“The New York Times’s publication of “The Ransom,” a groundbreaking report laying out history’s role in Haiti’s poverty, stirred immediate reaction.
Over the weekend, The New York Times published a project a year in the making that tried to answer a simple question: How much better off might Haiti be today if foreign powers had not kept draining its wealth for generations after Haitians threw off the yoke of slavery?
The answer, of course, is anything but simple. But drawing on thousands of pages of original documents, some of which are gathering dust in archives on three continents, and with the guidance of prominent historians and economists, The Times found that one of the world’s most desperately poor countries might look a lot of different now if the French had not demanded staggering sums of money under threat of war after Haiti declared independence more than two centuries ago.
The project, “The Ransom,” tells the story of the first people in the modern world to free themselves from slavery and create their own nation. They paid for that freedom first in blood. And then they were forced to pay for it again — in cash.
Haiti became the world’s only country where the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters, and for generations.
The Times tracked each payment Haiti made over the course of 64 years, and calculated that Haiti ended up paying about $560 million in today’s dollars. Factor in what that money could have done to Haiti’s economy over the course of centuries, and it comes out to as much as $115 billion in losses for Haiti over time — many times the size of its entire economy today, The Times found.
Reaction to the project was immediate.
“I live in Haiti, and I’m here right now,” one reader commented. “Today we are lucky: We have had electricity for a few hours.” Reading the articles, the commenter said, drove home the notion that young people in Haiti “were robbed so long before they were born.”
Posting on Twitter, Patrick Gaspard, a former U.S. diplomat who now heads the liberal Center for American Progress, demanded reparations from Citigroup, whose predecessor bank, The Times recounted, drew big profits from Haiti in the early 20th century.
“A silent scream has been in throats for decades about role U.S. played in depleting Haiti,” Mr. Gaspard said. “No one would listen. Finally some truths.”
Other readers suggested that the articles, which noted the role of endemic corruption in Haiti’s woes, let the Haitians off the hook. “I am getting tired of this narrative of victimization, and it is not a particularly helpful way of viewing history, especially in a newspaper,” one commented. “When was there never any victims of something?
France itself had little to say about “The Ransom.” In part, that is because it is in the midst of forming a new government. But as The Times project noted, the country’s history in Haiti — or any talk of compensating Haitians for their losses — is not something the French like to talk “