The New York Times’s publication of “The Ransom,” a report laying out history’s role in Haiti’s poverty, stirred immediate reaction.
A Times project asks: What was the real cost of Haiti’s post-independence forced payments?
A story about Haitian history, in Haitian Creole.
A debate is rekindled among historians.
In Haiti, ‘imagining what it could have been.’
Over the weekend, The New York Times published a project a year in the making that tried to answer a simple question: How much better off might Haiti be today if foreign powers had not kept draining its wealth for generations after Haitians threw off the yoke of slavery?
The answer, of course, is anything but simple. But drawing on thousands of pages of original documents, some of which are gathering dust in archives on three continents, and with the guidance of prominent historians and economists, The Times found that one of the world’s most desperately poor countries might look a lot different now if the French had not demanded staggering sums of money under threat of war after Haiti declared independence more than two centuries ago.
The project, “The Ransom,” tells the story of the first people in the modern world to free themselves from slavery and create their own nation. They paid for that freedom first in blood. And then they were forced to pay for it again — in cash.
Haiti became the world’s only country where the descendants of enslaved people paid reparations to the descendants of their masters, and for generations.
The Times tracked each payment Haiti made over the course of 64 years, and calculated that Haiti ended up paying about $560 million in today’s dollars. Factor in what that money could have done to Haiti’s economy over the course of centuries, and it comes out to as much as $115 billion in losses for Haiti over time — many times the size of its entire economy today, The Times found.
Reaction to the project was swift. On Monday, a major French bank said it would hire researchers to delve into its history in Haiti, the head of its parent company said, after The New York Times published what he called a “sad illustration” of the bank’s role in an “ecosystem of colonialism.”
Other reactions were deeply personal.
“I live in Haiti, and I’m here right now,” one reader commented. “Today we are lucky: We have had electricity for a few hours.” Reading the articles, the commenter said, drove home the notion that young people in Haiti “were robbed so long before they were born.”
Posting on Twitter, Patrick Gaspard, a former U.S. diplomat who now heads the liberal Center for American Progress, demanded reparations from Citigroup, whose predecessor bank, The Times recounted, drew big profits from Haiti in the early 20th century.
“A silent scream has been in throats for decades about role U.S. played in depleting Haiti,” Mr. Gaspard said. “No one would listen. Finally some truths.”
Other readers suggested that the articles, which noted the role of endemic corruption in Haiti’s woes, let the Haitians off the hook. “I am getting tired of this narrative of victimization, and it is not a particularly helpful way of viewing history, especially in a newspaper,” one commented. “When was there never any victims of something?
French officials had little to say about “The Ransom.” In part, that could be because France is in the midst of forming a new government. But as The Times project noted, the country’s history in Haiti — or any talk of compensating Haitians for their losses — is not something many French officials frequently talk about.
A major French bank will hire researchers to delve into its history in Haiti, the head of its parent company said Monday, after The New York Times published what he called a “sad illustration” of the bank’s role in an “ecosystem of colonialism.”
The bank, Crédit Industriel et Commercial, siphoned millions of dollars in fees and interest from Haiti’s treasury to France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, The Times reported.
At a time when the bank, known as C.I.C., was helping finance the Eiffel Tower, its executives and investors made so much money off Haiti that their profits sometimes exceeded Haiti’s entire public works budget.
Crédit Mutuel, a European financial conglomerate, bought C.I.C. in 1998 and operates it as a subsidiary.
But Crédit Mutuel began as an organization to help rural farmers in the late 19th century in Europe, making for what its chairman described as a potentially uncomfortable clash with the new revelations about C.I.C.’s activities in Haiti during the same time period.
“This is sort of an awkward situation, more than a century later, to have this mutual bank owning a bank whose history is linked with colonialism,” Crédit Mutuel’s chairman, Nicolas Théry, said in an interview.
Nearly all of C.I.C.’s archives from that era have been destroyed. Mr. Théry said he had already been in touch with university scholars about financing a team, ideally of Haitian and French researchers, to bring the bank’s full history to light.
The Times article traced how C.I.C. set up and managed the National Bank of Haiti from Paris. Records show it made no investments in Haitian businesses and charged fees on nearly every transaction the Haitian government made. At a time when many French investment returns hovered around 5 percent, investors in the National Bank of Haiti cleared an average of 15 percent per year. Some years, the margins approached 24 percent.
The profits help explain why Haiti remained on the sidelines during one of the most important development periods in modern history.
At one point, Haiti earmarked about half of its most important revenue source — coffee taxes — to paying C.I.C. and its investors in the National Bank. Parisian financiers also used their allies in the French government to put pressure on Haiti not to disrupt the bank’s operations, the Times reported, citing diplomatic correspondence.
