Reparations: The Thorny Issue

Speaking in Pointe-a-Pitre last Sunday at the unofficial opening of the Memorial ACTe­—a lavish institution devoted to the remembrance and study of slavery and the slave trade—Francois Hollande flippantly addressed the issue of France’s debt with Haiti, promising to “settle it” in his forthcoming visit to the country, just a few days later. Immediately, a whirlwind sprung up in the media, social and traditional, revolving around President Hollande’s message, his purported intentions, the real meaning of his words, and the exact amount, down to the very last cent, of such debt.

 

No sooner had Hollande made his statement than his aides set out to clarify, elaborate, explain that the debt the president was referring to was moral, not monetary. In France, Le Figaro was consistent with its usual stance, quickly and repeatedly mocking the politician for his vagueness, his lack of tact—in short, for another gaffe. In the Caribbean the news spread widely, with both the Jamaica Observer and Barbados Today running the same headline: “France to Cancel Haiti’s Debt.” Both pieces are available online, with dozens of comments to add color to the facts, and if you run into any related thread in, say, Facebook, or any similar platform, then you’ll end up with a full rainbow at your feet.

 

I have plenty of bones to pick with the issue of reparation, but before getting into it let us lay some terms on the table: the debt to which the Jamaica Observer and Barbados Today were referring consists of approximately US $80 million Haiti has in the books with France. That amounts to less than 1% of Haiti’s external debt (approx. US $1.3 billion) and roughly 0.1% of its GDP (approx. US $8.5 billion according to the World Bank). If the size of this write-off is minimal it can hardly come as a surprise, considering that over the past 150 years Haiti’s largest creditor (and at times also treasurer) has been the USA, not any Old World colonial power. Indeed, Hollande’s trip to Port-au-Prince last Tuesday marked the first official visit by a French Head of State in over 200 years. (Sarkozy’s visit after the earthquake in 2010 was not “official.”)

 

Meanwhile, the debt to which most commentators refer—indeed, the reason why so many threw up their arms in delight at the news that it might be repaid—consists of the 150 million francs the recently-crowned Charles X demanded from Haiti in 1825 as compensation for loss of property following its unilateral declaration of independence in 1804. In 1827 Haiti took out a 30-million-franc loan with France to start the repayment of its “debt,” which in 1838 was renegotiated from 150 million to 90 million francs. By 1885 Haiti had paid its debt in full—or rather, it had shifted it, since it now owed the USA more than it had ever owed France! Eventually Haiti paid that too, though not before being invaded and controlled by the USA for decades. By then it was 1947, and the scene was more or less set for the Duvaliers to wreak (even more) havoc on the island.

 

So, the argument for reparation payments in Haiti is essentially different to the argument for reparation payments in the rest of the Caribbean: no other country in the region paid a monetary fine, as it were, for its independence, and no other colonial power made it so difficult for its former possessions to operate autonomously—largely because they were either in no position to do it, or the transfer of power came over a century later. Be that as it may, it is also worth pointing out that things were not as black and white as time might have made them seem. Even the question of full independence divided the opinion of the very leaders of the revolution, not least Toussaint L’Ouverture, who, when given the opportunity, stopped short of completely severing ties with Napoleonic France.

 

Furthermore, one of the great conundrums of foreign diplomacy is that it works by multilateral consent, and regardless of how loud and emphatically Haiti claimed to be an independent country, hardly anyone recognized it as such. Politically isolated and impoverished (partly) by its inability to lure trade partners, Haiti was forced to negotiate with France: that was when Alexandre Pétion put forward the idea of paying France an indemnity in exchange of official recognition. Evidently what he had in mind was not the 150 million francs the Royal Indemnity Report came up with ten years later (which, by the way, amounted to roughly the exports recorded by Saint-Domingue in 1788, the year prior to the start of the revolution), nor would President Boyer (or any other politician in their right mind) have sanctioned the move, had the demand not come accompanied by a flotilla of 14 boats and 500 guns. As I said, things are not so clearly black and white.

