Haiti's Ransom

France's scoffingly dismissed the idea of restitution as a "farce" when it was raised by the Haitian government back in 2002. Yet the case for repayment is no joke.
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It has been nearly seven months since a devastating earthquake killed upwards of 250,000 people in Haiti. But judging from recent media coverage, it would appear the country's future hinges on just one question: "Will Wyclef be the next Haitian president?"

Yet far larger questions loom, on the eve of the August 7 deadline for presidential hopefuls to declare their candidacy for Haiti's November election.

Where, for instance, is the money that will be required for Haiti's rebuilding -- a task that could cost 14 billion dollars, according to an Inter-American Development Bank study.

More than three months after a UN conference in which 5.3 billion dollars were pledged for Haiti's reconstruction, only four countries (Brazil, Norway, Estonia and Australia) had paid into the UN's Haiti Reconstruction Fund.

Two weeks ago, a bold solution to this desperate financial shortfall was announced.

The July 14 announcement, broadcast on the website diplomatiegov.info, pledged that France would reimburse Haiti for the 90 million gold francs Haiti had been forced to pay France, its former colonizer, after Haitian independence. The total sum to be repaid amounted to 17 billion euros including adjustments for inflation and a minimal interest rate, according to the announcement.

The pledge was a hoax. The next day a spokesperson for the French embassy in Port-au-Prince was forced to concede that in fact France would not be repaying Haitians. Cleary unamused, a French government spokesperson threatened legal action against the hoaxers.

France's humorless response to this prank is ironic in a way, since they scoffingly dismissed the idea of restitution as a "farce" when it was raised by the Haitian government back in 2002.

Yet the case for repayment is no joke. Consider the historical facts, as outlined in a 2009 paper [pdf] available on the website of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

The 90 million gold francs Haiti paid France was compensation for the "property" French slave-owning colonists "lost" in the successful slave revolt that led to Haiti's independence.

Prior to independence, St. Dominique -- the country that is now Haiti -- was France's most profitable colony, thanks in no small part to its particularly brutal system of slavery. In 1791, the slaves revolted, and in 1804, after defeating Napoleon's armies, founded the world's first black republic.

Following Haiti's independence, former French slave-owners submitted detailed tabulations of their losses to the French government, with line items for each of "their" slaves that had been "lost" with Haitian independence. In 1825, King Charles X demanded that Haiti pay an "independence debt" to compensate former colonists for the slaves who won their freedom in the Haitian Revolution. Yet the total bill Charles X served to Haiti was in fact fifty percent more than even the total sum of the colonists' declared losses. With warships stationed along the Haitian coast backing up the French demand, France insisted that Haiti pay its former colonizer 150 million gold francs -- ten times the fledgling black nation's total annual revenues.

Under threat of a French military invasion that aimed at the re-enslavement of the population, the Haitian government had little choice but to agree to pay these "reparations." Haiti's government was also forced to finance the debt through loans from a single French bank, which capitalized on its monopoly by gauging Haiti with exorbitant interest rates and fees.

The original sum of the indemnity was subsequently reduced, but Haiti still disbursed 90 million gold francs to France. This second price the French exacted for the independence Haitians had won in battle was, even in 1825, not lawful. When the original indemnity was imposed by the French king, the slave trade was technically illegal; such a transaction exchanging cash for human lives valued as slave labor represented a gross violation of both French and international laws.

And Haiti was still paying off this "independence debt" in 1947 -- 140 years after the abolition of the slave trade and 85 years after the emancipation proclamation.

The Haitian government's legal case for restitution was aborted prematurely in 2004, with the French-backed overthrow of the government that had the temerity to point out that France "extorted this money from Haiti by force and .. should give it back to us so that we can build primary schools, primary healthcare, water systems and roads."

But the question remains, as Dr. Paul Farmer put it so eloquently in his testimony in the 2003 hearings in France on the question of restitution, "Will the happy winners of the world's history settle in their distressing routine or will they finally break off from cruel, corrupted and racist politics? Will they finally give back to Haiti the price of its blood?"

I'll bet that won't be something Larry King will ask in his interview with Wyclef tonight. But it would appear that the Haitian-born hip-hop star might well have something to say on the matter, if his twitter feed is any indication.

Wyclef recently retweeted Noam Chomsky's view on this matter: "the US and France should be paying massive reparations" to Haiti.