Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Why Haiti’s Debt Should Be Forgiven

A friend of mine recently asked me why Haiti, among all countries, deserved to have its international debt forgiven, as the Inter-American Development Bank recently did to the tune of $479 million.

Aside from the reason that I personally find most compelling - that Haiti has suffered one of the worst natural disasters in history, we have the means to help them and it is simply the right thing to do - there are, in my view, other compelling reasons why Haiti’s debt should be forgiven. Haiti is in far worse shape than quite a few countries I have seen in Africa, with over half of it’s people living on less than US$1 a day, with only the people of Somalia and Afghanistan suffering from higher rates of hunger, and with 90 percent of its tree cover gone (these are statistics from BEFORE the earthquake). But there are also arguments for debt forgiveness that, in my view, go to explain how, though Haiti’s political class has done a handy job of wrecking the country over the last two hundred years, they have had plenty of help from the international community.

In 1825, only 21 years after on independence, a French fleet appeared in Port-au-Prince harbour and threatened to bomb and destroy the Haitian capital unless the country agreed to pay an indemnity for the “intemperance” of having seized its freedom and having outlawed slavery. Haiti was forced to accept a debt of 150 million francs in exchange for France accepting the nation’s independence, a debt that took decades to repay and economically ravaged the country.

One of the reasons that the death toll in the earthquake was so large was that, in recent decades especially, tens of thousands of people have been migrating from the countryside into Port-au-Prince, where they lived in shockingly substandard housing that made them especially vulnerable to natural disasters such as the one that occurred. But why, we must ask ourselves, did they come into the capital in the first place?

In 1980-83, when tests showed nearly a quarter of Haiti’s pigs were infected with African Swine Fever, the U.S- Canadian funded Program for the Eradication of Porcine Swine Fever and Development of Pig-Raising (PEPADEP) succeeded in destroying the 1.2 million Kreyol pigs (kochon kreyol) that formed one of the backbones of the peasant economy. PEPADEP officials paid for the pigs before they slaughtered them, or, in many cases, promised to pay for them or replace them and never did. Most of the replacement pigs that were delivered soon died, unable to adjust to the rough world the Kreyol swine had grown so accustomed to, and an already difficult peasant economy suffered another blow.

Further undermining Haiti’s ability to feed itself, in typically duplicitous fashion in 1995 then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, implementing an economic adjustment plan mandated by the IMF and further turning the screws on the peasantry that he could never win over, cut tariffs on rice imports to the country from 35 percent to 3 percent. This further undermined the peasant economy despite the fact that Haiti for many years had produced low-cost, inexpensive rice for domestic consumption. After 1995, that is, after implementing the economic policies of the international community, it effectively lost the ability to do so.

In my view, “we” in the international community have helped get Haiti into its current sorry state, and debt relief is one tool at our disposal to help try and get it out. Given our dubious history there, it would be downright immoral not to use it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

President Obama signs historic health care bill

The 44th President of the United States does what presidents for 100 years have been unable to do. One of the happiest moments that I have witnessed in American political life and, hopefully, a step towards a slightly more human and compassionate nation. Perhaps some of the 45 million Americans (like me) without health insurance will now be able to get some.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

Michael Deibert interviewed on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles

I sat down for a fairly wide-ranging interview about Haiti with Suzi Weissman on her show Beneath The Surface on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles this week. The podcast of the entire show can be found here. My segment appears about 17 minutes into the program.