Lesson Plan: Investigating Haiti’s History and the Damage Caused by the ‘Double Debt’ – The New York Times

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In this lesson, students learn about the history of how the nation of Haiti was looted by outside powers, foreign banks and its own leaders almost from its birth.
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Featured Article: “Haiti’s Lost Billions” by Lazaro Gamio, Constant Méheut, Catherine Porter, Selam Gebrekidan, Allison McCann and Matt Apuzzo
How did the modern world’s most successful slave revolt give birth to one of the poorest nations in the world? In May, The Times published “The Ransom,” a multipart series that investigates the history of how Haiti was looted by France, exploited by foreign banks, occupied by the United States military and swindled by its own leaders.
In an overview of six takeaways from the series, Eric Nagourney writes:
Some know how Haitians overthrew their notoriously brutal French slave masters and declared independence in 1804 — the modern world’s first nation born of a slave revolt.
But few know the story of what happened two decades later, when French warships returned to a people who had paid for their freedom with blood, issuing an ultimatum: Pay again, in staggering amounts of cold hard cash, or prepare for war.
For generations, the descendants of enslaved people paid the descendants of their former slave masters, with money that could have been used to build schools, roads, clinics or a vibrant economy.
In this lesson, students explore the history of Haiti — and the roots of many of its most stubborn challenges — through a visual timeline. Then they consider: Does France, the United States or anyone else owe reparations to the people of Haiti?
From the 15th century to the 20th century, European powers colonized huge portions of every continent except Antarctica. Starting in 1776 in North America, the people living in those colonies began to rebel against their colonizers with the goal of establishing their own independent countries. For the next two centuries, more than a hundred new sovereign nations were created around the world as one colony after the other declared its independence.
Part 1: Make a list of the challenges a brand-new country might face after declaring and winning independence from its former colonizer. Think about a range of political, social and economic challenges.
Part 2: After the 13 North American colonies fought for their independence against the British and won, another colony did the same. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, the people in St.-Domingue, as the colony was known, rose up against their French colonizers and ultimately won independence in 1804, becoming the country of Haiti. Haiti was only the second independent country in the Americas. But it represented a situation very different from that the United States because most of the revolutionaries in Haiti had been enslaved, and the colonizers had been the enslavers.
In addition to all of the challenges you listed above, what additional challenges do you think the new nation of Haiti might have faced because of its unique circumstances?
Read the article and then answer the following questions:
1. The authors write, “Haiti became the first and only country where the descendants of enslaved people paid the families of their former masters for generations.” Explain, in your own words, what this statement means.
2. How did France’s demand for 150 million francs in 1825 lead to many decades of a “double debt”? What was the double debt, and how did it burden the young country?
3. What role did French, American and German banks play in exploiting Haiti even further?
4. The United States military occupied Haiti for 19 years. How did the Americans treat Haiti and its people before, during and after the occupation?
5. The conclusion of the article states, “It’s easy to see the history of Haiti as just a story of corruption.” It adds, “It’s easy to see the history of Haiti as just a series of hurricanes, epidemics and natural disasters.” How does this article challenge that limited understanding of Haiti’s plight?
6. What else do you want to learn about Haiti’s history?
Does France — or anyone else — owe Haiti reparations?
The article “6 Takeaways About Haiti’s Reparations to France” summarizes the findings from the complete Times series. In addition to revisiting the history of the double debt, the role of French and American banking and the U.S. military occupation from 1915 to 1934, the article also addresses the issue of a deeply embedded culture of corruption in Haiti as well as the issue of reparations.
The Times reports that in 2003, “President Jean-Bertrand Aristide stunned Haitians by denouncing the debt imposed by France and demanding reparations. France moved quickly to try to discredit him. Talk of reparations was alarming to a nation with other former colonies still suffering the legacy of exploitation. The French ambassador to Haiti at the time recalls the reparations demand as ‘explosive.’”
The issue of reparations is both complicated and “explosive.” Consider the following questions for writing or discussion:
What do former colonial powers owe the descendants of those they colonized?
Is it enough to apologize and return cultural objects?
If restitution is to be financial, how does one tabulate the debt for generations of exploitation, plunder and enslavement?
Who would be paid? Would reparations take the form of cash payments directly into national coffers or the hands of citizens? Or would they lay the foundation for investment in the economic development of former colonies or in the building of education, health care and cultural institutions?
Where would the money come from? And what motivation or incentive would these countries or groups have to make these reparations, given that the cost could be very expensive?
To what degree do you agree with this statement: If colonialism built Europe’s wealth, then total repayment could mean giving it up.
If you want to explore this history further, The Times offers additional articles in this series:
The Root of Haiti’s Misery: Reparations to Enslavers
How a French Bank Captured Haiti
Invade Haiti, Wall Street Urged. The U.S. Obliged.
Demanding Reparations, and Ending Up in Exile
The Ransom: A Look Under the Hood (a bibliography)
Make connections to current events in Haiti.
Earlier this month, The Times reported on how discontent over economic misery in Haiti had spilled into the largest national protests in years, prompting international calls for action. On Sept. 16, The Times reported:
Escalating street protests have pushed Haiti’s already dire social crisis this week into what regional leaders described as a “low-intensity civil war,” leaving residents of the capital cut off from the outside world and scrambling for basic necessities like drinking water and food.
Protesters set up barricades made up of debris, felled trees and tires throughout the capital, Port-au-Prince, looted shops and humanitarian warehouses and attacked banks and residences of pro-government politicians and better-off citizens.
Simmering outbreaks of unrest throughout the island nation have coalesced into the largest wave of protests in years following the government’s announcement last Sunday that it would raise the country’s highly subsidized fuel prices.
The protests quickly broadened into a general, visceral rejection of Haiti’s dire living conditions, characterized by widespread hunger, a lack of basic services, omnipresent gang violence, runaway inflation and the weak rule of a caretaker prime minister, Ariel Henry. Mr. Henry took power following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last year.
Reflect on how the history of Haiti connects to the plight of Haitians today. Then consider possible solutions mentioned in the article.
“Haiti’s descent into chaos has triggered growing calls for international intervention from nearby Caribbean nations affected by the exodus of tens of thousands of Haitians from their country.” What do you think? What are the possible benefits and dangers of international intervention?
“In July, the prime minister of the Bahamas, Philip Davis, called Haiti a ‘failed state’ and told local media that Caribbean leaders were considering opening direct talks with Haitian gang leaders to solve the country’s political crisis.” What do you think? What are the possible benefits and dangers of working with Haitian gang leaders to address Haiti’s challenges?
The Biden administration “has struggled to balance its support for a local solution with a desire to reduce the influx of Haitians on its borders. The United States has continued backing Mr. Henry even as evidence emerged of his links to the main suspect in the assassination of Mr. Moïse and as the country has descended into virtual anarchy.” What should the United States do?
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