Haiti's leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, sends France a bill for $21 billion. Many are calling the effort a distraction.
BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
Part of a series of reports marking Haiti's bicentennial.
Almost 200 years after rebellious slaves drove a humiliated French army from Haiti, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has fired the first shot in a new battle with France.
In the months leading up to Jan. 1 bicentennial celebrations, Aristide has launched a controversial campaign to get France to repay its former colony billions of dollars in restitution.
And he has already sent Paris a bill, down to the very last cent: $21,685,135,571.48.
The Haitian government says the money is the modern-day equivalent of the ransom, 90 million gold francs (originally set at 150 million gold francs) that Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to pay France.
The European power refused to recognize Haiti's independence and threatened to re-enslave the Haitian people if the indemnity wasn't paid.
Television and radio spots demanding that France ''Hand over my dollars so I can celebrate my independence!'' are pervasive in Haiti as proponents argue the money is part of the reparations France should pay for the ''colonial crimes'' it committed during Haiti's enslavement.
''Today, tomorrow, we will win the battle of restitution,'' Aristide said last month in a speech commemorating the Battle of Vertieres, the slave revolt near Cap-Haitien two centuries ago that marked the completion of Haiti's revolt against France. Haiti became the second nation in the western hemisphere after the United States to gain independence.
The French are dismissing the campaign, although France has dispatched one of its foremost intellectuals, Régis Debray, to Port-au-Prince to examine Haitian-French relations as part of a ''Committee on Reflection of Haiti.'' The committee plans to report next month on ways France can encourage Haiti's political and economic development.
When asked about Aristide's demand this summer during a press conference, French President Jacques Chirac said his country already provides Haiti with millions in aid.
He said he had great sympathy for the Haitian people but warned ``before bringing up claims of this nature, I cannot stress enough to the authorities of Haiti the need to be very vigilant about, how should I say, the nature of their actions and their regime.''
Haitians, meanwhile, are divided. On a recent South Florida Haitian radio show, several callers said they agree that restitution is owed, but questioned Aristide's motives and how he calculated the amount owed.
The Haitian government has yet to provide its formula.
Some Haitians disagree with the president making a campaign of the issue, while others question whether Haiti would see any of the money. Aristide has said restitution will allow Haiti to move from misery to poverty with dignity.
The money, he said, will be used to build and renovate schools, hospitals and roads.
In Haiti, some critics -- including a group of more than 50 intellectuals, artists and writers -- have denounced the campaign as propaganda by a cash-strapped government seeking to deflect attention from its greater woes.
Those who oppose the idea say the indemnity was compensation to French colonialists who lost property during Haiti's war for independence.
But others say the debate is an opportunity to have an overdue dialogue about the legacy of slavery and how Haiti went from being the cash cow of the Caribbean with its production of sugar and cocoa to its most impoverished nation. Some argue that the restitution, which took Haiti more than a century to pay, bankrupted the country.
''This is an idea whose time has come,'' said Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, a Haitian-American scholar who is director of the Department of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. ``Why should France be super-developed based on the Haitian economy?''
Bellegarde-Smith said the Haitian president has raised an important issue.
He sees Haiti's pursuit as being no different from that of African Americans seeking federal compensation from the United States for slavery.
But Aristide supporters say their campaign is different from the reparations movement sweeping the globe on behalf of the descendants of African slaves.
''This is not a claim for reparations for slavery. It's a claim specifically directed toward the money Haiti was required to pay as a result of the decree by the French king in 1825,'' said Ira Kurzban, a Miami attorney who represents the Aristide government.
To make the payments, the Haitian government contracted with French banks that charged exorbitant interest rates, and retooled its entire economy into a tribute to France.
''The French government was well aware of the fact that Haiti could not pay,'' Kurzban said.
The result: The French economy got an economic boost from Haiti, while the Haitian people saw their own economy crippled by the debt.
Kurzban is consulting with other international law experts to consider whether Haiti should take the matter to international court.
While he doesn't believe France is legally obligated to repay the debt, Gerard Latortue, a former Haiti foreign minister who lives in Boca Raton, said ``it's the moral and politically responsible thing to do.''
Instead of outright asking France for money, however, the Haitian government should prepare a development plan for the country showing where the money would go, said Latortue, an Aristide critic.
Jocelyn McCalla, executive director of the New York-based National Coalition for Haitian Rights, said while there needs to be an extensive conversation about restitution and reparations, ``the better question that Haitians need to ask themselves is how did we go so wrong?''
''In that context, you can talk about reparations,'' McCalla said. ``Will an infusion of dollars and euros be enough to turn the whole thing around? No. It takes a whole new approach to Haitian issues. If we had a whole new approach to Haitian issues, Haitians would be better off.''
Herald writer Jane Regan contributed to this report.