“It was a very good demonstration of the links between the financial, the military and the political powers in France at the end of the 19th century,” Mr. Théry said. He called it an “ecosystem of colonialism.”
“This is a very sad illustration of the meaning of colonization and financial colonization,” he said.
Mr. Théry said he did not know whether, more than a century after it ended its operations in Haiti, the bank owed Haiti any money. He said researchers would have a wide mandate to pursue any information on any topic.
“It’s a matter of principle for us,” he said.
The New York Times’s “Ransom” project spoke directly to many Haitians, and not just because it offered an explanation for why daily life in their country is so often grueling.
The articles also appeared in Haitian Creole, along with English and French.
It was the first time a full article — much less a multipart series — in Haitian Creole had appeared on The Times’s website, and many Haitians responded to that alone over the weekend.
“The biggest service you could do for Haiti today is read this investigation,” one well-known journalist from Haiti, Nancy Roc, wrote on Twitter in Haitian Creole and French from her home in Montreal. “For the first time in its history, the newspaper published certain texts in Creole.”
The Times worked with a team of Haitian Creole translators based in North Miami. It was the most ambitious project the team had ever worked on, said their founder and president, Fedo Boyer.
For Haitians, the decision to offer Haitians the choice of reading in Haitian Creole sent an “extraordinarily powerful signal,” said Michel DeGraff, a professor of linguistics who is a co-founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Haiti initiative and a founding member of the Akademi Kreyòl Ayisyen (Haitian Creole Academy). He is now in Haiti, working with educators.
Though Haitian Creole is Haiti’s national language — one of two official languages, along with French — many in the country still believe Haitian Creole is a lesser form of communication, Professor DeGraff said.
“When it comes to scientific conferences and prestigious forums, Haitians in Haiti tend to favor French (or even English) over Haitian Creole,” he said. “There is this widespread but mistaken notion that the language is not ready to do science or philosophy or any intellectual activity that includes complex concepts.”
This was not entirely an accident. Haitian Creole was suppressed, Professor DeGraff said, by “the forces that want to keep power and prestige for colonial powers and the upper classes.”
But, he said, Haitian Creole is vitally important because it is “spoken by all Haitians, while French is spoken by a tiny minority,” making the exclusion of Haitian Creole in spheres of official life a way of impoverishing a large percentage of the population.
“When The New York Times publishes in Haitian Creole, you are honoring all Haitians,” he said.
All four written articles and a timeline graphic in the series were translated by a team of three at the Miami translation company, CreoleTrans. Mr. Boyer, the company founder and president, said the project was the trickiest he had worked on in his 20 years as a professional translator because of the number of drafts before publication.
While working on the project, he said, he remembered his school days in Les Cayes, Haiti, when speaking Haitian Creole in class led to students’ being given a stick or stone to carry as a symbol of shame.
“This is why we do what we do” he said, “so others won’t have tell people: ‘They wrote a story about Haiti.’ They can read it themselves. And if they can’t read, someone can read it to them — in their own language.”
The New York Times’s multipart series on Haiti, “The Ransom,” has rekindled a debate over how comprehensively journalists should credit the experts they speak to during the course of reporting — and how extensively they should acknowledge the work on the subject that has been done in the past.
The Times series, on the suffocating debts that France and later the United States imposed on Haiti after its independence, built on more than a century of scholarship. Many historians, economists and others who have studied these issues were quoted directly in the articles. Many more were cited in a 5,000-word companion list that The Times published on the original documents it relied on, along with dozens of the books, articles and other writings by historians, economists and others that The Times drew from in the course of reporting.
The Times noted the new findings it added to the historical discussion, including what historians said was the first systematic calculation of what Haiti paid its former slave masters for generations — and how much that amounted to in lost economic growth over the centuries. The Times also published, and identified the source for, every piece of data it used to make the debt calculation, along with the assessments of the many economists and financial historians who reviewed the data, methodology and conclusions.
The goal was transparency, and to give others tools to continue looking into the issues addressed in the project. But several historians who spoke to The Times during the course of its reporting said they should have been credited for it.
Mary Lewis, a Harvard historian, said on Twitter that she had not been acknowledged despite speaking to a journalist early in the reporting. “I told her about sources, I connected her with my research assistant in France,” who was credited by The Times, she wrote. Some other historians had similar criticisms.
In journalism, reporters often speak to many more sources than can be quoted or referred to by name in an article, in order to gain as much information as possible before writing. In this series, The Times conducted hundreds of interviews on several continents with a broad range of people, including coffee farmers, former ambassadors and political leaders.
