Investigating Haiti’s ‘Double Debt’

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In June 2021, Constant Méheut and Matt Apuzzo, two New York Times journalists, arrived in Bordeaux, a port city in southwestern France. They were there to visit the private archive of François Blancpain, a historian who specializes in Haiti, in the hopes that they could begin to answer a question that had been on their minds for months: How much money did Haitians, over generations, pay to their former French slave masters?

More than 200 years ago, enslaved Haitians successfully revolted against their French masters and declared themselves free. Two decades later, the French government demanded Haitians pay reparations to former slave masters, under the threat of war. Without the funds to pay, Haitians had to take out a loan from French banks. This would come to be known as the “double debt,” and is part of the reason Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world today.

Times journalists spent more than a year sifting through thousands of pages of archival papers, ledgers and correspondences to calculate the exact amount that Haiti paid France: $560 million in today’s dollars. Leading historians, who assessed the work done by The Times, said it is the first time this amount has been tabulated. Further estimates by The Times found that the double debt cost Haiti from $21 billion to $115 billion in lost economic growth over time.

Those findings and more are explored in a new five-part Times investigation that chronicles the history of the debt, who profited from it and how it still affects Haiti today. Times reporters tracked down more than 30 descendants of French families that received the payments; interviewed dozens of sources in France, Haiti and the United States; and traveled to banks, little-known libraries and archives to hunt down answers.

Finding out who benefited, and who suffered, was not the only goal. “The bigger question at the end was what did it mean,” said Catherine Porter, an international correspondent who has covered Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. “How did it hamper the development of the country?”

The concept grew out of Ms. Porter’s initial investigations into the debt in 2020, and a conversation with Michael Slackman, The Times’s assistant managing editor for international news. They wanted to know what factors had made Haiti such an outlier in terms of its extreme poverty and corruption. The arrival of the pandemic, however, put a hold on travel and the article was paused. Then, in April 2021, they decided it was time to take a deeper look.

With travel restrictions still in place, Mr. Méheut, who reports for The Times from the Paris bureau, joined the effort. He was able to gain access to the French bank records, archives and libraries that would aid in tracing the debt between bankers, Haitians and former masters and their descendants.

Around the same time, Mr. Apuzzo and Selam Gebrekidan, both international investigative reporters, were tapped to report.

“Once you’ve done money investigations, whether it’s Washington or in the State House or wherever, then it’s just another language, another currency,” Mr. Apuzzo said.

The four journalists focused on different aspects of the investigation. Ms. Porter traveled to Haiti, where she interviewed local residents and current and former politicians, including Haiti’s former president, the first democratically elected president after decades of dictatorship, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“He doesn’t do interviews,” Ms. Porter said. In a rare conversation, Mr. Aristide told The Times about his campaign nearly 20 years ago demanding that France pay back the full sum.

While Ms. Porter looked into the effects of the debt in Haiti, Mr. Méheut traced payments and bank records, meticulously logging figures into a spreadsheet. Mr. Méheut had enough knowledge and background to begin tabulating the long-term costs.

Mr. Apuzzo and Ms. Gebrekidan investigated the financiers and the United States’ role in the debts that weighed down Haiti for more than a century. “We were covering such a vast time period that we had to speak to a lot of historians piecemeal for every little aspect of the reporting,” Ms. Gebrekidan said.

Though the four reporters were miles and even continents apart, they stayed in close contact — and revealed their findings — in shared documents and WhatsApp group chats.

When, in an interview with Mr. Méheut, a former French ambassador to Haiti revealed that his government had instructed a commission working on French-Haitian relations “not to say a word in favor of restitution,” Mr. Méheut immediately sent messages to the others on a WhatsApp group chat.

The double debt is rarely, if ever, taught in French classrooms; many Haitians are not aware of it either. The team hopes to add new information and context to the conversation.

Haiti “is so often looked at through the lens of poverty and corruption,” Ms. Porter said. The country, though, saw a successful human rights uprising and established itself as an independent nation in 1804, years before Britain outlawed slavery or the American Civil War began. Throughout the investigation, Ms. Porter said she understood Haiti to be “a crucible of changing the world in many ways.”