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'The Greatest Heist In History': How Haiti Was Forced To Pay Reparations For Freedom

The Baron de Mackau of France presenting demands to Jean-Pierre Boyer, President of Haiti, in 1825
The Baron de Mackau of France presenting demands to Jean-Pierre Boyer, President of Haiti, in 1825

In recent weeks, thousands of refugees from Haiti have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, desperate for a better life. Most left Haiti years ago, after a 2010 earthquake ravaged what was already one of the most dismal economies in the world. They had originally settled in places like Chile, but the politics of the region have made them feel unwelcome, discriminated against, and fearful of the future.

The Haitian refugees hoped the United States, under President Biden, would offer them a lifeline. They were wrong. The Biden administration has been sending thousands back to Haiti, even though Haiti is a disaster zone, and many of the refugees fled it years ago. Some of those the U.S. government forcibly sent to Haiti are kids who have never lived there.

Ambassador Daniel Foote, who was appointed by President Biden as the U.S. special envoy to Haiti in July, resigned in protest against his administration's policy. "I will not be associated with the United States' inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees," Foote wrote in his resignation letter.

Tens of thousands of migrants, many of them Haitians previously living in South America, have arrived in recent weeks in Mexico hoping to enter the United States.
AFP via Getty Images
Tens of thousands of migrants, many of them Haitians previously living in South America, have arrived in recent weeks in Mexico hoping to enter the United States.

The Haiti that refugees are being sent back to is a nation in crisis. With its unlucky coordinates on the map and its poor infrastructure, Haiti has been devastated by multiple hurricanes and earthquakes in recent years, including a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August. In July, Haiti's president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated by Colombian mercenaries, some of whom had received U.S. military training. A Florida-based security company reportedly connected whoever wanted Moïse killed with the mercenaries, but the details of why Moïse was killed and who directed the mercenaries are still murky.

What is clear, however, is that Moïse's assassination continues Haiti's centuries-long political instability. In 2015, the World Bank concluded that Haiti's biggest political problem is that "a social contract is missing between the state and its citizens." Ambassador Foote, in his resignation letter, blasted the United States and other nations for contributing to this problem for the umpteenth time by unabashedly backing Moïse's unelected replacement, Ariel Henry. Henry was appointed Prime Minister by Moïse in July, and took on the additional role of President after Moïse's assassination. Haiti's chief prosecutor said he found evidence linking Henry to the president's killing, and Henry promptly fired him. Some Haitian authorities have asked Henry to step down and pleaded with the international community to stop supporting him. "This cycle of international political interventions in Haiti has consistently produced catastrophic results," Foote wrote.

Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world, and rich countries have their fingerprints all over the nation's stunted development. The United States worked to isolate a newly independent Haiti during the early 19th century and violently occupied the island nation for 19 years in the early 20th century. While the U.S. officially left Haiti in 1934, it continued to control Haiti's public finances until 1947, siphoning away around 40% of Haiti's national income to service debt repayments to the U.S. and France.

Much of this debt to France was the legacy of what the University of Virginia scholar Marlene Daut calls "the greatest heist in history": surrounded by French gunboats, a newly independent Haiti was forced to pay its slaveholders reparations. You read that correctly. It was the former slaves of Haiti, not the French slaveholders, who were forced to pay reparations. Haitians compensated their oppressors and their oppressors' descendants for the privilege of being free. It took Haiti more than a century to pay the reparation debts off.

The Tragic Hope of Revolutionary Haiti

Haiti won its independence from France in 1804, and it was almost immediately made a pariah state by world powers. It was an independent, black-led nation — created by slaves who had cast aside their chains and fought their oppressors for their freedom — during a time when white-led nations were enforcing brutal, racist systems of exploitation around the world.

Haiti, then known as Saint-Domingue, had been the crown jewel of the French empire. It was the most lucrative colony in the whole world. French planters forced African slaves to produce sugar, coffee, and other cash crops for the global market. The system seemed to work well. That is, until the French and American revolutions helped to inspire, in 1791, what became the world's largest and most successful slave revolt. Against all odds, the slaves won. Former slaves sent slaveholders scurrying to France and America — and Haitians successfully fought back subsequent efforts to re-enslave them. Haiti was the first nation to permanently ban slavery.

But as a nation of freed black slaves, Haiti was a threat to the existing world order. President Thomas Jefferson worked to isolate Haiti diplomatically and strangle it economically, fearing that the success of Haiti would inspire slave revolts back home. With the invention and spread of the cotton gin, slavery was becoming much more lucrative at the very same time a free Haiti was coming into existence, and slaveholders in the United States and other countries clung to and expanded the inhumane means of production. Haitian success was perceived as a threat to this system for decades, and the United States didn't officially recognize Haiti until 1862, as slavery began being abolished.

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During Haiti's critical period of development, France intervened even more directly than the U.S. to thwart its success. In July 1825, the French King, Charles X, sent an armed flotilla of warships to Haiti with the message that the young nation would have to pay France 150 million francs to secure its independence, or suffer the consequences. That sum was 10 times the amount the United States had paid France in the Louisiana Purchase, which had doubled the size of the U.S.

Almost literally at gunpoint, Haiti caved to France's demands in order to secure its independence. The amount was too much for the young nation to pay outright, and so it had to take out loans with hefty interest rates from a French bank. Over the next century, Haiti paid French slaveholders and their descendants the equivalent of between $20 and $30 billion in today's dollars. It took Haiti 122 years to pay it off. Professor Marlene Daut writes it "severely damaged the newly independent country's ability to prosper."

Righting The Wrongs

After the 2010 earthquake completely devastated Haiti, scholars and journalists wrote a letter to the French president demanding that France pay back Haiti. The French economist Thomas Piketty resurrected the idea in 2020, arguing that France owes Haiti at least $28 billion. The French government, under multiple presidents, has balked at the idea, and it is unlikely to pay Haiti back anytime soon.

But if the rich world wants to help right the wrongs done to Haiti in the past, perhaps the most effective policy right now would be to accept more Haitian refugees. This wouldn't only be a humane policy that would improve their and their future families' lives. It would also likely be a boost to the Haitian economy. According to the World Bank, Haitian expatriates sent $3 billion in remittances back home to Haiti in 2018, which was almost one-third of the island nation's entire GDP.

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Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.