Haiti: Enslaved by Debt

by Marie Clarke, Jubilee USA Network

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 systems.

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 TB.

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 for health.

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 life.


Source: wwwjubileeusa.org

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