We've known of Haiti’s ‘lost billions’ before NYT’s report

We've known of Haiti’s ‘lost billions’ before NYT’s report
Haitians and reparations activists have long highlighted the injustice by Western imperial powers following Haiti’s independence in 1804, but it seems to become ‘news’ only when platforms like the New York Times report on it, Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
5 min read
30 May, 2022
A series by The New York Times entitles 'The Ransom' reports on Haiti’s ‘Lost Billions’.

I’ll be honest. Sometimes, I spend a little *too* much time on my hellsite of choice. Scrolling through Twitter is often the mental equivalent of a bag of crisps: I reach compulsively for it between meals of richer, more fulfilling work, snacking mindlessly on less-than-nutritious content, but never seriously entertaining the idea of completely giving it up. For while I’m occasionally queasy from overindulging, I do get something out of it. Often, that something is a morsel. The beginning of a story, the edges of a conversation leading me down unexpected paths. So it came to pass earlier this week, when I discovered an academic, irate at being left out of a large piece of work by the New York Times.

The Ransom’, a series by the NYT in the vein of the 1619 project, investigates and reports on Haiti’s ‘Lost Billions’. Their animating question was simple: How did the home of the first and most successful revolt of enslaved people turn into a nation beset with profound poverty, systemic corruption and deep structural challenges? What happened over the last two centuries? 

As many academics and historians and actual Haitians would know, the root of the problem began soon after their independence in 1804. Twenty years or so later, the French threatened to invade and reimpose slavery if the new free black nation did not agree to pay reparations to their former masters. France demanded an exorbitant amount,150 million francs (30 times Haiti’s annual revenue), but as the young country was unable to front up the sum, France pressured them to take out loans from French banks to make up the shortfall.

''What made me so resistant was the realisation that we still live in an age where it feels like truth is only recognised as truth when it is published by a US news organisation like the New York Times.''

This ‘independence debt’ effectively became a ‘double debt’ that took the better part of a century to repay, atrophying the nation’s ability to develop and thrive. 

The NYT reported on this debt alongside stories of The National Bank of Haiti being controlled by the Parisian bank, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, to syphon Haitian wealth into the colonial coffers.

They detailed the cruelty and exploitation of US invasion and imperialism in the 20th century, and the roles of Washington and Wall Street in ensuring the Haitian people would see very little of their own resources invested back into the nation’s infrastructure.

The undoing of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a proud leader who had made loud, vocal calls for reparations to Haiti from France, was also revisited.

It was all important history, critical to understanding Haiti’s current context and in demonstrating how the actions of colonial and imperial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries remain extremely relevant to the state of many nations today.

However, the question many had was how much of this was new, and how much of this was the NYT simply broadcasting and amplifying what was already in the public domain? 

Journalist and author Jonathan M. Katz noted there were some new pieces of information which make this series novel and noteworthy. In particular, he points out, the NYT calculated a precise number that Haiti was required to pay back to France over the years: somewhere between $21 billion to $115 billion.

They also made the case that Haitian wealth financed the Eiffel Tower, salaries at Citibank and the French state itself ($8.5 million landed in French state coffers).

The NYT also revealed that the French Ambassador did concede that the 2004 ousting of then-President Aristide, was in fact a coup, backed by the US and France. 

Again, all vital, useful information, particularly in considering how much France might owe Haiti in return. But in engaging with the reporting, both ‘rarely taught or acknowledged’ (according to the NYT) and ‘new’, I couldn’t help but find myself frustrated, somewhat reluctant to read this history, telling me much of what I already knew. 

It wasn’t because some academics felt angry at being left out by the NYT’s bibliography, though that was how I was introduced to the series. It wasn’t because I didn’t believe this was history, rather than journalism, as others have pontificated.

What made me so resistant was the realisation that we still live in an age where it feels like truth is only recognised as truth when it is published by a US news organisation like the New York Times.

There is something particularly galling about being educated about the cruel exploits of colonial and imperial powers by a publication which itself is ensconced in a city and nation that has a long way to go in repairing its past sins. And while there is, of course, much to admire about the NYT’s reporting, I wonder how I should personally engage with it.

Do I celebrate the NYT, given it is bringing this information to a wider audience? Or do I reject it completely, given their positioning, and the ethical ambiguity of presenting work as ground-breaking, when it is in fact only building on the work scholars, activists and Haitians have known about and worked on for years?

How do I swallow what feels like another injustice, that one’s own history may only be garnered importance or platform when the descendants of the masters deem it time? 

As a Sudanese woman, I know what it is to be from a nation the wider world sees as poor, corrupt and borderline irredeemable. I know what it is to constantly be grasping for attention, for reparative treatment, for justice. I know what it is to have my history taught back to me by descendants of the colonisers, by those who think they know my land and people better than I do, despite my being born on the soil where the two Niles meet. I also know that sadly, I am not really in a position to choose. 

Or am I? I wonder if by even writing this piece, am I part of the problem?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese-Australian author and social justice advocate. She is a regular columnist for The New Arab.

Follow her on Twitter: @yassmin_a

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.