Our Debt to Haiti

The year 2010 saw devastating earthquakes hit both Haiti and Chile. The following was written March 4, 2010, in their immediate aftermath. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • The January 2010 earthquake in Haiti pulled that small island country into the news. We need to try and keep Haiti visible – not just in its current suffering and agony, but in its heroic history of struggle and resistance. That history – almost unknown to Haiti’s neighbours in Canada and the United States – is an indispensable part of the struggle for democracy and human rights in the entire Western Hemisphere.

Most, when asked, will be able to identify the United States of America as the first republic in the Americas to emerge in the struggle against European colonialism. Few know that Haiti was the second. Most, when asked, will know that slavery in the United States ended in the context of the Civil War of the 1860s. Few will know that Haiti was the first country in the Americas to abolish slavery, accomplishing this indispensable democratic task three generations prior to Abraham Lincoln.

Most, when asked, will know that during the U.S. war for independence from Britain, the U.S. rebels received material assistance from France, which was engaged in its own long competition with Britain for control of overseas markets, trade and colonies. Few will know that at a critical moment in that war – the siege of Savannah in 1779 –a company of volunteers from what is today Haiti, fought alongside the U.S. rebels against the British colonialists. This “Black Legion” according to one historian “saved the patriot army from what might have been annihilation.” Members of this legion of affranchis (former slaves who had been granted their freedom) included people like Jean-Baptiste Mars Belley, Louis Jacques Beauvais, Martial Besse, and Andre Rigaud who would in later years all play crucial roles in Haiti’s own fight for independence.[1]

In an important sense, without Haiti establishing independence in 1804, the trajectory of the independence movement elsewhere in the Americas would have been much different. By 1815, the great leader of the independence movement in Latin America, Simón Bolívar, was up against a massive Spanish military incursion, the “strongest expeditionary force that had ever crossed the Atlantic.” But because the independent Republic of Haiti had already wrenched its sovereignty from European powers, the beleaguered Bolívar had a haven to which he could retreat.

This haven was important in a very practical sense. Bolívar “was given a friendly reception as well as money and weapons.”[2] Those weapons “helped Bolívar mount the invasion that ultimately defeated the Spanish Empire in the Americas.” Haiti’s president at the time, Alexandre Sabès Pétion, gave Bolívar “arms and ammunition” and allowed “hundreds of Haitian fighters, known as ‘françeses’ to sail with him.” Bolívar’s Haitian exile was also important politically. Pétion received something very important in exchange for the military assistance he was offering Bolívar – a promise from the great independence leader “to adopt measures to extinguish slavery in the lands he was to free.” [3] This was not carried out on the continent as thoroughly and swiftly as it had been in Haiti. But the importance of the anti-slavery promise made by Bolívar to Pétion in exchange for military support, should not be underestimated in its role as an accelerant in the process of eliminating that horrendous institution.[4]

It is well known that Haiti is desperately poor. In 2010, its income per capita (in Purchasing Power Parities) was just $1,200, the poorest of any country in the Western Hemisphere, and with a rank of just 206 from all 230 countries in the world. Contrast that with France ($33,300 per capita), Canada ($39,600) and the United States ($47,400).[5] January 12, 2010, the world saw the consequences of this poverty in the catastrophe which unfolded in the wake of the earthquake. This natural disaster shattered the country killing tens of thousands. But the reasons for many of the deaths were anything but natural. Grinding poverty had created conditions where buildings were constructed with concrete, but without rebars (steel reinforcing bars). A much more serious earthquake swept through Chile in 2010. However, through a building code dating back to the early 1970s and President Salvador Allende, the use of rebars was mandatory in Chile. Chile could take this step in large part because it is nowhere near as poverty-stricken as Haiti. As a consequence, the loss of life in Chile in February was much less than in Haiti in January.[6]

