Hello, Columbus

Pooja Bhatia

Last weekend, the New York Times published an extraordinary investigation into one of history’s most odious debts: the payments Haiti made to French slaveholders in return for recognising its independence. The idea of compensating slaveholders for the loss of ‘their property’ – i.e. the people they could no longer enslave – was offensive and mind-boggling from the moment it was floated. In rejecting such a proposal in 1809, the Haitian revolutionary leader Henri Christophe asked:

Is it conceivable that Haitians who have escaped torture and massacre at the hands of these men, Haitians who have conquered their own country by the force of their arms and at the cost of their blood, that these same free Haitians should now purchase their property and persons once again with money paid to their former oppressors?

France mustered an answer in 1825. It sent fourteen ships to the coast of Haiti, threatening war, while a royal envoy went ashore to make the demand. Christophe was five years dead. With guns almost literally to his head, President Jean-Pierre Boyer chose to pay.

Haiti could not afford the price France set, even after it was reduced from 150 million to 90 million francs. France obligingly lent the money – at high rates of interest and with exorbitant fees. Haitian officials found ways to ensure that smallholder farmers bore the brunt of the debt, which entrenched the divide between rich and poor and consolidated a pattern of state predation that continues to this day. By the time Haiti finished paying the descendants of French slaveholders, in 1888, it had missed out on the public investment boom of the second half of the 19th century: sewer systems, transit networks, schools, hospitals.

The Times investigation (headlined ‘The Ransom’) documented every payment Haiti made on what it calls its ‘double debt’ (the reparation demand plus the loans to pay it), calculating that Haiti remitted 112 million francs, the equivalent of $560 million. The economic loss was far greater: between $21 billion (if the economy had grown at Haiti’s historical pace) and $115 billion (if, as is more likely, it grew at the same rate as its Latin American neighbours). The latter amount is many times bigger than Haiti’s GDP.

‘The Ransom’ goes on to show how Haiti, stripped of its capital, got stuck in cycles of crippling debt over the next half century. The new lenders, Crédit Industriel et Commercial and the National City Bank, were private, predatory and racist. The Times lays out the links between Haiti’s ‘underdevelopment’ and the enrichment of French and American elites, who made wild profits at the expense of systematically impoverished and often brutalised Haitian citizens.

The series also examines President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s campaign to recover the debt from France in 2003 – in particular, the way it galvanised Haiti’s ‘international friends’ to remove Aristide from office. Amazingly, a former French ambassador admits on record that France and the US drove Aristide out in ‘a coup’, when both countries have long insisted he resigned voluntarily. (The US ambassador at the time, James Foley, stuck to the party line in a response in the Miami Herald – the US, he insisted, was not involved in a coup against Aristide.) The French ambassador also said that Aristide’s campaign for restitution probably had something to do with it.

‘The Ransom’ is the paper’s second foray into blockbuster history: not as rigorous as the academic version, but clearer on takeaways, more accessible and with greater popular appeal. Like the 1619 Project, which ‘aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very centre of our national narrative’, it makes a powerful claim, not usually seen in newspapers, that history shapes the present. The 1619 Project won a Pulitzer Prize, was turned into a hefty book and became a must-read for conscientious liberals. The packaging of ‘The Ransom’, which ran as a 16-page supplement in the Sunday edition, signals similar ambition.

It was vividly illustrated with reproductions of 19th-century ledgers and bank statements, period photographs (one showing a 20th-century US marine standing over half a dozen dead Haitian bodies) and portraits of figures from Toussaint Louverture to William Jennings Bryan. The digital version includes stunning drone footage of the Citadel, the giant fortress Christophe built to defend his kingdom from French reinvasion. The Times hired a translation company in North Miami to translate the series into Kreyòl, a process it described in a self-congratulatory follow-up article.

