Impoverished Haiti pins hopes for future on a very old debt

José De Côrdoba
Wall Street Journal
January 2, 2004

More than two decades after rebellious former slaves vanquished troops from Napoleon’s army here in 1803, France’s King Charles X made the fledgling republic of Haiti an offer it couldn’t refuse.

In 1825, as the king’s warships cruised just over the horizon from the Haitian capital, a French emissary demanded 150 million gold francs in exchange for recognizing the new republic. The implicit alternative was invasion and re-enslavement.

It was a huge sum, about five times Haiti’s annual export revenue. Haiti’s then-president reluctantly agreed, taking on a crushing debt.

Today, as Haiti celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence amid growing political unrest and a collapsing economy, one of its few glimmers of hope is that long-ago deal.

Haiti wants its money back – with interest.

Aided by U.S. and French lawyers, the Haitian government is preparing a legal brief demanding nearly $22 billion in “restitution” for what it regards as an act of gunboat diplomacy. Banners calling for “Reparations and Restitution” fly over Port-au-Prince’s crammed and filthy streets. “France, pay me my money, $21,685,135,571.48,” is the refrain heard incessantly to carnival music in government ads on Haitian radio and television.

“It’s a historic issue,” said Haiti’s controversial President Jean Bertrand Aristide at a recent news conference.

“It would be nice if we got a fat check,” adds Francis St.-Hubert, a Haitian economist and close adviser to Mr. Aristide. Haiti’s national bank used Mr. St.-Hubert’s research, which included an annual interest rate of 5 percent to come up with the multibillion-dollar figure. The clock is running at a rate of $34 a second, Mr. St.-Hubert says.

Haiti has little choice but to chase the French money, says Leslie Voltaire, a cabinet minister who oversees Haitian emigre affairs. The once-wealthy colony is now the poorest country in the Americas, with a per capita income of about $480 for its 8.1 million inhabitants. “Our only natural resource is restitution,” says Mr. Voltaire.

France’s response hasn’t been encouraging. In June, French President Jacques Chirac addressed the restitution issue by warning Haitian authorities “to take care over the nature of the actions of their regime.” Herve Ladsous, a spokesman for France’s Foreign Ministry, said this week that “this case has been closed since 1885.”

Instead of cutting a check, France has created a Commission of Reflection, led by Regis Debray, the left-wing philosopher and friend of Che Guevara.

The commission isn’t supposed to deal specifically with restitution but to examine the 200 years of often-troubled relations between the two countries. Two years ago, pro-government mobs ransacked France’s cultural center in Port-au-Prince. Mr. Voltaire accuses France of orchestrating European policy against Mr. Aristide. “They are making us look as if we were barbarians,” says Mr. Voltaire. The commission spent 10 days in Haiti last month meeting with government officials, intellectuals and opposition figures.

“The French government doesn’t take seriously this reimbursing of the debt,” said commission member Yvon Chotard, deputy mayor of Nantes, France, while sipping a rum cocktail by the pool at the Villa Creole, one of Port-au-Prince’s few good hotels. He says Haiti doesn’t have legal grounds to demand restitution from France, since it signed an agreement. “We try to respect treaties between states, and this is a treaty that has been negotiated and re-negotiated many times.”

Haiti’s modern-day problems stem mainly from the Duvalier dictatorships, but by most accounts Mr. Aristide has also contributed to them. Haiti’s first freely elected president, Mr. Aristide was voted in by the masses in 1990. But he terrified Haiti’s traditional light-skinned ruling elite with his fiery rhetoric and was ousted less than a year later in a bloody military coup. A U.S. invasion returned him to power in 1994. He stepped down at the end of his term in the following year, and was re-elected president in 2000.

But the legislative elections that year were widely denounced as fraudulent. Most of Haiti’s foreign-aid donors protested by suspending much of their aid to the Haitian government and channeling the rest through nongovernmental organizations. Mr. Aristide says the aid suspension has cost Haiti about $500 million, a crippling blow for a country with an annual gross domestic product of only $3.7 billion.

So amid the 200th-anniversary festivities, the mood in Port-au-Prince is as grim as ever. Haiti invited dozens of heads of state to its independence bash, but most sent regrets. Thursday in a speech at Haiti’s wedding-cake like presidential palace, Mr. Aristide pledged to help reduce poverty as a crowd of about 10,000 supporters chanted “Aristide is King.”

But opposition to the Aristide government has been growing. Street protests continued this week, and opponents boycotted the celebration Thursday. More than three dozen people have been killed in antigovernment demonstrations since mid-September. There’s no way to tell how many Haitians believe the restitution campaign will bear fruit, but most have no doubt that daily survival is an increasingly difficult task.

The initial agreement between France and the young republic called on Haiti to pay the whole 150 million francs in five annual payments of 30 million gold francs. That proved impossible for Haiti, which was forced under the pact to take out a loan from a French bank to pay the first 30 million francs. In 1838, France agreed to reduce the debt to 60 million francs to be paid over a period of 30 years. In 1883, Haiti made the final payment.

Ira Kurzban, a Miami-based lawyer who handles Haiti’s international legal affairs, argues that the treaty was extortionate and illegal even under 1825 international law because the presence of the French fleet constituted a threat to re-enslave the island.

Many educated Haitians, especially in the growing opposition movement, believe the restitution campaign is Mr. Aristide’s attempt to distract poor Haitians from their impoverishment and from what they see as the government’s mismanagement, corruption and broken promises.

“Haitians have nothing against the French,” says Robinson Jaquimin, a Haitian student who took to the streets after Aristide supporters sacked the College of Human Sciences of the National University of Haiti and broke the dean’s legs with metal bars. “Aristide just wants their money to pay his goons.”

Charles Fleming in Paris contributed to this article.

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