What is not widely known is that this extremely poor country was in 1791 “the richest slave colony of the Americas.” [7] But that wealth was drained towards Europe, and meant nothing but misery for the vast majority of people in the colony. In the late 18th century the island that today incorporates Haiti and the Dominican Republic, was home to the French colony St. Domingue and the Spanish colony San Domingo. According to CLR James – Trinidadian scholar and great historian of the struggle for Haitian independence – San Domingo was “the most profitable colony the world had ever known.”[8] In 1789, the value of France’s trade with St. Domingue amounted to two thirds of all France’s trade, and more than twice the value of all the trade from all of Britain’s colonies combined.[9] “The brilliant prosperity of Bordeaux and Nantes derived from colonial commerce. With some 465,000 slaves St. Domingue was the largest and most productive slave colony in the Caribbean.”[10] This extraordinary wealth was entirely the product of a system of the most brutal slave labour. Newly arrived slaves in the Caribbean – kidnapped from Africa – “had a life expectancy of only seven or ten years.”[11]

Two things were critical in both a) the ending of this system of slave labour and b) the establishment of Haitian independence. First and most importantly, there was an extraordinary and successful uprising by the slaves themselves. Second, this rebellion was inextricably linked to the French Revolution, the great product of the eighteenth century Enlightenment in Europe.

The first months of the revolution in France put in place a “moderate” revolutionary regime which, while opposing slavery in words, was nonetheless too bound up with French commercial interests to challenge the institution completely. So much of France’s wealth was dependent on Haiti’s slave labour, that the commercial class which wanted freedom from the King and feudalism, was at the same time loathe to contemplate freedom for Haiti’s slaves. What resulted was ludicrous. The French Assembly decreed that the almost 500,000 slaves in St. Domingue must stay slaves, unless they could show that their father and mother were born in France. This ended up applying to a mere 400 “mulattos.”[12]

However, small as this concession was, it helped spark an explosion. To contemplate even the possibility of freedom for even a tiny minority of Haiti’s slaves, was a sign of weakness, a sign that there was for the first time, a chink in the armour of the pro-slavery rulers of the French empire. This was an important factor in giving masses of slaves confidence to launch their magnificent rebellion on 14 August 1791, a rebellion which was to last for 12 years. Within months the army of ex-slaves, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, had captured all the ports on the north of the island. But in spite of that early success, it would take 12 years of bitter warfare – against France, England and Spain – before the people of Haiti could finally win their independence.

The slave rebellion was strengthened when, in France, forces much further to the left replaced the moderates of the first months of the revolution. By 1793, “the Paris masses were for abolition, and their black brothers” engaged in armed rebellion against slavery and French colonialism, “for the first time, had passionate allies in France.”[13] This found its most profound expression on February 4, 1794 when:

… [T]hree emancipationist delegates … a black freedman, a mulatto and a white colon … presented themselves at the Convention [in Paris]. Dufay, the white deputy, delivered a passionate speech … defending the general liberty that had been decreed in St Domingue and urging that … it be extended to the other French colonies. … Dufay’s declarations were met with rapturous applause. Levasseur of Sarthe proposed that the Convention move immediately to abolish slavery in the colonies … The motion was thereupon carried by acclamation.[14]

This was a crucial turning point in the struggle for independence, and ultimately in 1804, Haiti “declared national sovereignty … the second free nation in the Americas.”[15]

For Haiti, independence faced very specific obstacles. Although having won independence in 1804, it faced continuing hostility from the first “free” nation in the hemisphere, the United States, and Haiti’s old colonial master, France. In both cases, the issue was slavery. This might be difficult for readers in the 21st century to properly understand. In our century, slavery is universally seen with repugnance. But in the 19th century, it was an embedded part of international politics and economics. The United States could be considered a “free” nation, even though for the most of its first century of existence as a “free” nation, plantation slavery was a recognized and major part of its economy.

For the United States, the fact of a state based upon the abolition of slavery was a threat to the vast wealth produced on the cotton plantations of the American south by African-American slaves. Thomas Jefferson – revered in most political history as a democrat and freedom fighter – when it came to Haiti, was anything but. He worked hard to abolish all trade between the U.S. and Haiti to contain the contagion of slave rebellion. Jefferson’s attack on trade with Haiti “decimated the Haitian economy, already weakened by 12 years of hard fighting and much destruction.”[16]

The economic isolation of Haiti continued for years. In 1821, France offered to ease economic relations with Haiti if the Haitians agreed to become a French protectorate. The Haitians, of course, refused. But the Haitian government was desperate for international recognition as a way of opening economic doors. “In return for conditional recognition as an independent nation in 1825, President Jean-Pierre Boyer offered France 150 million gold francs … After a show of force by the French navy in 1825, Haiti swiftly borrowed 24 million francs to pay the first instalment. Full recognition by France followed in 1838.”

