultural industries.
Debt is felt in the sorrow of being unable
to send your children to school as a result of user fees for primary
education. Families that can pull together only enough resources
to send one child are forced to choose which child to send to
school. The Ministry of Education is so under funded that while
President Aristide prioritized building schools, tripling the
number of schools in Haiti, the Ministry is now unable to pay
teachers, resulting in a teacher's strike. Now even the Haitian
children who can afford to pay the fees for their education have
no one to teach them. These new school buildings should be teeming
with life and the sounds of children learning and playing, yet
they sit empty and silent. The loans in question would provide
money for education.
Adults felt the debt strongly when suddenly
the transportation prices skyrocketed as the government finally
buckled under international pressure and removed the gas subsidies.
Suddenly the cost for the average worker to get to his or her
job climbed to 40 Haitian gourdes. These same workers make only
36 gourdes, or less than one dollar per day. This launched the
country into turmoil and resulted in a transportation strike.
Debt is felt sometimes most strongly when
Haitians get sick. Like the Ministry of Education, the Ministry
of Health is unable to provide adequate services to patients or
pay salaries to the doctors and nurses. In a visit to the primary
hospital in Port au Prince, we spent twenty minutes at a fancy
x-ray machine only to find out that it does not work and there
is no money to fix it. The nurses and doctors were on strike,
as they had not been paid in over a month. Even when the doctors
are being paid, the hospitals and clinics are often empty or only
partially filled. This is not because Haiti is an extraordinarily
healthy country. The people of Haiti cannot afford to pay the
user fees on health to get into the door of the clinic, much less
the fees for xrays, prescriptions, blood tests etcetera. The conditions
of the hospital and the clinics are horrifying.
AIDS and TB are the largest killers in
Haiti. Haiti has a 10% HIV infection rate in the city and 4% in
rural areas. There is only one facility in Haiti that can treat
people who are living with AIDS so the vast majority of the population
doesn't bother being tested, as there is little hope for treatment.
Fees also deter testing. The one spark of hope for health care
in Haiti is found in Cange, in the Central Plateau, where a magnificent
facility has a strong partnership with the Ministry of Health
and provides free healthcare and treatment for HIV/AIDS and drug-resistant
In Cange excellent health care is being
provided to the poorest of the poor. How is this possible? They
have won money from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.
How could this be replicated elsewhere in Haiti, we asked? The
response: cancel the debt and fund the Ministry of Health, so
that the Ministry will have the resources to replicate this model
throughout the country. The loans held up would provide funding
Currently, Haiti is not considered eligible
for debt relief under the IMF and World Bank program, HIPC (Heavily
Indebted Poor Country Initiative). Originally this was because
Haiti was not indebted enough to meet the eligibility criteria
of 150% debt to export ratio. Once Haiti met that threshold, Haiti
was not eligible because President Preval was not willing to privatize
all national industries at the rate the institutions desired.
Currently, Haiti is not eligible because they are not currently
in an IMF program, nor able to borrow from the IMF.
The external debt of Haiti is more than
a question of the bottom line of a national budget; it is a matter
of life and death, of health, education, food security and livelihood
for the people of Haiti. Not only should the illegitimate debt
be annulled, and reparations paid for the "debt" that
resulted from Haiti buying freedom, but also any remaining debt
should be cancelled because of the moral imperative to preserve