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President Hollande and France's debt to Haiti

Published:Thursday | June 4, 2015 | 6:20 PMMyrtha Désulmé, Contributor

On May 12, 2015, two hundred and twelve years after the Haitian revolutionaries inflicted a crushing defeat on Napoleon’s armies, and shook the world with the Declaration of Independence of the first Black Republic, President Francois Hollande became the first French leader to pay an official visit to Haiti.

The visit was all the more historic that in an age when the voices of people of African descent demanding reparations for slavery are getting increasingly louder, the egregious injustice perpetrated against Haiti, which was forced to pay reparations to her former masters, has become the sorest wound of the vexed reparations issue.

No other country in the world has ever had to pay for recognition of its independence. In the first of this two-part series, the history of the independence debt will be analysed.

When Haitians declared their independence on January 1, 1804, they had every right to claim reparations from the colonisers who had built an empire on more than a century of stolen labour. France was, however, convinced that it was the Haitians who had stolen the property of slave owners by refusing to continue working for free. 

Haitians claimed their independence in a heroic and Herculean 13-year war against France, Britain, and Spain. As the first independent nation in Latin America, and only the second in the New World, Haiti was surrounded by hostile slave colonies. Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the first leader of independent Haiti, nevertheless defiantly stipulated in the 1805 Constitution that any African who set foot on Haitian soil would automatically gain freedom, citizenship, shelter, and the protection of the Haitian state.

Empire quickly realised that through this breach, the entire plantation system based on slavery would inevitably collapse, as Haiti had created the first haven of freedom for runaway slaves on the continent.
All of the Western powers took France’s side against Haiti. Realising that the Haitians could not be subdued, they quarantined Haiti to prevent her freedom ideals from escaping. No foreign nation recognised Haiti’s sovereignty, or established diplomatic relations with her. Hostile navies continually menaced the Haitian coast. The slave-owning West was convinced that its peace and security depended on the annihilation of the black republic.

The loss of its richest colony was a great shock to France and constituted an insurmountable setback. One out every seven Frenchmen depended on Saint Domingue for his livelihood. From 1804 to 1825, France tried to negotiate with Haiti to come back into the fold. The Haitians categorically refused.

In 1825, deluged by the hysteria of former planters, who, for decades, had been demanding compensation for the loss of their slaves and properties, French King, Charles X, issued a royal ordinance requiring that the former colony pay an indemnity of 150 million gold francs, as a prerequisite for France’s recognition of her independence. The astronomical sum was equivalent to France’s annual budget, 10 years of Haiti’s revenues, and represented three times the value of the entire lost colony.  In addition, France decreed that her customs duties should be cut in half, further reducing Haiti’s ability to pay. 

The Haitian people were outraged, and refused. When has one ever heard of a victor paying tribute to the vanquished? The demands were, in fact, illegal, as in 1815, France had signed the Treaty of Paris condemning the slave trade and pledging to eradicate it. 

But in 1825, the demands were delivered by 12 warships armed with 500 cannon. Twenty-one years after independence, Haiti was living in an extreme state of isolation, still surrounded by a sea of viciously hostile slave colonies, fearful that the revolution would spread to their shores, and awaiting the first opportunity to attack her, for daring to be black and free.

This quarantine and ostracism, following on the heels of the extensive devastation of the War of Independence, represented a crippling obstacle to commerce, physical rebuilding, and economic development. A desperate President Boyer consequently submitted to the extortion by the French government and signed the treaty.

Haiti was forced to continually borrow at exorbitant interest rates from French banks in order to pay the crushing ransom. The fees and interests were so onerous that they effectively doubled the debt. Haiti defaulted after the first two 30,000,000-franc instalments. In 1834, a new treaty revised the remaining balance down to 60,000,000, for a total of 90 million gold francs. 

The momentum of Haiti’s vicious spiral of  debt and payments continued until 1947. Haiti was spending 80 per cent of her public resources on external debt payments, rather than the important domestic investments necessary for an infant nation at that stage of development. The young nation was shackled to a debt that would take 122 agonising years to pay off, causing continual financial emergencies and political upheavals, distorting and stunting her economy, retarding her development by decades, and chaining her to perpetual poverty. 

Fast-forward to April 7, 2003, when President Aristide chose the bicentenary of Toussaint L’Ouverture’s death to announce that Haiti would pursue a claim against France to recover the independence ransom, and demand reparations for slavery.
                                         
According to the Haiti Restitution Commission, the indemnity was equivalent to US$21.7 billion in 2004 currency.  The French accused Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was at the time on shaky political ground, of using the issue to divert the Haitian people’s attention from his own political failures. President Jacques Chirac nevertheless created an “Independent Committee of Reflection and Propositions on Franco-Haitian Relations” to keep the matter out of court.

In January 2004, one month before Aristide was deposed and kidnapped in a Franco-American coup d’état, which many attribute to his demand for reparations, the committee presented a 100-page report that made a number of recommendations on Franco-Haitian cooperation.

But when it came to the question of restitution and reparations, though it admitted that it was scandalous that Haiti had to buy in gold francs her international recognition, after claiming her independence at the price of blood, the report described the demand from Aristide as "an aggressive legal confrontation, and a propaganda campaign", incredibly arguing that the right to self-determination did not exist in 1825.

In August 2010, seven months after Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake, 100 of the world’s most renowned intellectuals wrote an open letter to the French government asking for restitution of the debt for the reconstruction of Haiti. The Representative Council of Black Associations in France announced that it would sue the government institutions that had transacted the independence debt, and Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French president to visit Haiti.

- Myrtha Désulmé is president of the Haiti-Jamaica Society, VP for advocacy and public policy, and Caribbean and Latin-American rep of the Haitian Diaspora Federation. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and myrtha1804@gmail.com.