 

But my problem with reparations is not legal—I’m not a lawyer, and am in no position to ascertain whether or not Haiti’s claim is valid under current or past legislation. My problem with reparation is attitudinal instead—something conceptual, if you like. I am continuously amazed by the reaction elicited by every allusion to the subject made by a representative of any European country—outrage, glee or pure anger following suit every time. But why is France in any position to accept or reject its (moral) debt to Haiti? If anything, only an independent body, a court of law or at least a relatively impartial institution, could make a meaningful statement about this issue. You might think this is an unimportant detail—just a question of pride—and you wouldn’t be totally wrong, except in underestimating the importance of it. Because as soon as we all react to the flippant and passing mention of President Hollande to this matter we are immediately, implicitly and tellingly accepting France’s position of power in this relationship, we are automatically reaffirming the power relations that have existed between the colonial master and its subjects since God only knows how many centuries, and we are perpetuating our own surrogacy to the decisions—to the whims, really—of the so-called “super powers.”

 

Blinded by the imaginary glitter of the US $21 billion President Aristide demanded from the French government last decade, we allow the tables of this debate (if there even is a debate going on at all) to be turned, and we find ourselves again at the weaker end of it—even if the point were to be granted (which, let’s face it, is never going to happen). The victimization prevalent in the vast majority of discourses concerning reparations in the Caribbean is symptomatic of an attitude that strikes me as far more harmful than poverty: placing ourselves as the victims immediately transfers the power to the other side—the power to hurt, of course, but also the power to make good, to grant, to heal. And yet, healing from the wounds caused by certain agents is a process—long, difficult, painful—in which those same agents should have no involvement whatsoever.

 

And here I come to what I really want to say: the whole argument about reparations is an argument about recognition—because without recognition we are invisible to the world, and if no one can see us, how can we even tell we exist? But recognition is something that, naturally, goes far beyond simply saying the words: recognition, to be sure, implies assuming responsibility. Crucially, however, these terms apply to both the exploiter and the exploited. Because assuming responsibility also entails stepping out of the safe boundaries of victimization, of helpless inferiority, and taking ownership of our own lives—understanding that we must face situations, make decisions, take action and carry the brunt of their consequences. Hence, the whole argument about reparations is really a question of accountability, of citizenship, of upholding our rights as human beings but also of accepting and performing the duties that are placed on us by those same rights.

 

Which, of course, doesn’t mean that European (and African) countries involved in the slave trade should not be held accountable for their actions. Not at all. What it does mean is that it cannot be done on their terms, with a sleight of hand, a passing comment, as a nice gesture on a rare visit to Guadeloupe. Because the argument for reparations is not about money—or at least it shouldn’t be. No amount of money is going to put a wrong right, and if US $21 billion (let alone US $80 million!) are going to allow France to get back up on its moral high horse, if they are going to perpetuate our perceived position as helpless children, indeed if they are forever going to place the blame of everything that’s gone wrong in the history of Haiti on an agreement signed almost 200 years ago, if they are going to make us point the finger at the Other and keep us from looking at ourselves, if they are going to exonerate the Duvaliers from all fault, and the thirty years of political chaos that followed Baby Doc’s exile in 1986, if they are going to provide us with a constant excuse for everything, then I’d rather have no talk of reparations at all.

 

And I’m not saying that US $21 billion, or even a fraction of that, wouldn’t be tremendously helpful to Haiti right now—of course it would! What needs to change, however, is our attitude, because otherwise no matter how much guilt money Haiti gets, it will be down in the pits again in a generation or two (and where this reads Haiti you can replace it for any other country in the Caribbean). Hence, if there is any value in the argument for reparations, then it lies in something that cannot really be bought—it lies in the very thing that will ensure that each of the different islands in the Caribbean achieve their potential in the XXI century through hard work, commitment, education and respect—not through the pitiful hand-me-downs of the colonial masters of a time long gone.

 

 

Published by the Weekender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday May 30 2015.

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