It was an enormous price to pay and suspect on many grounds. First, “the money was earmarked to indemnify the slave owners and their heirs for their ‘losses’ during Haiti’s revolution.” [17] In effect, the Haitian former slaves had to resort – under the shadow of the French navy – to buying their freedom, something that today would be considered completely unethical. Second – it was far more than the people of Haiti could afford. “The debt was ten times Haiti’s total 1825 revenue.” Third – it was massively out of proportion to any “non-slave” losses incurred by France, “twice what the United States paid France in 1803 for the Louisiana Purchase, which contained seventy-four times more land.”

This is not just of historic interest. The debt – not paid off until the early 1940s – “calculated at $21 billion in current dollars – dwarfs current aid commitments.” In 2004, in the context of the Haitian bi-centenary of independence, then Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide broached the idea of France repaying that $21 billion which would “allow Haitians to develop their economy without the attached strings that keep poor countries dependent on international aid.” [18] But the big news from Haiti in 2004 was not the repayment of this odious debt, but rather the coup d’état (supported by the United States, France and Canada) which removed Aristide from office.

Our debt to Haiti is immense. The barbaric oppression of its slave population before 1804 helped create the great wealth of the European powers, a wealth of which Canada is a fragment. Its successful independence struggle put the issue of emancipation from slavery on the agenda of the Americas three generations before that horrid institution was abolished in the United States. And in response, the great powers have spent generations extorting wealth at such an extraordinary rate, that Haiti remains today the poorest country in the Americas.

It is time that we paid our debts.

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] George P. Clark, “The Role of the Haitian Volunteers at Svannah in 1779: An Attempt at an Objective View,” Phylon, Vo. 41, No. 4, 4th Quarter, 1980: pp. 356-366.
[2] “Simón Bolívar,” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Online. (Accessed January 1, 2011). 
[3] Robin Blackburn, “Haiti, Slavery, and the Age of the Democratic Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Volume LXIII, Number 4, October 2006, p. 648.
[4] See also Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery (New York: Verso, 1988), pp. 255-258.
[5] CIA, “Country Comparison: GDP – Per Capita (PPP),” The World Factbook (Accessed January 1, 2011).
[6] K. Baker, “Engineer: ‘This was not an earthquake disaster.’” Haiti Rewired. January 28, 2010; and Naomi Klein, “Chile’s Socialist Rebar“, CommonDreams.org, March 3, 2010.
[7] Blackburn, 2006, p. 646.
[8] James, C.L.R. (1963). The Black Jacobins. New York: Vintage Books.: 57
[9] based on figures in James, 1963: 50
[10] Blackburn, 1988, p. 163.
[11] Blackburn, 1988, p. 20.
[12] Blackburn, 1988, p. 187.
[13] James, p. 120.
[14] Blackburn, 1988, p. 200.
[15] TThomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America, Sixth Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 335.
[16] G. Dunkel, “U.S. embargoes against Haiti – from 1806 to 2003,” in R. Clark, et. Al., Haiti: A Slave Revolution (New York: International Action Centre), p. 104.
[17] Dunkel, p. 105.
[18] Anthony Phillips and Brian Concannon Jr., “Justice for Haiti,” TomPaine.common sense, September 1, 2006.

What France Owes Haiti

We have just passed the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. The following was written January 28, 2010, and a version of it printed as a letter to The Globe and Mail. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • To the editors of The Globe and Mail. You highlighted, on your front page, the call from the World Bank for creditor nations to forgive Haiti’s debt. You chose to single out Venezuela as one of those creditor nations. You will be happy to know that Venezuela has complied with your wishes, and cancelled the debt Haiti owes Venezuela for oil purchases (link provided below)[1]. There is now no longer any need to single out Venezuela.

You might, rather, shift the spotlight to France. The debt owed by France to the people of Haiti is approximately $21,685,135,571.48 (link provided below)[2], a figure some 2,000 per cent greater than all the money owed by Haiti to all external creditors. The debt in question, as you of course know, was incurred when France extorted from the then 20-year old independent Republic, a completely bogus “compensation” for lost property. Given that this “lost property” was comprised of freed slaves, the French claim was, of course, indefensible.

