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6662: Haiti in life and debt struggle (The Guardian) (fwd)
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
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 RenÃ© PrÃ©val - 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
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 (Â£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) initiative.
"They say our debt is not high enough for relief," says President PrÃ©val.
"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 past.
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
Camille Charlmers - who was an adviser to President PrÃ©val'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 PrÃ©val, sitting beneath portraits of Toussaint Louverture and
Jean-Jaques Dessalines, the leaders of the slave insurrection.
"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
A year of broken promises
â?¢ 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
â?¢ 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
â?¢ 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 through
â?¢ 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
â?¢ 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
Guardian Unlimited Â© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000