‘The Ransom’ was lauded elsewhere too. ‘I feel that I and so many others, especially Haitian writers & historians, have been working for decades in a small dark closet & now the NY Times has walked in, shining a powerful beam of light on a subject too long obscured,’ Amy Wilentz tweeted. Her book The Rainy Season is a magnificent account of the movement against the Duvalier dictatorship and the rise of Aristide. Laurent Dubois, whose books on Haitian history describe the debt in detail, called it ‘journalism & history combined, at its finest’.

But for many others, ‘The Ransom’ is a bitter reminder of the singular power of the New York Times – a power it has not often deployed in the interest of Haitians, let alone their history. ‘When they say something, it is accepted – even though others have been saying it for decades,’ in the words of Cécile Accilien, the vice-president of the Haitian Studies Association. She told me ‘The Ransom’ had made her so angry she hadn’t been able read it all. By swooping in and claiming to uncover the roots of Haiti’s misery, Accilien argued, the Times ‘is still falling into the stereotype . . . of the white saviour’. Another critic posted a list of fourteen works on the debt by Haitian historians ‘as an archival reference for the New York Times’ for ‘the next time they write a piece on Haitian political history’.

Writing about Haiti (or making films, or translating Haitian novels, or filing legal briefs for human rights claims) is often thankless work, unpaid or sorely underpaid, and rarely recognised by non-specialists. Those who persevere must make peace with doubts that their efforts will ever help remedy the injustices and indignities suffered by generations. Some worry that talking about the debt – or soft coups, military intervention, diplomatic interference, punishing tariffs etc – could harm the cause of justice by casting Haiti as a powerless victim. For Haitian writers, the stakes are far higher and the pay even worse.

Along comes the New York Times, claiming to have discovered something many people, especially Haitians, have known for decades, and proclaiming the discovery with the awesome, quasi-monopolistic force of the newspaper of record in the most powerful country in the world. (I’m reminded of an article that ran in the Onion in January 2010 under the headline: ‘Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Island Civilisation Called “Haiti”.’)

Some of the academics who gave their time and expertise to reporters were dismayed not to get an acknowledgment. Haitian history is an extremely collaborative field, with a strong ethos of credit-sharing and an aversion to the newspaper m.o. of ‘owning’ a story. But norms of citation vary across disciplines, and in journalism, it’s probably necessary that the norm is more minimalist.

A more serious problem is the way ‘The Ransom’ is framed. There’s a lot of Columbus-ing language at the top of the lead story, which, in contrast to the precision of the reporting that follows, tries to signal that the investigation reveals something new and scandalous, aka a scoop.

‘For generations, Haitians had to pay France for their freedom. How much was a mystery – until now.’

The ‘story’ of the debt is ‘rarely taught or acknowledged’.

‘The double debt has largely faded into history … Only a few scholars have examined it deeply. No detailed accounting of how much the Haitians actually paid has ever been done, historians say.’

These claims both diminish the efforts of others – another norm in journalism, but one that is not necessary – and are shot through with inaccuracy.‘The Ransom’ itself undermines them, especially in what it says about Aristide. Haiti’s restitution claims were widely taught and acknowledged in the not too distant past. They have not faded into history; the scholarly energy given to issues of odious sovereign debt, including the losses Haiti suffered from its payments to France, have, if anything, intensified in recent years.

From 2003 until the February 2004 coup (we can now call it a coup because the Times has a European official using the word on record), Aristide led a popular campaign for the return of Haiti’s independence payments. Researchers hired by the government argued that the payments violated the international law of the time. They assessed its drain on Haiti’s treasury, and calculated the present value of the payments as $21.7 billion (very close to the Times’s lower estimate). Nothing was hush-hush about any of this work – quite the opposite. The government mounted a spectacular campaign to build awareness of the restitution demand, reasoning that public pressure and shaming were more likely to force France’s hand than a lawsuit. Jurisdiction would have been tricky in a court of law. So the government appealed to the court of public opinion.

In publicising their claim, Aristide’s administration mostly succeeded – if not with the results they hoped for. France assembled a committee to reflect on French-Haitian relations, led by the supposedly anti-imperialist philosopher Régis Debray. The ensuing report is a pile of condescension that makes clear nothing so much as France’s wish for Aristide’s resignation; but it stands in the record and can be judged on its merits, or lack of them.