The people of Haiti could use that $21 billion more than ever. I look forward to your front-page treatment of this important issue.

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] “Chavez Writes Off Haiti’s Oil Debt to Venezuela,” Latin American Herald Tribune, January 2010.
[2] “Aristide pushes for restitution from France,” The Miami Herald, December 18, 2003.

Canada’s Liberals train Britain’s Tories – Look out for ‘days of action’

This was drafted in August, 2009, before the 2010 defeat of Britain’s Labour government and the election of the “ConDems.” Given events since, it has some facts that are still relevant in 2011. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”)” • Two former leading Liberal government figures from Canada – former top bureaucrat Jocelyne Bourgon and former cabinet minister Marcel Massé – earlier this summer met with leading British Tories including Philip Hammond, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.[1] If Britain’s Tories intend to follow in the footsteps of Canada’s Liberals, then there is trouble ahead for workers and the poor in Britain.

The Canadian Liberals took office in 1993, reducing the Tories to just two seats. The Tories had earned the justifiable anger of the electorate by presiding over an early 1990’s recession that pushed unemployment into double digits. The recession had sent budget deficits to record levels – $40 billion for the federal government, more than $60 billion if the provincial government deficits were added in.[2] The Liberals announced that this had to end, and they ruthlessly set about to do so.

Then finance minister Paul Martin – working with the same Bourgon and Massé who are now advising Britain’s Tories – began a process of cutbacks that devastated health education and social assistance across the country. In a very short time, federal government spending had been slashed by 20 per cent. Close to 50,000 public sector workers, employed by Ottawa, were let go.[3]

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The principle mechanism used by the Liberals to slash spending was to change the rules by which tax money was shipped out to the provinces. The effect was to reduce by billions of dollars the amount of money given to the provinces – and this was critical, because it is the provinces in Canada that fund health care, education and social assistance.

The Liberal cuts created an environment that brought the most vicious right-wing Tories to the forefront. In Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, a hard right-wing Tory named Mike Harris took office in 1995. He was only too happy to see money from Ottawa drying up. He was a real Thatcherite – and was eager to cut as deeply as he could. He wasted little time.

  • Social assistance was cut by over 20 per cent with one blow – suddenly, Canada’s largest city, Toronto, was a place where visible panhandling became the order of the day and where food bank use soared;
  • Education budgets were slashed, leading to crowded classrooms and fewer education assistants – high school students eventually saw one year of schooling eliminated entirely;
  • Health care budgets were slashed, leading to horror stories of crowded emergency rooms, lack of beds, and patients stashed in hospital corridors;
  • All of this took place in an atmosphere of racism and scapegoating, culminating in the 1997 shooting death, by police, of young First Nations’ activist, Dudley George.[4]

The labour movement leaders had no idea how to respond. The recession in Ontario had been presided over by a government led by Canada’s labour party – the New Democratic Party (NDP) – that had paved the way for the Harris cuts. The tightening of social assistance, cuts to education and cuts to health care – all of these had started under the NDP. Union leaders closely tied to the NDP were frozen, uncertain how to respond.

But a response did come. A series of small community coalitions sprang up, hounding the Tories at every turn. September 27, 1995 – the opening day of the fall session – between 5,000 and 10,000 marched on Queen’s Park, in a demonstration organized by the Labour Council of Metro Toronto and York Region and the Embarrass Harris Campaign. The crowd included 17 busloads of protesters from Ottawa, Peterborough, Sudbury and St. Catharines and members of the Canadian Autoworkers, United Food and Commercial Works, United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Union of Postal workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union – as well as hundreds marching with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.[5]

The environment of resistance was reflected a few weeks later, when the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) met in session. The 2,000 delegates – much closer to the anger of the rank and file than the deflated and demoralized central union leadership – voted to launch a series of one-day, one-city general strikes to oppose the Liberal/Tory cuts.[6]

