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FRANCE: Time to Pay Back Haiti

PARIS, Jan 17 2010 (IPS) - As thousands of people filled Notre Dame Cathedral here Saturday evening in a special mass for victims of the earthquake in Haiti, the solidarity and sadness reflected the historical ties that bind France to the Caribbean nation.

But these links are not easy or comfortable ones. Haiti’s current poverty can be traced directly to the heavy financial and human toll it had to bear in its violent rupture from France two centuries ago.

Following Haiti’s declaration of independence in 1804, France demanded payment of 150 million francs in exchange for recognition of the country’s new status and also as reparation for “lost lands” in the slave revolt that led to autonomy.

Haiti signed a treaty agreeing to the demands, and although the amount was later reduced, the new nation still had to borrow heavily from banks in the United States, France and other countries to pay the sum plus interest, sinking ever deeper into poverty. The payments to France were completed only in the mid-1940s.

“They are all responsible – France, the U.S., all of them – for this mess that Haiti is now in,” said Anita, a Paris-based Haitian in her fifties, speaking softly at the back of Notre Dame as the mass proceeded.

“When they weren’t getting money out of us, they were interfering in the governing of our country,” she told IPS, before breaking off to join in the singing of a hymn.

Anita said her best friend had lost eight family members when their house in Port-au-Prince collapsed, and that she herself had not been able to contact some relatives.

Indeed, many of France’s 80,000 Haitians are still in shock, waiting to hear from loved ones and hoping that more can be done before others die.

“I don’t want to talk about historical obligations or debts,” said Natacha Alexandre, a Haitian nursing student and former teacher who has lived in France for 18 years. “But there is now a moral obligation to help Haiti. I think the international community is doing what it can, and I would like to thank all the friends of Haiti who are supporting us in this tragedy at whatever level.”

“Today my pain is so strong that I want to scream out my sadness to the whole world,” she added. “But I know that Haiti, as always, will rise again from the ashes.”

France has called for a speeding up of the cancellation of Haiti’s foreign debt, including a 54-million-euro (77.6 million US dollars) debt to Paris, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he will hold a “reconstruction and development” conference with other international “donors” to discuss ways to help Haiti recover from this latest disaster.

The conference would include the United States, Brazil and Canada and might take place in March.

“From this catastrophe, which follows so many others, we should make sure that it is a chance to get Haiti once and for all out of the curse it seems to have been stuck with for such a long time,” Sarkozy told journalists. He said he would visit the Caribbean country in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, French immigration minister Eric Besson ordered his department to halt the repatriation of undocumented Haitian immigrants, and he announced the implementation of an “exceptional and temporary measure” to allow those affected by the earthquake to enter France.

The measure includes providing “humanitarian” visas to people needing specialised medical care in France and allowing Haitians to visit family members here.

The government has also urged airline companies such as Air France and Air Caraïbes to run special flights to Haiti once the airport in Port-au-Prince becomes open to civilian traffic. Currently it is reserved for emergency humanitarian aid.

All the announcements, however, will not help those who are “still trapped and are going to die before help arrives,” said Julner Jean-Baptiste, a young man who stood in the rain outside Notre Dame Cathedral Saturday, listening to the mass on loudspeakers.

“France has the capacity to do more and should have done more way before this,” he told IPS. “They had to wait for the earthquake, and now what’s being done is not enough.”

As he and others followed the service, some wondered if Jean-Claude Duvalier, or “Baby Doc”, was inside the cathedral. Duvalier, the ruler of Haiti from 1971 to 1986, when he was overthrown, has lived in France for years although he was never granted formal asylum.

Observers say that he and his ex-wife Michèle (who also resides in Paris and allegedly shops at French high-fashion stores) are an emblem of the local corruption and troubles that have bedeviled Haiti, alongside foreign greed and interference.

Since the earthquake, Duvalier has reportedly pledged eight million dollars to help his homeland; during his rule, hundreds of millions of dollars were said to have been embezzled from Haiti’s treasury.

“People keep referring to Haiti as the poorest country this and the poorest country that,” Jean-Baptiste said. “But we need to look at the history. A lot of people and a lot of countries owe Haiti.”

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