Some historians said that more credit could have been paid to past scholarship on the issue. Paul Cohen, the University of Toronto historian, for instance, tweeted that The Times’s conclusion “is spot on, and needs to be communicated forcefully,” and he applauded The Times for spelling out so many of the original documents and acknowledging historians it relied on.
But Mr. Cohen also criticized The Times for not including more of the scholars who have done work on the topic in the past, and said The Times’s archival research was “no more and no less than what all historians do.”
“We are well into the second generation of scholars doing great work on Caribbean, Atlantic and colonial history — including historians working specifically on debt/reparations,” he wrote.
Others welcomed The Times’s decision to publish a list of its sources and to have historians and economists assess its data, methodology and calculations before publication.
“It’s good that the NYT did this, that they consulted scholars, that they workshopped it, and that they offered a bibliography,” tweeted Karin Wulf, a historian at Brown University. “This is all what I would want from journalism working on historical subjects.”
Michael Slackman, The Times’s assistant managing editor for international news, posting on Twitter, acknowledged that Haiti has long been a subject of study for historians. “Our series on Haiti built on more than a century of scholarship. And while we brought new information and data to the historical understanding of events, we are under no illusion that we are the first to tackle this topic.”
Long accustomed to a finger-pointing and sermonizing from the world over their nation’s seemingly nonstop crises, some Haitians saw in The New York Times’s project on Haiti something they have long sought: vindication.
“For people who have suffered abuse, the first step is for others to recognize it was abuse,” said Ariel Dominique, the executive director of the Miami-based Haitian American Foundation for Democracy.
In reading the series, she said, she was most affected by “the clear connection” between Haiti’s history and its condition today — “and imagining what could have been.”
One well-known Haitian radio personality, who often broadcasts in Creole, spent an hour Saturday talking to her audience about the report and its look at the historical roots of Haiti’s troubles. A prominent Haitian newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, decided to run the article as a banner headline at the top of its front page.
A group of five Haitian American community organizations and networks in Miami is planning a reading salon, with weekly sessions for their members — who taken together, number more than 1,000 — to discuss the stories.
“I took notes while reading it,” said Leonie Marie Hermantin, the director of development and communication at the Haitian Neighborhood Center. “This series has made me rethink underdevelopment when it comes to Haiti.”
She said another legacy of the debt has been humiliation, with the pernicious idea that the Haitian revolution that led to a free nation was a failure, and that “we should have continued to live as slaves.”
“I really feel the power of the ancestors through this series,” she said. “For all of our sacrifices, we will not come down in history as a failed revolution.”
Elsa Mainville, vice president of Maison d’Haïti, a Haitian-French association in France, posting on Twitter, asked, “Can one understand the Haitian disaster with knowing its history?”
The articles prompted Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, a Haitian community activist, to recall what she says a French diplomat once told her when asked about France’s demands that Haiti compensate ousted plantation owners: “We were there first.”
“After I picked up my jaw from the floor,” Ms. Murphy said on Twitter, “I had questions. How much were centuries of free labor, countless deaths, sadistic torture & systematic exploitation & genocide worth?”
The articles resonated beyond Haiti and the Haitian diaspora.
“I grew up in France and was educated in public schools,” wrote one commenter in San Francisco. “I have no memory of ever learning of Haiti being pillaged and oppressed by France.” He said, “the shame of America and its original sin of slavery was well covered,” but not the “despicable chapters of French history.”
After the articles about Haiti’s double debt were published, Astead Herndon led a live audio conversation on Twitter Spaces with some of the reporters who worked on the investigation and outside guests.
Listen to some of the conversation with two of the guests: Monique Clesca, a Haitian writer and democracy activist, and Peter James Hudson, a UCLA professor and author of the book “Bankers and Empire: How Wall Street Colonized the Caribbean.”
Monique Clesca: We need the moral reparation, we need the economic reparation, and we also need the political reparation because this is still going on with governments, particularly the United States and the French, pushing us down.
Peter James Hudson: Other countries have received reparations. The question is, who has received reparations? I’m actually currently in Puerto Rico, which, as people know, is going through its own issues with debt. But I learned that in Puerto Rico, the slave owners in 1873, at the time of emancipation, received reparations for their property for slaves from Spain. We know that in 1833, when emancipation occurred in the British Empire, it wasn’t the formerly enslaved Africans to receive payouts from the British government. It was slaveowners who received I think it was a $20 million payment.
The New York Times’s publication of “The Ransom,” a report laying out history’s role in Haiti’s poverty, stirred immediate reaction.