Hundreds of years after Haiti paid to be free from slavery the costs are still being felt

Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, yet the reasons for that are often overlooked. The New York Times recently conducted an unprecedented investigation into those root causes, which includes revelations about Haiti’s former colonizer: France. The Times' Catherine Porter, who led the team that uncovered the story, joins Ali Rogin to discuss.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    The island nation of Haiti often makes headlines in the midst of crisis. But there's less attention paid to the factors underlying its status as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most unstable. The New York Times has conducted an unprecedented investigation into those root causes. And just putting a harsh spotlight on Haiti's former colonizer France. My colleague Ali Rogin has more.

  • Ali Rogin:

    To learn more about this sweeping investigation, I'm joined by Catherine Porter. She's the Toronto Bureau Chief of The New York Times, and she has been covering Haiti since its devastating 2010 earthquake, and led the team that pored over centuries old documents and archives for this story.

    Catherine, thank you so much for joining us. How did your team come up with this idea?

  • Catherine Porter, New York Times Toronto Bureau Chief:

    Well, as you mentioned, I've been in Haiti since 2010. And I think I've been back more than 30 times, and any journalist spends any time in Haiti ask the question like, why is it like this? Why is it poverty so bad? Why is infrastructure so bad? And why is it so much worse than other countries around it? And the obvious answer is often given us corruption, which is true. But reading a book on one of my trips there, it mentioned this thing called the independence debt that Haiti had paid to France after winning its independence, had then been forced to pay in cash. And it just stirred my — like, I just — it's planted a seed way back then. And I started looking for more and more information about this.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Yeah, let's talk about how that independence debt came to be? Because I think as some people know, Haiti was founded by former slaves. They overthrew their French colonial rulers in 1804. But not long after that they ended up paying France. Why?

  • Catherine Porter:

    Yeah, they called it reparations, which is so mind boggling now. 25 years, at 1825, 21 years after the first black nation of the Americas was formed, a battalion of French ships arrived with a message from the King basically saying, either you give us money or prepare for war. And at that time Haiti been — had been completely frozen out. America, United States, would not deal with it, Britain wouldn't acknowledge it. So facing war and desperate for international recognition, the president of Haiti the time agreed.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Right, and you've dove into how much those so called reparations would equal in today's money. You also looked into the value that was lost to the Haitian economy because of so much of this money and the interest on these payments, going out of the Haitian economy, not going to Haitian. So, tell us about those figures.

  • Catherine Porter:

    After we did all that research, we collected the figures and we were able to extrapolate what the opportunity cost was to Haiti. So if Haiti hadn't grown, if its economy had stayed as stagnant as it had been through the 1800s, it would have meant — it would have added 21 billion U.S. dollars to the economy today, if the economy of Haiti had been boosted and grown at the same rate as the average rate of Latin American countries around it, it would have been a staggering $115 billion.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Of course, the United States also has a long and sordid history with Haiti, what did you find out about that relationship?

  • Catherine Porter:

    Well, you know, what was really interesting is — first, you had these French colonial masters, and they held a tight grip on Haiti, long after independence. And finally, you know, the way that they held on to the financial strings of the country was through the Haitian National Bank. And soon enough, American banks took an interest in the Haitian National Bank, because as we saw, increasingly, more and more bankers from around the world saw this was a place that despite how poor it was, they could get rich. So we discovered that one of the reasons the United States, you know, invaded Haiti and occupied it for a very long time starting in 1917, was because a bank that is now known as Citigroup had really prodded the State Department to go in and secure its interests and the Haitian National Bank. And that then quickly developed into a full-fledged occupation. So part of the impetus was financial interests of Wall Street bankers.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Catherine Porter with the New York Times, thank you so much for joining us.

  • Catherine Porter:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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