In Haiti, the restitution claim took a ‘potent hold … over much of the population’, the Washington Post reported on 21 November 2003. ‘A song recorded by the racine band Koudjay calling for restitution is a staple on the radio, and the claim is the chief source of news and entertainment in a country where more than half the population is illiterate.’ Other US papers described restitution banners festooning the streets, and restitution bumper stickers plastered to every available surface. Some of the coverage was dismissive (‘Quixotic Haiti Seeks French Restitution’ was the headline in the Los Angeles Times on 14 June 2003), but some was serious. The Wall Street Journal gave a surprisingly comprehensive explanation of the government’s accounting and legal argument, and put it on its front page. One paper was conspicuously silent: the New York Times. It devoted a single sentence to the campaign, buried in the second half of the seventh paragraph of an article headlined ‘200 Years after Napoleon, Haiti Finds Little to Celebrate’.

Why did the world’s pre-eminent paper, arbiter of ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ and arguably the highest court of public opinion, take almost two decades to cover Aristide’s campaign for restitution? The real hell of it is that everyone has his reasons, and it’s possible to imagine a whole variety of them. Maybe the reporters simply ran out of time – the pace of events in Haiti in 2003-4 was breakneck. It was suffering under an aid embargo because of allegedly tainted legislative elections, which undermined Aristide’s ability to govern and made the security situation worse. Civil society elites were calling for Aristide’s resignation. Diplomats were everywhere, vacillating between trying to negotiate a compromise and urging Aristide to resign.

Maybe the Times reporters didn’t take Aristide seriously. Among the poor majority, most of whom do not speak English, Aristide was very popular, but foreign reporters in Haiti tend to spend more time with State Department officials than with the poor majority. Or maybe Times journalists did take Aristide seriously, but found the restitution claim silly and feared reporting on it would further sully his standing abroad. Repairing colonial atrocities was ‘unthinkable’ for most Americans in 2003, the year their president stood under a banner proclaiming the mission in Iraq against WMDs and terrorism accomplished. What was thinkable, what most Times readers were thinking about, was muscular humanitarian intervention – which was soon to come in Haiti. Hours after Aristide was shown out, the US sent in the Marines. Three months later, on 2 June 2004, the paper reported that ‘United States commanders began turning over this anarchic, flood-ravaged, starving nation 500 miles from Florida to a handful of United Nations troops.’

Understanding why the Times chose 2022 to cover the story of Haiti’s debt is easier. It’s a different era in the United States: a period of imperial decline; of outrage at the police murdering Black people; of Confederate statues coming down; of studious non-intervention abroad; of anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Across the former imperial powers, it is a time of reckoning with history. Despite the reactionary backlash, it remains easier to identify and expose the wrongs of the past – all those dead white racist men – than it is to examine the ones we commit and perpetuate in our lifetimes.

But that’s exactly what the Times should be using its singular platform to do. In Haiti, it should be investigating the United States’ continued support of an unelected head of government, Ariel Henry, who is implicated in his predecessor’s murder. It should run a long interview with Daniel Foote, the whistleblower envoy who quit last year, disgusted with US interference in Haiti. I could go on. There is no dearth of mysteries and perversities in today’s Haiti, many of which can be traced to the workings of US power. An obvious place to start would be in its own newsroom: Why didn’t the Times cover Aristide’s debt campaign in 2003?


  • 30 May 2022 at 4:53pm
    Reader says:
    Among 'the wrongs .... we commit and perpetuate in our lifetimes' one could include the attempts by vulture funds to reclaim distressed debts bought at a large discount on the secondary market and then enforced with Scroogian firmness.

  • 4 June 2022 at 5:36pm
    I was just about to cancel my subscription to The New York Times when “The Ransom” landed. Finally an explanation for what has been happening to Haiti. Now Hello, Columbus has given me reason to once again consider my semi-reliance on the NYT. What a brilliant piece by Pooja Bathia! Thank you.