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17474: (Hermantin) Sun Sentinel-Aristide repeats call for French restitution (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Aristide repeats call for French restitution

By Letta Tayler

December 2, 2003

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti · Even a sudden rainstorm couldn't dampen the euphoria
among throngs of Haitians cheering a recent speech by President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

In homage to the battle of Vertieres, the slave revolt near this sultry
coastal city two centuries ago that toppled French rule over Haiti, Aristide
was pressing his latest pet cause: that France return the money Haiti was
forced to pay its former colonizer after independence: a sum, he claims,
that now totals a whopping $21.7 billion. That sum is 44 times Haiti's
current annual budget.

"Today or tomorrow, we will win the battle of restitution, the same way our
ancestors won the battle of Vertieres," Aristide said. "Restitution!" his
supporters screamed in agreement. Dozens of red and blue banners fluttering
overhead spelled out their cry in Haitian Creole.

As Haiti kicks off celebrations this month for its bicentennial as the
world's first black republic, the restitution demand has enthralled the tiny
Caribbean nation and become a microcosm of the broader debate over
Aristide's presidency.

A former slum priest elected president twice by championing the rights of
the poor, and restored to power by U.S. troops in 1994 after being ousted in
a coup, Aristide has pitched restitution as manna from heaven that could
unshackle Haiti from its slave legacy. On television and radio, ads set to
pulsating rhythms allude to the fabulous public works projects that Haiti,
the poorest and most ravaged nation in the hemisphere, could launch with the
$21.7 billion.

Aristide, increasingly criticized for failing to lift his country out of
destitution, has used the restitution theme in his campaign against foes he
paints as a greedy elite bent on ousting him before his term ends in 2006.
"Coup d'etat! No! Elections! Yes! Restitution! Yes!" goes one popular
restitution jingle.

Haiti claims $21.7 billion is the equivalent, after adjustments for
inflation, of the 90 million francs it paid France in the early 1800s for
the loss of the latter's most profitable colony. Though it physically
relinquished Haiti, France boycotted and threatened to invade its former
colony until it agreed to pay for formal recognition of its independence. So
cash-starved was the fledgling Haitian republic that it had to borrow a
third of the money from a French bank -- at 6 percent interest -- to make
the payments.

"The main reason we're so poor today is that we had to pay France that
money," said Leslie Voltaire, a cabinet minister and key member of the
government's restitution panel. By emptying the coffers, he said, the French
intentionally made it impossible for Haiti to build schools and roads and
make other improvements for its population of former slaves.

Over the centuries, "the Spaniards took our gold. The French cleared our
hardwood to create coffee and sugar cane plantations," continued Voltaire.
"The only recourse left to us is restitution."

The demand is unprecedented on the part of a former colony and, not
surprisingly, has met a cool reception in France. Haiti's economic woes,
French President Jacques Chirac initially suggested, are the result of
corruption and mismanagement, not French greed. As Haiti made loud noises
about taking the case to international court, however, Chirac created a
special commission to review Haitian-French relations. Though he didn't
mention the "R" word, Haiti immediately crowed that the panel's mission was
to explore restitution.

The commission's head is Regis Debray, part of the creme de la creme of
French leftist intellectuals. He declined interview requests. In a news
conference in Haiti last month, he appeared dubious that France would fork
over any money, but said that his country might have "a certain moral debt"
toward Haiti.

Like just about everything about Aristide, the restitution campaign has
divided Haitians.

"Aristide wants to use the restitution issue to turn France into a scapegoat
for his own ineptitude and corruption," said Laennec Hurbon, a sociologist
and one of 100 prominent Haitian intellectuals who have signed a petition
protesting Aristide's presidency.

Newsday is a Tribune Co. newspaper.

Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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