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#4327: Haiti in life and debt struggle from The UK Guardian (fwd)
From: Charles Arthur <email@example.com>
Haiti in life and debt struggle
Impoverished island forced to keep up its loan payments
Debt relief: special report
Owen Bowcott in Port-au-Prince and Charlotte Denny
THE GUARDIAN Saturday June 17, 2000
Haiti hopes that six months from now it will have recovered
millions of dollars embezzled by the former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc"
Duvalier and secreted in Swiss banks. It may also launch a prosecution
against him in France, where he lives in exile.
But it is not the plundered funds that most preoccupy the leader of the
poorest country in the Americas. President René Préval - a dapper agronomist
with a ready smile - is more alarmed by the sums his impoverished country
must disgorge to repay loans from foreign banks.
The fact that 40% of Haiti's debt was incurred under Duvalier family
misrule, when loans were regularly skimmed by regime cronies, reinforces
the country's resentment.
Last week in a state reception room, where the sound of traffic
grinding through the sweltering slums of Port-au-Prince almost drowned
conversation, he signed a petition calling on international creditors to
annul the country's swelling $1.2bn (£800m) debt.
For a Caribbean nation whose independence was achieved through the only
successful slave revolt in history, the current campaign by the London-based
organisation Jubilee 2000 to break the shackles of
developing world indebtness has a strong political resonance.
Haiti has already signalled its difficulty in meeting interest payments to
the World Bank. It is not among the countries to receive
debt cancellation under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC)
"They say our debt is not high enough for relief," says President Préval.
"But it's one of the reasons for the problems of this country. We need
cancellation." Outside the bleached, white splendour of the palace, chickens
amble across the presidential lawn. Haiti is a country of desperate
In teeming shantytowns, the most basic services do not exist. In the
district of Christ-Roi, the body of a middle-aged man lay on a rutted track,
face up with a broad gash to the head. People walked
Amid such poverty, the need for aid and investment is undisputed, but in its
absence millions of Haitians want simply to escape. "We want to do things
for the community," said James Joussaint, director of a development
association. "But people want to go abroad for economic reasons, for better
health, better education, more security, so their children don't have to
work ..." His voice trailed off, implying an endless list.
At home, education is seen as one escape route; private primary
schools have sprung up all over. Hubert Milhomme, headmaster of Ecole
El-Shaddai in Arcachon, looks on as his 18-month-old son, Hubens, plays on
the floor and jokes that one day the boy will be a doctor.
But even this pillar of the community is dispirited: "The government pays
nothing toward the school. Not even for a piece of chalk.There's rarely any
electricity. It gets diverted to the wealthy people in Petionville. Down
here we suffer from tuberculosis and malaria." He, too, talks wistfully of a
life in the US.
The traditional way out has been over the border to cut sugar cane in the
Dominican Republic, which at one stage last year was sending back 600
migrants a day.
The traffic in boat people heading for Miami is reviving - a clear
indication of declining living standards.
Four hundred Haitians were found on a Bahamas beach in January
after their ship ran aground. More than 1,000 Haitians have been sent
back already this year, according to the US coastguard. Thousands
more may have made it to Florida - or drowned.
Last month 10 Haitian policemen disguised as missionaries
hijacked a local ferry. The catamaran, and its 121 pasengers, was found
adrift in American waters after the fuel ran out. "We didn't steal the
boat," explained one policeman, "we stole the destination".
Colette Lespinasse runs a group for returned refugees.
"Sometime the fishing boats are too full, there's not enough to drink and
they have to throw overboard those who become ill," she says.
"One woman tried the journey four times. She had a young baby
who died. She was so full of despair, she committed suicide by jumping
into the sea."
Attempts by the outside world to relieve the hunger and
suffering have been undermined by previous, corrupt regimes, leaving today's
inheritance of mounting debt.
Camille Chalmers - who was an adviser to President Préval's
predecessor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and now runs a development
organisation - deplores the country's annual repayments of
$45m. Jean-Claude Duvalier, he maintains "took $900m with him when he
left [in 1986] - that's almost the whole debt".
Trade liberalisation has also done little so far for Haiti.
Instability and poor government have discouraged western investment, and
cheap US rice imports have been accused of undercutting small farms in the
Artibonite valley - the country's traditional rice bowl.
There are historical prece dents for granting relief for what
is known as "odious debt". In 1970 Indonesia was rewarded with
significant cancellations after General Suharto overthrew Sukarno. Debt
repayments strike such a chord in Haiti because, after the slave uprising of
1791, France demanded "compensation" in return for granting independence. It
took 100 years to pay off 550m gold Francs.
"Haiti was a financial colony for a century after
independence," says President Préval, sitting beneath portraits of Toussaint
Louverture and Jean-Jaques Dessalines, the leaders of the slave
"That is why Haiti is poor and has borrowed so much money.
Within six months we are hoping to liberate some of Duvalier's funds," he
adds. "We are also looking at taking legal action in France against him" for
human rights offences.
A year of broken promises
? A year ago today in Cologne, the world's seven richest
countries, the G7, promised to write off $100bn of the $260bn owed to the
west by the most indebted states
? The G7 promised that 25 of the 40 countries identified by the
World Bank and International Monetary Fund as the worst affected
would receive help by the end of this year - provided lenders were satisfied
that the borrowers had policies to ensure use of the funds to reduce poverty
Britain's chancellor, Gordon Brown, promised that 11 would get
through the programme's hurdles by Easter
? By mid-June, five countries have received reductions in debt
payments and only one, Uganda, is anywhere near having its debts
cancelled. The World Bank still hopes to get up to 20 countries through by
the end of the year, but debt campaigners think it will struggle to push 15
? So far, the west has cancelled $11.9bn worth of debt - most
of it under agreements predating Cologne. The only extra debt relief
since the west promised "deeper, speedier" debt relief last year has been an
extra $629m for Uganda
? Though Britain and most of its G7 partners have promised to
cancel 100% of the debt owed to them individually (most of the money
is owed to the World Bank and the IMF), Britain is the only one to do so.
The other G7 countries are waiting until countries fulfil all the onerous
requirements of the overall debt relief programme before
getting out their chequebooks >>
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