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17365: (Chamberlain) Haiti steps up fight for $22 billion from France (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By Amy Bracken
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 20 (Reuters) - It's hard to listen to Haitian
radio or watch Haitian television these days without hearing the uplifting
government public service announcement song that goes: "We demand
reparations, restitution. France, pay me my money, $21,685,135,571.48."
The television images show people in African clothing dancing and
working in fields, the Eiffel Tower, infrastructure such as a dam and
buildings and stacks of dollar bills.
Haiti is making serious efforts to get France to pay restitution of
nearly $22 billion, according to Haitian Foreign Minister Joseph Antonio.
France colonised the Caribbean nation in the 17th century and imported
African slaves to work the sugar cane and coffee plantations. The slaves
rebelled, killing or driving out their French rulers, and Haiti declared
independence in 1804.
France demanded 150 million francs, worth about $28.3 million today,
as compensation for the loss of its colony and the Haitian government paid
90 million of that, enough to plunge the country deeply into debt for
"It was not enough to have taken up arms in the struggle for
independence," wrote Haitian novelist Jean Metellus. "It had to be paid
for, too, and it's cost was high."
In April, President Jean-Bertrand demanded that France pay
restitution, specifying the above sum, which takes into account inflation
After first refusing to discuss the matter, French President Jacques
Chirac finally appointed Regis Debray, a left-wing intellectual, to head a
commission to investigate the possibility of restitution.
With an invitation from the French Institute of Haiti, Debray held a
conference in Port-au-Prince last month in which he made no promises about
restitution but convinced those attending that France was seriously
considering the matter.
Aristide held a three-day international colloquium in October to
discuss the matter. It overlapped with the anniversary of his 1994 return
to Haiti under U.S. military protection, which came three years after a
coup drove him out.
"If on October 15, 1994, the impossible became possible, when it comes
to restitution, the impossible will be possible," Aristide said.
The colloquium featured artistic entertainment, including a Haitian
rapper chanting in Creole slang, "Lafrans kale m lamama m," or "France,
give me my money."
Some critics believe the money, if paid, would go to waste in a
government they view as corrupt. The running joke is that France agreed to
pay the entire sum except for the 48 cents, to which Aristide replied: "But
then what will be left for the people?"
Others say the government's approach will fail to persuade France, or
that the discussion itself will hurt relations between the two countries.
But many are hopeful about the prospective cash flow, while
recognising the process could take years and the sum could be altered.
"I'm optimistic because it's a just fight," said Joseph Antonio. "When
the fight is just, you always end up winning... When is another question."
Evans Paul, head of the opposition Convention for Democratic Unity
party, agreed the cause is just but doesn't think it can be won. He called
the president's public and confrontational approach to the issue "political
Paul said Aristide "gives the impression that France is a mean old
colonist," something he doesn't expect France to respond well to. Paul
advocates working with France to find the right moment and conditions for
"Mr Paul is not the only one to think that way," said government
spokesman Mario Dupuy. "There are some people who think (the president)
should do this in private, above the population, which is to say behind the
back of the population. But the president has adopted a transparent and
public path with the population because...demanding restitution is for the
Some feel the entire process is a mistake. When Lionel Etienne, a
Haitian who heads the French-Haitian Chamber of Commerce, heard about the
government's plans to demand restitution, he said: "It was like finding a
hair in my soup."
Etienne believes that further developing diplomatic and economic ties
between the two countries is far more productive than demanding money.
"France is our port of entry into Europe, and I think it is a shame to
put in question our relationship with France" by reducing it to a demand
for restitution, he said. "It's a combative undertaking."
Indeed, as the country prepares for the January bicentennial of its
victory over France in the battle for independence, the political language,
especially in reference to restitution, is full of bellicose terms --
"combat," "fight," "struggle" and "battle."
The demand for restitution may turn out to be the ultimate
revolutionary war re-enactment in Haiti.