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Written by Jim Jordal   
Thursday, 11 March 2010

HAITIAN DISASTER REVEALS DEBT/POVERTY SYNDROME

By Jim Jordal

Everyone knows that the Caribbean nation of Haiti recently suffered an earthquake of Herculean proportions, and that Haiti is one of the poorest nations on earth. What they don’t know is the connection between poverty and foreign debt in Haiti that has grossly magnified the already horrendous physical damage done by the quake.

Last week’s Chilean earthquake was of larger magnitude, but Chile will probably recover more rapidly because of better infrastructure and greater government ability to focus on the problem. Chile is a much more developed country than is Haiti, and there are several good reasons for this difference.

News reports from Haiti bemoan the lack of infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, electrical grids—that makes it difficult to get aid to where it is needed. Non-existent sanitation facilities and a fresh water shortage also threaten survivors with various diseases. Most people explain the lack of facilities and infrastructure by blaming it on poverty, which is true as far as it goes. But the poverty that led to these shortages is directly traceable to the Haitian foreign debt held by Western banks and financial institutions.

In modern times Haiti has always been deeply in debt. After gaining freedom from France in 1804, Haiti became a victim again as the French under threat of arms saddled Haiti with a debt of 90 million gold francs in retribution for France’s "loss" of free labor. It took Haiti 122 years to pay off this debt.

Then came the Duvalier regime (1957 to 1986) in which "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier looted the country of half a billion dollars—most of it stolen from Western loans originated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. These "odious" debts, so-called because they originated under a dictatorship and were never used to benefit the Haitian people, mandated conditions for repayment (structural adjustments) that siphoned off money for loan service that should have gone for infrastructure, schools and medical care.

The sad debt saga continues to this day. Under urging from JubileeUSA and other international debt-canceling efforts, G-7 financial ministers have finally agreed to cancel Haiti’s foreign debt. But this has happened before. Canceled or reduced debt has been replaced by new loans as Western banks take advantage of natural disasters, greedy rulers, and public deprivation to continue loaning to nations with little or no capacity for repayment (except through new loans). Watch to see how this plays out as Haiti struggles to rebuild her nation, the massive cost of which cannot be paid for without either gifts or new loans.

I’m indebted to Canadian commentator Naomi Klein for much of the information in this writing. She says, "…it is Haiti’s weak infrastructure that turns challenges into disasters and disasters into full-fledged catastrophes." Debts and compound interest charges have thus far soaked up the money that could have built an infrastructure capable of aiding recovery from disaster. So foreign debt, poverty, and the inability to quickly recover from natural disasters are causally related. Now let’s see what foreign banks and financial agencies can cook up to keep Haiti under continued financial oppression and political control.

Debt used to control and oppress people or nations is a grievous sin against God’s Jubilee provisions found in Leviticus 25. We don’t seem to understand what God says again and again in His word: Debt and usury provide the vehicle for massive discrimination and oppression by those holding the debt over those owing it. As wise king Solomon said: "The borrower is servant to the lender."

Both Haiti and Chile have recently suffered under dictators. But it is Haiti that has paid far larger a proportion of its national wealth to foreign financiers over the past several centuries. Therein lies a major difference in their respective abilities to recover from natural disaster.

As long as debt and interest continue to soak up money that should be used for various public services, Haitians will only slowly and haltingly move into the needed restructuring and rebuilding of their nation. If you believe that we are all part of the intertwined human family, then Haiti’s problem is also your problem and Haiti’s victory your victory.

I’m not sure it’s possible to deal adequately with poverty here at home when even more desperate conditions exist around the world. Helping even one person or nation—whoever it is and however aid is delivered—is the same as helping ourselves and our nation.