Dictatorial money matters: the sad case of Haiti

Right in the middle of the misery and deprivation visited upon the people of Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake comes a wholly amazing ruling by a Swiss court. The ruling relates to a sizeable sum of money, $4.6m to be precise. And the question before the Schweizer Bundesgericht (Swiss Federal Court) was whether the money belonged to Mr Jean-Claude Duvalier, or to the government and people of Haiti. And although the judgement is slightly opaque, the Swiss court appears to have decided that it does not belong to the Haiti government, and therefore by default it does belong to Mr Duvalier.

So who then is our Mr Duvalier? None other than the infamous ‘Baby Doc‘, former dictator of Haiti. Jean-Claude is the son of the late (and wholly unlamented) François Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1956 to 1971. Having before this time run a disease eradication programme in Haiti, François had been nicknamed ‘Papa Doc’, a name that stuck. He was elected President, but soon grabbed absolute power and initiated a reign of terror, which was underpinned by his secret police, the notorious Tonton Macoutes. He also actively used voodoo cults to subjugate the population. He died in 1971 and was succeeded by Jean-Claude.

Our Jean-Claude was nicknamed ‘Bébé Doc‘, or ‘Baby Doc’. At first he attempted some half-hearted reforms, but in reality his heart was only in his dedicated life as a playboy, and his rule was given over to facilitating that life. In this way he took over the country’s tobacco industry and other businesses and siphoned off very considerable sums of money for his own personal enjoyment. In 1986 his rule came to an end after a papal visit in which Pope John Paul II criticised his régime, which was followed by pressure from the US Reagan administration for his departure. He left Haiti and has, according to most accounts, lived a relative life of luxury in France ever since.

When he left office his assets in Switzerland were frozen, and over the past year or two the Haiti government has been trying to have it returned to the country, on the no doubt reasonable assumption that it had been stolen from Haiti anyway. The Swiss government was giving this plan some support until it was stopped by the Federal Court. There is now some speculation that the government will introduce legislation to allow the funds to be transferred to Haiti, and for now the money remains frozen.

There are too many countries in the world – particularly the developing world – that have been ruled as a kleptocracy, where rulers rule until such time as they have stripped all the country’s assets, and they then retire to somewhere congenial where they live on the wealth they have stolen. Zaire (now Congo) and the Cenbtral African Republic are examples, as was Haiti under the Duvaliers. Such conduct needs to be discouraged, and one way of doing that is to ensure that these ill-gotten gains are never accepted as the property of these dictators.

Goodness knows, Haiti needs a break. It should get this money without any further questions.

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8 Comments on “Dictatorial money matters: the sad case of Haiti”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Well spotted. That is a quite extraordinary ruling.

    But it pales into insignificance next to the ‘compensation’ Haiti had to pay to France after its 1804 Slave Rebellion, as reparations for the lost land and profits of slave and plantation owners. This was the price they paid for peace and independence: the amount is estimated to have been more than US$21 billion in today’s money, and Haiti finally finished paying it in 1947. Yes, France continued to take ‘compensation’ money for giving up slavery until 1947. And the sheer scale of the payments is of course one reason why Haiti lost out on 150 years’ of development and prosperity.

    So it seems to me that the French government owe Haiti US$21bn…

    • You are absolutely right, Jilly. In fact, France’s dealings with Haiti more generally were scandalous, at various points cynically allowing an degree of emancipation of slaves, and then revoking that when it suited them. In the various attempts to put down the slaves’ uprisings extraordinary brutality was used. It cannot really be a surprise that Haitian culture developed in unusual ways.

      By the way, as I understand it, the ‘debt’ to France (which had been enforced by Britain also through naval blockades) was paid off rather earlier, but to do so Haiti had to take out loans, and these were not finally repaid until 1947 as you say.

      • Jilly Says:

        OK, that issue about the loan being paid off in 1947, rather than direct payments to France, does make sense. Despite France’s behaviour to Algeria as late as the 60s, taking direct compensation for giving up slavery as late as 1947 did seem incomprehensible.

        It doesn’t change the principle of the debt they owe Haiti, of course.

  2. The actual ‘debt’ was 150 million gold francs (just imagine that, in 1804). But then the French discovered they had a big heart (!?!) and reduced the ‘debt’ to 90 million. They claimed the debt in part because of ‘property’ lost in Haiti, which incredibly included the loss of the ‘property’ of the slaves.

    But they enforced this with a blockade, which was supported by Britain and the US, and so Haiti had to agree in order not to be crippled completely. As you rightly say, it is one of the scandals of history, unbelievable now but sadly true.

    • Vincent Says:

      The Louisiana Purchase was 60m a year earlier !.
      But it does show the value of Sugar in the 1800’s.
      Still it never does to forget ‘Monroe’ in all of this, for it is this that had the USA react as it did to Castro. Which followed, their pandering of the ‘Docs’ Duvaliers and Panama and the attack on Grenada by Ron from Ballyporeen.

      • Jilly Says:

        Yes, all the world powers of the day were prepared to do almost anything to keep their hands on the profits of sugar (and slavery, of course). The Caribbean in general still hasn’t recovered, though Haiti must be one of the most painful cases.

        It raises the always controversial issue of reparations for slavery (by which I mean reparations to those enslaved, of course)….

        • I tend to think that European countries have a moral obligation to help and support those they once colonised – but I am unconvinced by the case for reparations for slavery, horrific though the whole concept is. My hesitation stems from the huge complexities of history, and my wondering where we could draw the line. I do believe in reparations for first generation victims of oppression, slavery and other wrongs – but not so much when it goes back further in history. After all, should we be suing England for Cromwell? But that doesn’t detract from the historical lessons we must learn, and for our duty to support those countries we once asset stripped.

          • Vincent Says:

            Ah I’m not so sure about that position at all at all.
            What about the Maori and the Treaty of Waitangi. All the Treaties that the USA entered into with the Indian Nations.
            If the current condition of a population derives itself from some wrong in the past, then there should be no limit other that that it can be argued.

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