How Haiti Dollar is just imaginary money…

Federico Neiburg of Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro has a superb research piece (HT: JP Koning who else).

Haiti Dollar is just imaginary money. The currency is neither traded or exchanged but used as a unit of account. So you buy/sell anything in Haiti, you will be quoted prices in Haiti Dollars but paid in some other currency!

I examine here a singular feature of the Haitian monetary universe: the generalized use of a currency without any material existence, past or present, as a coin or banknote: the Haitian dollar. In most transactions in Haiti (price negotiations in markets, working out wages and contracts), calculations are made in the Haitian dollar, while payments are made in other currencies, principally in gourdes (HTG, the national currency), but also in US dollars, Dominican pesos, telephone cards, and other forms, such as the pieces of plastic or metal that smooth the flow of various commercial circuits of basic goods, like water and coal, among the poorest people.

The rate of conversion between the Haitian dollar and the gourde is one Haitian dollar to five gourdes. After haggling over a bag of mangoes in a street market, for example, the buyer and seller may agree on a price of three Haitian dollars: the [76]buyer pays with a fifty gourde note (ten Haitian dollars), the seller keeps three dollars for the mangoes (fifteen gourdes), and gives seven Haitian dollars in change (thirty-five gourdes, in three notes of ten and one coin of five). Or another example: a supermarket bill comes to 234 HD (Haitian dollars). The buyer pays with 1500 gourdes (300 Haitian dollars), the cashier says, “Here’s your change: sixty-six dollars” and gives the buyer 330 gourdes, keeping the 234 Haitian dollars for the purchase.

All travel tips for foreigners (in tourist guidebooks or websites aimed at ex-pats) warn about this “bizarre” way of undertaking transactions. The Haitian government, with the support of public intellectuals, has tried many times to ban use of the Haitian dollar, condemning it as just another sign of the country’s barbarity or backwardness.1Nevertheless, people continue to calculate in Haitian dollars while they exchange other currencies.

Many dollars circulate in the monetary space of the contemporary Caribbean, including the US dollar, the Jamaican dollar, the Belize dollar, and the East Caribbean dollar—issued by the islands forming a Common Market, like Bermuda, Dominica, and Grenada. From the viewpoint of standard monetary theories, all of these are “normal” currencies: they serve as a unit of account, means of payment, medium of exchange and store of wealth. They are identified by a symbol (USD, JMD, XCD, etc.) and exist in a physical form, minted and available to be handled. The Haitian dollar also has a symbol (HD), but unlike the other Caribbean dollars, it is an imaginary money, a pure unit of account. Although basically an oral and conceptual phenomenon, the Haitian dollar is also written and objectified in supermarket receipts, restaurant menus, gas station price signs, contracts for international cooperation projects, notebooks recording debts and credits for bets or lotteries, and at banks, where we can find conversion tables like this: 1 USD:8 HD:40 HTG.2

One of my main aims, then, is to examine the entanglements (rather than oppositions) between materiality and immateriality, the reality and the conceptualization of the Haitian dollar. As we know, this tension traverses the social history of money.

Superb stuff…


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