The Miami Herald
Jun. 15, 2003

Haitians demand France pay $21 billion restitution

  Los Angeles Times Service

  PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- France owes Haiti exactly $21,685,135,571.48, the government figures -- not counting interest, penalties or consideration of the suffering and indignity inflicted by slavery and colonization.

  Paris swiftly rejected the demand for restitution when Haiti raised the issue in April, on the 200th anniversary of the death of Toussaint L'Ouverture. A revered figure here, L'Ouverture led fellow slaves to throw off their French colonial oppressors.

  Haiti is making a bicentennial spectacle of refusing to take no for an answer. In one of the most colorful campaigns to galvanize Haitians in years, the country is awash in banners, bumper stickers, television ads and radio broadcasts demanding payback.

  And anyone reading newspapers aligned with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's government, or listening to state-sponsored broadcasts, would think a check for the staggering sum was all but in the mail.

  Some inside Aristide's circle say the campaign will continue.

  ''It's serious, and it's going to intensify,'' says Michelle Karshan, a foreign media liaison for Aristide. ``It's not something Haiti came up with by itself. It came up in the context of the summit on race in South Africa. The French leadership itself has acknowledged that slavery was a crime against humanity.''

  Port-au-Prince originally raised its claim on April 7, 200 years after revolutionary hero L'Ouverture died a captive in a French prison. Seven months later, Haitian slaves defeated French forces and proclaimed the world's first independent black republic in November 1803.

  France recognized Haiti's statehood 35 years later, after the country began paying 90 million francs in gold to compensate French landowners driven out by the revolution.

  French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin replied to the April appeal with the observation that Paris and the rest of the 15-nation European Union have given Haiti more than $2 billion in aid in recent years. The French contend that Haiti's biggest problems are rooted in the present, not the past.

  Undeterred, Haitian Foreign Minister Joseph Philippe Antonio told Radio Solidarity in a recent interview that the French are showing ''a certain embarrassment'' in deflecting the restitution claim with reference to aid projects.