Thursday, August 30, 2012

Laurent Dubois's "Haiti: The Aftershocks of History"

Laurent Dubois is a Marcello Lotti Professor of Romance Studies and History at Duke University and Co-Director of the Haiti Laboratory at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, and reported the following:
How much does a revolution cost? In 1825, Haiti received an answer to that question in the form of a ₣150 million indemnity paid to its former colonizer, France, in return for political recognition. Page 99 of my book Haiti: The Aftershocks of History tells the story of how that indemnity was levied by France. The early chapters of the book examines the Haitian struggle to create a political and economic alternative on the ashes of a brutal plantation system, and the story of how Haiti ultimately paid – and dearly – for its recognition is a turning point in the story.

In 1925 it had been over two decades since the country’s founder, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, had driven the debris of Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops from the island and announced the creation of a new nation. But while some countries – most notably Britain and the U.S. – traded actively with Haiti, none had officially and publicly acknowledged its existence as an independent, sovereign country. Within Haiti, a new and profoundly radical new order had been born. Ex-slaves had transformed a landscape of sugar and coffee plantations into small farms, combining production for internal consumption with export of coffee, lumber, and other goods. Though their legion of detractors outside the country had trouble seeing it, and despite many conflicts and fissures within their society, this was a significant victory. It secured a drastically better quality of life for them than the one their ancestors had suffered, and better too than that of most people of African descent in a hemisphere where slavery dominated many societies.

But the diplomatic isolation suffered by Haiti circumscribed their economic opportunities, and was also experienced as a humiliating refusal by many in the political class. France had, for decades, simply refused to officially admit that Haiti was anything more than a rebellious colony. Repeated efforts to resolve the impasse had failed. In the end, however, an idea emerged: if Haiti were to pay an indemnity to France, calculated to reimburse the planters who had lost property during the revolution, the colonial power would acknowledge independence. The deal was made by Haiti’s President Boyer, who ignored parliamentary resistance and took advantage of his dictatorial powers to do so. But he faced a clear choice: French warships were lurking off the coast, threatening to blockade the country if its leaders refused the deal.

Haiti was, with this decision, propelled precociously into a cycle of debt that is by now wearily familiar. Their treasury did not have enough in it for the first payment. “No problem!” said French banks, who offered loans to pay off the debt. So Haiti contracted what became known as the “double debt.” Until the late 19th century, they would continue paying both the original indemnity payments and the interest on the loans they took out to pay them. And the cycle of debt would, in fact, never end.
Learn more about the book and author at Laurent Dubois's website.

--Marshal Zeringue