April 19, 2004

Haiti drops reparations claim

Haitiís interim leader Gerard Latortue has said the country will not pursue an "illegal" and "ridiculous" demand for reparations from France that was made by former President Jean Bertrand Aristide.

Mr Aristide launched a vigorous campaign last year for Haiti to be given back $20 billion, the equivalent of 90 million gold francs they paid to France in reparations in 1825, more than 20 years after the country gained independence.

But Prime Minister Latortue dismissed the claim and said it was made solely for political reasons.

He said Haiti had no interest in maintaining an 'atmosphere of confrontation' with France and it was instead seeking increased cooperation with France that could help Haiti build hospitals, roads, schools and other infrastructure.

Mr Latortue said talks he held with officials from both France and the United States gave him hope that they would support Haiti as it tries to rebuild.

The claim for reparations was also dismissed by French defense minister Michele Alliot-Marien who visited the country last week. Her visit was the first by a French government official since Haitian independence 200 years ago.

Minister Alliot-Marine also denied Mr Aristide's claims that France helped to oust him because of his demands for reparations.

Pro-Aristide supporters have condemned Mr Latortue for dropping the demand for reparations.

New York-based Haitian journalist Ricot Dupuy told BBC Caribbean Service that the claim was not ridiculous.

"There's nothing ridiculous about it," said Dupuy. "I'm curious to read the argument the interim government is going to use to de-legitimise the claim."

Dupuy said that there might be issues about the manner in which the claim was made but that does not detract from its validity.

"One could argue that the request could have been made in a more diplomatic way or that Haiti could have opened itself for negations.

"Haiti is the only country in the world that was forced to pay for a victory in which there was tremendous cost and loss of life to them," he said. "Even the French government has recognised that slavery was a crime against humanity, so it's a valid claim."

There are about 1,000 French soldiers in the international force led by US Marines in a UN-sanctioned mission to restore peace in Haiti after the rebellion which led to the departure of former President Aristide on February 29.