French President François Hollande concluded his five-day tour of the Caribbean on Tuesday with a stop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The visit marked only the second time that a sitting French head-of-state has traveled to the struggling Caribbean nation -former President Nicolas Sarkozy went there in early 2010 after a devastating earthquake killed more than 300,000 Haitians and displaced countless more.
Considering France and Haiti’s sordid history, the apparent reluctance of French leaders to visit the hard-pressed nation isn’t all that surprising. Prior to winning its independence from France on January 1, 1804 and becoming the world’s first black republic, Haiti was France’s most prosperous, and slave-ridden, overseas colony.
In 1825, the French government demanded, in exchange for its formal recognition of Haiti’s independence, that the former colony compensate the French plantation owners that had lost property and slaves during Haiti’s 1791-1804 revolution twenty years before. Significantly, slavery had already been outlawed in France for years by that time, calling into question the legality of Paris’s reparation proposal from the outset. Even so, the Haitian government was eager to acquire diplomatic legitimacy and agreed to cover the debt.
The so-called “independence debt” that France extracted from Haiti amounted to around 90 million gold francs ($18.9 billion), which was ten times the young country’s annual public revenue in 1825. It crippled Haiti’s economic growth for well over a century and, in a trend eerily similar to certain contemporary cases, enriched the French banks that helped finance Haiti’s regular debt payments to France. Though the burdensome debt was, and still is, widely regarded as morally and legally illegitimate, Haiti paid off the full sum, along with the substantial accumulated interest it owed to French lenders, by 1947.
There have been repeated calls by many, including Haiti’s ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, for France to begin paying billions in reparations to its former colony in order to atone for the unjust “independence debt” and aid the now poverty-stricken nation.
A joint 2013 statement from Office of International Lawyers and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti was supportive of financial reparations: “If the international community really wants to help Haiti, repayment of the independence debt will be at the top of the agenda, not off the table. A just repayment of the independence debt, by contrast, would allow Haiti to develop the way today’s wealthy countries did — based on national priorities set inside the country. It would also right a historical wrong, and set a strong example of a powerful country respecting the rule law with respect to a less powerful country.”
In 2001, a law was passed in France that formally characterized slavery and the sale of humans as crimes against humanity, acknowledging France’s own historic involvement in the atrocious slave trade in the process. Though the French government cancelled Haiti’s outstanding debt to France after the horrendous 2010 earthquake, which then stood at $81.2 million, it has steadfastly resisted proposals for reparations to Haiti for years.
A speech by President Hollande at the inauguration of a slavery memorial in Guadeloupe on Sunday did address the contentious question of France’s debt to Haiti and reignite the hopes of many who are calling for a reevaluation of French policy on the issue of Haitian reparations.
“When I go to Haiti, I will, for my part, handle the debt that we have,” the French leader proclaimed to thunderous applause. Some interpreted Hollande’s statements as an indirect endorsement of concrete financial reparations, but the president’s staff subsequently clarified that his words referred strictly to France’s more abstract moral debt to Haiti. For the time being at least, reparations do not appear to be on the horizon for Haiti.
This article was updated by the editorial staff of Antillean Media Group before its publication on Thursday May 14, 2015. The final version of the post can be viewed here: http://www.antillean.org/haiti-hollande-independence-debt-222/