Europe, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

HAITI: Aristide’s Call for Reparations From France Unlikely to Die

Dionne Jackson Miller

KINGSTON, Mar 12 2004 (IPS) - Whether Jean-Bertrand Aristide ever returns to the homeland he left under such controversial circumstances, his call for France to make reparations to his troubled Caribbean nation of Haiti is as important as ever and must not be allowed to die, say observers.

Some analysts believe that France’s refusal to support the deployment of an international peacekeeping force to Haiti until after the president’s departure was linked to Aristide’s unpopular – in Paris – demand for reparations.

The United Nations Security Council, of which France is a permanent member, rejected a Feb. 26 appeal from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) for international peacekeeping forces to be sent into its member state Haiti, but voted unanimously to send in troops three days later, just hours after Aristide’s controversial resignation.

"I believe that (the call for reparations) could have something to do with it, because they (France) were definitely not happy about it, and made some very hostile comments," Myrtha Desulme, chairperson of the Haiti-Jamaica Exchange Committee, told IPS.

"(But) I believe that he did have grounds for that demand, because that is what started the downfall of Haiti," she says.

Last year, Aristide demanded that France pay Haiti over 21 billion U.S. dollars, what he said was the equivalent in today’s money of the 90 million gold francs Haiti was forced to pay Paris after winning its freedom from France as the hemisphere’s first independent black nation 200 years ago.

Historians say that the massive toll that France exacted on Haiti played a large part in the Caribbean country’s subsequent descent into stark poverty and under-development.

How closely the reparations issue influenced French actions in the days leading up to Aristide’s departure from Haiti is debatable.

French professor and commentator on Haitian issues at New York University, Michael Dash, says the call is unlikely to have been the major factor.

"This demand certainly did not endear him (Aristide) to the French, but their recent actions in Haiti may have more to do with attempting to form some kind of alliance with the U.S. after the falling out over Iraq," he told IPS.

France refused to back Washington’s call for support in the U.N. Security Council as it prepared an invasion of Iraq last year.

But the Haitian crisis has clearly pulled the two countries closer after a chill in relations over the U.S.-led invasion of the Middle Eastern nation.

Days after the intervention in Haiti, U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned French President Jacques Chirac to express pleasure over the two countries’ cooperation on the issue.

But with Aristide gone, will the demand for reparations also die?

Desulme, a Haitian now living in Jamaica, is not sure.

"Geopolitics is a matter of how much muscle you can flex and now Haiti has no muscle to flex. It’s in such a devastated state that it’s a reconstruction process that’s needed, and they have no muscle to demand (reparations)," says Desulme.

But the issue, she adds, must be kept alive, by advocates inside Haiti or via its friends outside.

"Haiti has suffered massive injustices. I think that they may have to give up the reparations argument because it seems to be offensive to France, but I believe that (outside advocates) should keep the issue alive."

"They should continue to ask for reparations even if they don’t get it. I think it’s a massive injustice that was done and the world needs to know that," she adds.

Dash says the issue is unlikely to fade away.

"Aristide got a lot of support for this demand both inside and outside of Haiti. The reality is that he in particular was unlikely to receive a cent from the French. A successor could however ask (more diplomatically), that some gesture be made by the French to compensate for what Haiti has suffered.

"The French, it is true, do not like to face up to their slave-owning colonial past. But we live in an age when reparations of all kinds are being asked for, and this one is a documented sum of money paid to a colonial power to compensate for loss of property, and which plunged Haiti into decades of debt," Dash says.

One avenue to help Haiti could be through development of the country’s crippled infrastructure, says Desulme.

"The French have a moral duty to put into Haiti the equivalent of what was paid," she says. "They could put that amount into infrastructure in the country, like roads and water."

"The international community will have to come in and do that, whether they call it reparations or not."

Journalist and reparations activist Barbara Blake Hannah says the Haitian reparations issue touches the entire Caribbean.

"Haiti is part of the same ‘slave boat’ we all suffered in, and is part of the reparations issue – if only because they have set a precedent by paying it to France," Blake Hannah told IPS.

Coordinator of the Jamaica Reparations Movement, Blake Hannah says there has been little action there recently, as the organisation waits for the government to fulfil a promise to hold a national round-table to discuss restitution from former colonial power the United Kingdom.

In the meantime, demands for reparations have been growing globally.

The Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom, in western Uganda, home to a population of about one million people, has just announced that it will seek three trillion pounds (5.5 trillion dollars) from London in reparations for atrocities alleged to have been committed during the era of British colonialism, reported Agence France Presse recently.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has also called on the United States and England to honour reparation claims.

The U.S. movement received a setback in January, when a Chicago judge dismissed a lawsuit against 18 companies said to have profited from slavery. ‘USA Today’ quoted U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle as saying the plaintiffs were "trying to assert the legal rights of their ancestors" without proving they had suffered injury.

Norgle also said the courts do not have the constitutional authority to decide the question of reparations for slavery, and that the issue should be dealt with by the U.S. Congress, while noting that the statute of limitations had run out on crimes committed during slavery, which ended in the United States in 1865.

These events are unfolding against the backdrop of U.N. celebrations of 2004 as the International Year for the Commemoration of Slavery and the Slave Trade, and the celebration of the Haitian bicentennial, an event entirely overshadowed by the dramatic events of the past weeks.

Dash says the overall impact on the commemoration depends on the expectations in which it was organised.

"If it was the raising of racial self-esteem or some such folly they will no doubt be disappointed. But Haiti is not just a racial symbol. It’s a real Caribbean country going through a long and violent post-Duvalierist transition," he said referring to Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, father and son dictators who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986, and are accused of massive corruption and numerous incidents of human rights violations during their tenure.

"Celebrations must necessarily take in the reality of the struggle to establish a new social and political order in that country," adds Dash.

But Blake Hannah, a member of Jamaica’s organising committee for the bicentennial observances, says that far from diminishing the significance of the year of commemoration, the upheavals in Haiti have deepened its import.

"Haiti is a beacon in the issues of slavery, rebellion and abolition," she says.

"Jamaicans have had their eyes opened on our slave history by Haiti. Jamaicans have bonded with their slave past as never before. It’s such an ironic coincidence that it has taken another revolution to bring history into focus again. Whatever the outcome in Haiti, slavery is again in our focus."

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