Reparations for Haiti?

Many Haitian politicians, including Aristide, are demanding $21 billion in reparations from the French government. They seek the return of the 1825 “blood money” they paid to Paris for their 1804 independence, with compound interest of course.

Today the Haitian government pulls in a mere $237 million a year. I have seen per capita income estimates ranging from $250 to $400 a year, depending on which numbers you trust. So $21 billion would make a big splash in at least a few bank accounts. One of the European papers I picked up on honeymoon cited a Haitian politician as claiming, without irony or apology. that “claims to restitution” were now his country’s chief national asset. That same politician objected to the rest of the world viewing Haiti as “barbarians.”

And the not so surprising response?

The French government has balked at the demand, citing “bad governance” and the 200 million Euros (about $250 million) of aid already dedicated to Haiti since 2000.

Samuel Bowles, in his recent book, suggests that Haiti may have been the richest place in the world at the end of the eighteenth century. While this estimate may be exaggerated, there is little doubt that the place once was prosperous. Even after the French tribute and blockade, Haiti was considered to be richer than its island neighbor the Dominican Republic. But today the DR has a per capita income over $2,000, many times that of Haiti. More generally, calls for long-term restitution face a problem of benchmarking damages. If the oppression in question had not happened, what is the relevant comparison? A Haiti where the French confer all relevant benefits and then act like gentlemen? Or a Haiti where the French never show up at all? And if the Haitian economy has been shrinking, should we not compound the 1825 loss at a negative rate of interest rather than a positive rate? It is difficult to believe that those funds would have been saved and invested at positive rates of return, reaching into the present day.


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