These “Days of Action” were magnificent. The first, in December 1995, shut down the industrial city of London, Ontario in the middle of winter. Workers by the thousands illegally walked off the job, some of them carrying signs “London, Paris,” inspired by the great wave of strikes breaking out in France that year. The February, 1996 strike in Hamilton Ontario saw a massive crowd of 100,000 take to the streets. Without a doubt, the high point was the magnificent Toronto strike. October 25, 1996. That day, one million people stayed away from work. The next day, 350,000 marched past the frightened Tories, separated from the massive crowd by hundreds of police outside the city’s convention centre.[7]

Tragically the union leadership threw away this anger from below. Again and again, they used the days of action as safety valves, letting workers blow off steam, but refusing to mobilize effective action. In the fall of 1997 the best chance to take such action occurred, when tens of thousands of Ontario teachers walked out in a two-week illegal strike. Had the call gone out for a sympathy general strike, the Tories could have been stopped. It didn’t happen, and the Days of Action petered to an end.

The lessons for Britain’s workers are clear. If the Tories (or Labour) copy Canada’s Liberals and Tories, then deep cuts are in order. If Britain’s union leaders copy Canada’s union leaders, the fight against these cuts will be stymied.

But if movements can be built which focus the rage and anger that ordinary folk will feel faced with the devastation of social services, if the anger in communities can be linked up with the anger in the workplace, then there is a chance that Britain’s workers will copy the best part of Canada in the mid-1990s – the militant tradition of rank and file opposition which opposed the cuts even when union leaders refused to fight.

© 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] Jonathan Oliver, “Whitehall lines up ‘doomsday’ cutbacks,” TimesOnline, July 5, 2009; and Michael White, “Taking an axe to public spending the Canadian way,” Guardian.co.uk, July 8, 2009.
[2] Statistics Canada, “Table 45: Actual, cyclically adjusted and primary-cyclically adjusted budget balances (millions of dollars), National Economic and Financial Accounts,” accessed August 7, 2009.
[3] Oliver and White.
[4] For an overview, see Robert MacDermid and Greg Albo, “Divided Province, Growing Protests: Ontario Moves Right,” in Keith Brownsey and Michael Howlett, eds. The Provincial State in Canada: Politics in the Provinces and Territories (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001), pp. 163-202.
[5] Laurie Monsrebraaten. “Protesters, police clash at Queen’s Park,” Toronto Star, Sept. 28, 1995, p. A.16; Paul Kellogg, “Ontario – strike action can stop the Tories,” October 30, 1995; and “Solidarity can stop the cuts,” October 2, 1995 in PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998 (Toronto: author’s collection).
[6] James Rusk, “Ontario unions target London for shutdown,” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 14, 1995, p. A.3; Kellogg, “Dec. 11 – Shut London Down,” PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998, December 4, 1995.
[7] Kellogg, “The face of the new year,” January 8, 1996; “Hamilton Days of Action,” March 4, 1996; “Toronto general strike: A taste of our power,” October 30, 1996; in PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998.

Reflections on 2010

The long nights of winter are always a good moment in which to take stock of the work of the previous few months. Working through the detritus of a tumultuous year, I came across several writing pieces not uploaded to this blog. Some have been published elsewhere (links provided where possible), but given the restrictions of print publications, often in edited form. Others were 90 per cent finished, but never completed and published. All but one were written in the last 12 months. The one exception, dating from the summer of 2009, is included because it deals with something that became quite topical in 2010 – the return to office of Britain’s Tories, and the opening up of another era of cutbacks and resistance in that country. The challenge was, before the nights got too much shorter, to see if a few of these couldn’t make the light of day. Eight are done, and that’s enough. Comments, as always, welcome.

1. August, 2009: “Canada’s Liberals Train Britain’s Tories – Look out for ‘days of action’
2. January, 2010: “What France Owes Haiti” (edited version published in The Globe and Mail.)
3. March, 2010: “Our Debt to Haiti
4. March, 2010: “Cheri DiNovo and the need for ‘Apartheid 101’
5. April, 2010: “The Question of China” (book review, slightly longer version of the review published in Socialist Studies)
6. May, 2010: “Colombia, not Venezuela, is the problem” (submitted as a brief to the Government of Canada)
7. May, 2010: “Bolivia and the birth of a movement for Climate Justice” (longer version of report published in Rabble.ca)
8.  December, 2010: “Tiger Woods – The Issue is Racism

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg