Sun | Apr 23, 2017

France must pay Haiti more than lip service

Published:Sunday | June 21, 2015 | 6:00 AMMyrtha Désulmé, Contributor

The first official visit to Haiti by a French president on May 12 was a huge event, as historic as President Obama's visit to Jamaica. As in Kingston, Port-au-Prince came to a standstill. The anxiety of a small Caribbean nation providing security for a major world leader caused all of the main arteries to be closed off, resulting in significant disruption. As in Jamaica, all streets were cleared of vendors. Just like Obama, Hollande travelled with an extensive delegation of 300 people.

All resemblance stops here, however. No Haitian president was about to gush that "the Haitian people love you, Mr President!". In fact, in Haiti's 1804 Declaration of Independence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the founding father of the nation, had made the "terrible resolution to put to death anyone born French whose profane foot soils the land of liberty ... .We have dared to be free ... . Let us vow to ourselves, to posterity, to the entire Universe, to forever renounce France, and to die rather than live under its domination; to fight until our last breath for the independence of our country ... . Peace to our neighbours; but let this be our cry: Anathema to the French name! Eternal hatred to France!"

This was the background against which President Hollande had set foot on Haitian soil 111 years later. The visit was billed as the Renaissance of Friendship and Brotherhood between two people who share a painful history.

Spectacular Memorial ACTe

Two days before, on May 10, France's National Day of Remembrance of Slavery and its Abolition, Hollande had inaugurated in Guadeloupe the spectacular Memorial ACTe, the biggest resource centre in the world dedicated to slavery and its victims. The socialist president had pulled out all the stops, pronouncing an exhaustive and moving speech.

He praised the abolitionists, but also did something that no European leader had ever done. He spelt out the horrors of slavery, paying a glowing tribute to the slaves, their soul power, resilience, and sufferings, the heroism and creativity of the rebellions, which brought about their emancipation.

He spoke of France's Taubira Law, which declared slavery a crime against humanity, established May 10 for its commemoration, and entrenched it in the French school curriculum.

When it came to the thorny issue of reparations, however, Hollande descended into confusion. First, he stole and twisted Aime Cesaire's statement that "the irreparable cannot be repaired". Clearly, the Father of Negritude was trying to convey the magnitude of the crime and its ongoing repercussions, not champion injustice.

He then declared that the only debt to be settled was the advancement of humanity.

Directly addressing Haitian President Michel Martelly, Hollande praised Haiti's heroic revolution, denounced the injustice of the "ransom" Haiti had been forced to pay to France for the recognition of her independence, and amazingly declared that when he went to Haiti, he would honour France's debt to Haiti. This startling announcement garnered him a prolonged standing ovation.

Cyberspace caught fire, feeding an international media frenzy, breathlessly speculating on whether France would finally redress this appalling historical wrong. Hollande's spokespeople scrambled, however, to rectify the faux pas, hurriedly explaining that the president was only referring to a "moral debt".

But it was too late. Haitians we're resolutely awaiting Hollande with placards demanding financial restitution, as France was not qualified to offer moral redress.

Hollande visited the museum of Haiti's national heroes and laid a wreath at the monument of Toussaint L'Ouverture. Then both he and President Martelly addressed the Haitian people.

Martelly opened by praising Hollande for having the courage to face France's past. He spoke of the ostracism Haiti had endured, and the ransom she had been forced to pay, whose objective had been to abort the growth of the infant nation.

He reminded the assembly that Haiti was the one who truly materialised France's ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, and spoke eloquently of dignifying the relationship between France and Haiti. There would be no more aid from a rich country to a poor one. France and Haiti would discuss bilateral cooperation as equals, in brotherhood and mutual respect.

When it was President Hollande's turn to speak, he evoked the painful past that existed between the two nations, but said that he was bringing a message of friendship and solidarity from the French people. He recognised the Haitian heroes as international references of freedom, adopted by humanity as inspiration for all subsequent revolutions, and pledged to support Haiti's development.

He praised Haiti for giving the world a tremendous lesson in courage in standing up to rebuild herself after the cataclysmic earthquake, and said that France would continue to demonstrate the same fraternity it had shown after the earthquake, assisting with clean water and physical infrastructure.

France is not coming with aid, but with investments, and cooperation for development. Agreements were signed for cooperation on the economy, education, energy, tourism, professional training, and the agri-food industry.

Hollande insisted that France had a responsibility to assist in the overhaul of the Haitian educational system, by training teachers, building schools, and universities, including a digital university to give young Haitians access to the latest technology, and scholarships to study in France.

Before departure, a press conference was held. A French and a Haitian journalist were permitted one question each. The French journalist reported that Haitians were very angry with the moral debt copout because there was a very real financial debt owing.

Best way to honour the debt

Martelly explained that he had discussed with Hollande the best way to honour the debt, and they had decided that it was to set up a Marshall Plan for education to achieve a qualitative leap, access to science and technology, and universally free education, whose value he considered to be much greater than whatever the debt could be calculated at.

Reactions ran the gamut from outrage that Martelly had taken it upon himself to let France off the hook, to vows to resist the colonialist agenda of assimilation through Eurocentric and hegemonic knowledge production and ideas. Haiti had fought and won not only political independence, but also cultural autonomy. She was demanding justice, not charity. France should pay what it owes, and allow Haiti to design her own educational system which does not trample on her Creole identity.

The polemic over the Independence Debt and global reparations rages on.

In this age of multibillion-dollar bank bailouts, US$22 billion is a drop in the bucket, which can hardly repair the historical injustice perpetrated against Haiti over two centuries. President Hollande was right to declare a moral debt, and morality requires that France finally refund to ravaged Haiti the price of her blood.

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