By Jeb Sprague
In mid-August 2007 Nazaire St. Fort and myself took a tap-tap transport heading out on Delmas toward downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. We soon passed in front of the National Palace, the seat of so many past Haitian presidents and governments.
Crossing a street near the palace, we reached the Ministry of Planification and right next to it the Ministry of Finance. We visited two other government ministries soon after, spending the next few days traveling between them all, entering into rarely touched archives and in the process probably bugging quite a number of ministerial employees (although making friendly acquaintances along the way).
In one archive a young page told us that he believed some of the documents had disappeared under the previous unelected interim government, but he could tell us little more. His boss did not seem friendly to the question when we pressed the issue.
But overall, what we found was astonishing.
Combing Through the Past
Our main goal was to gather as many national government budgets as we could find from the '90s and 2000s for further study. Many of Haiti's past government budgets are unavailable online and we could not find any hard copy versions of any of the budgets amongst any of our friends or contacts.
But finally there they were. We found them or at least some of them in a glass cabinet of an employee at one of the ministries.
The employee was more then willing to answer our numerous questions and even copied a few prints on his old copy machine.
First, we looked through a national government budget booklet from 1990, then another from the 1996 to 1997 fiscal year, which on the first few pages listed foreign loans and aid coming into the country. It appeared to amount to a few hundred million dollars for the year, possibly more.
The smiling government economist sitting in his chair leaned back. He seemed surprised that Nazaire and I, both university students -- but from different countries, one from Haiti and one from the United States -- were so fascinated with looking at these old, wrinkled financial dossiers now mostly frayed at the corners.
If anything, we were not short on questions.
We asked about the preceding years; where were the budgets for the fiscal years of 1997 to 1998, 1998 to 1999 and 1999 to 2000?
He responded that between the years 1997 and 2000, because of an intransigent Senate, the government worked off of the same 1997 budget.
A History of Economic Violence
Some of the donor-friendly elite Haitian political parties throughout this time period (1997 to 2000) were successful in holding up Haiti's legislature.
They were upset with elections that were not going their way. And other upsetting factors included mass organizing on the part of popular movements and Haiti's poor against the privatization program for which the country's elite had so firmly advocated and staked their political fortune.
In 2000, Haiti entered another election cycle, which overwhelmingly confirmed that Haiti's impoverished opposed the neoliberal wide-scale privatization programs advocated for by the donors and their local arbiters.
The U.S. representative at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) with Pres. George W. Bush in office was soon lobbying for an all out embargo on financial aid to Haiti's elected government. A top representative of the International Republican Institute (IRI) made a similar argument in front of a U.S. congressional hearing.
The Haitian government economist smiled because he knew what we were trying to figure out. "So you want to know how much Aristide got cut off from?" He referred to Haiti's former elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who had returned to office in 2001 after leaving office in the first ever democratic handover of power in Haiti, in 1996.
The ministerial economist handed us a sizable booklet, showing the 2001 government budget. Upon opening the booklet, our jaws dropped.
Showing the Money
Nearly all of the foreign loans and aid had disappeared. The money had vanished.
Government road construction, AIDs programs, water works and health care that were often contingent upon these funds would have undergone a major funding crisis.
So what happened? This would have had to have led to a severe tightening of resources; penny pinching just to get by; severe destabilization; and an economic catastrophe.
On the positive side, all we could glean was that the Haitian government received a tiny sum of aid from Taiwan and a small loan from Venezuela. We estimated -- adding the foreign funding in with the actual real tax income of the government -- that Haiti, according to the 2001 budget, had been cut off almost entirely from what should have been around 40 percent to 55 percent of its total budget.
We could not believe our eyes.
How could we have read so many journalists' stories on Haiti, even written stories on Haiti ourselves and never realized the full extent of this financial aid embargo?
I had studied and researched a good deal on development, donor organizations, foreign aid and even dependency in Haiti but had never seen anything like this: Aid starvation was used to such a large extent to crush an elected government. It all became so much more clear just by looking at the numbers.
The aid embargo was so cruel, so inhumane that Columbia University economist Jeffery Sachs could not contain his disgust: "U.S. officials surely knew that the aid embargo would mean a balance-of-payments crisis, a rise in inflation and a collapse of living standards, all of which fed the rebellion."
How can we even begin to study Haiti during the 2000 to 2004 period without fully studying the effects of this embargo? How can Haiti develop if aid is so heavily fluctuating, flooding into the country during times of palatable pro-privatization governments with the spigot cut off when governments desire to preserve their civil enterprises?
The only helpful material I have been able to find that actually discussed well the aid embargo were a number of distressful reports sent out by Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners in Health and the book Let Haiti Live published just prior to the 2004 coup of then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Let Haiti Live includes a foreword by minister-activist Jesse Jackson and Haitian literary giant Edwidge Danticat. This book was a work meant to be read, but sadly few saw its pages. And even fewer would see them in time.
Haiti deserved and deserves an international outcry over the unjust policies responsible for an unquantifiable amount of suffering.
The Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center, one of the few with the long-term commitment to pursue this in the legal arena, late last year brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department (the initial promoters of the aid embargo on Haiti). If the RFK is successful in its lawsuit, it would be a monumental victory.
Similarly, if Jubilee USA and solidarity groups are successful in pressuring the U.S. Congress to support dropping Haiti's onerous and odious debt, this debt cancellation could benefit millions.
The ability of Haiti's sovereign institutions have long been twisted and contorted by foreign donors, but by supporting Jubilee USA's work together with both drop-the-debt activists and faith-based communities across North America we can and will achieve some economic justice!