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Written by Jim Jordal   
Wednesday, 22 November 2006

HAITI: BASKET CASE OF THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE

By Jim Jordal

"Behind this crisis of dollars [in Haiti] there is a human crisis: among the poor, immeasurable human suffering; among the others, the powerful, the policy makers, a poverty of spirit which has made a religion of the market and its invisible hand. A crisis of imagination so profound that the only measure of value is profit, the only measure of human progress is economic growth."

From Eyes of the Heart, by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Catholic priest and former president of Haiti

The Caribbean nation of Haiti (which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic) is well known in economic development circles as a "basket case" among poor nations. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere--and one of world's poorest--with problems including extreme poverty, deforestation, soil depletion, shortages of clean water, 85 percent illiteracy, high childhood mortality, rampant disease, a history of corrupt military rule, and others almost too numerous to mention.

But it has not always been so. According to reports from the past, Haiti once was a beautiful country, green with lush forests and prospering from a large sugar industry. It was a jewel of the French Empire, furnishing 25 percent of France's wealth during the 1700s. When Haiti achieved its independence from France in 1804, it was wealthier and more heavily populated than its neighbor. But then began a long decline characterized by political instability, resource depletion, isolation from European immigration and capital flows, culminating in military occupation by the U.S. from 1915 to 1934 because of anarchy and threatened debt default.

During the infamous 1957 to 1986 rule of dictator Francois "PapaDoc" Duvalier and his equally cruel and rapacious son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the nation continued its descent into deprivation and squalor. Their 29-year misrule looted the country of wealth and greatly increased its foreign debt. Survival for the increasingly poor population meant such disastrous actions as finishing the destruction of Haiti's rain forests for charcoal production, resulting in decreased rainfall and massive erosion of the denuded slopes, further reducing soil fertility and crop yields. At present only 1 percent of Haiti's once abundant forests remain, and this remnant is threatened.

Although debt relief for Haiti has been discussed by international lending agencies over the past 20 years, little has happened. The current status of Haitian debt shows some signs of hope, as the following recent report from the JubileeUSA Web site indicates.

"In April, Haiti was added to the World Bank and IMF’s list of heavily indebted poor countries (HIPC) eligible for debt cancellation, just after new president Rene Preval was elected in February. But under the harmful economic conditions of the World Bank and IMF’s debt relief program, Haiti will not see this relief until December 2009 at the earliest—by which time the country will have paid $220 million in debt service that could have gone towards education, health care, or other social sector spending. The existing program also excludes cancellation of Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) debt which accounts for $470 million, nearly half the country’s debt to international financial institutions. H.Res. 888, which was introduced June 22nd by Representative Maxine Waters, will urge the World Bank, IMF, and IDB to immediately cancel Haiti’s debt."

"Haiti’s debt is both unpayable and unjust. 45% of the country’s $1.4 billion debt was accrued under the Duvalier family dictatorship and used to finance the Duvalier’s lavish lifestyle and support their 29-year rule, notorious for human rights abuses. The Haitian people continue to pay interest on these loans of a clearly odious nature. This is money that could be used to invest in health care or education in a country where 23% of children under five are chronically malnourished and only 35% of students are able to complete primary school. From 2005-2009, Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, is projected to pay $220 million in debt service. To put this number in perspective, this is more than double the amount Haiti spent in FY2001 on education, health, roads, the environment, and water and urban infrastructure combined. Immediate cancellation of Haiti’s debt would allow the country to stop paying interest on odious debts and free up much needed resources for the country to invest in health and education."

Jubilee USA is an organization dedicated to applying biblical principles of Jubilee debt relief to heavily indebted poor countries such as Haiti. Scripture relates these Jubilee principles in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, and reinforces them in the prophetic writings and the teachings of Jesus. Application of Jubilee principles would, in the case of Haiti, result in forgiveness of the nation's foreign debt to Western financial institutions, redistribution of whatever natural resources remain to the people, a massive program of reforestation and soil reclamation, installation of a government responsive to the people, and generous foreign aid to build missing infrastructure and provide food, fresh water, medical care, and education to the people.