New York Times -- The Lede
August 16, 2010, 10:57
France Asked to Return Money ‘Extorted’ From Haiti
By ROBERT MACKEY
In an open letter to President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, published on Monday in the Paris newspaper Libération, an international group of scholars and activists called on France to repay Haiti, its former colony, more than $20 billion that had been “extorted” in the 19th century.
As Isabel Macdonald, a Canadian scholar who helped draft the letter, explains in The Toronto Star:
Prior to independence, St. Dominique — the country that is now Haiti — was France’s most profitable colony, thanks in no small part to its particularly brutal system of slavery. In 1791, the slaves revolted, and in 1804, after defeating Napoleon’s armies, founded the world’s first black republic.
Following Haiti’s independence, former French slave owners submitted detailed tabulations of their losses to the French government, with line items for each of “their” slaves that had been “lost” with Haitian independence. In 1825, King Charles X demanded that Haiti pay France an “independence debt” to compensate former colonists for the slaves who won their freedom in the Haitian revolution. With warships stationed along the Haitian coast backing up the French demand, France insisted that Haiti pay its former colonizer 150 million gold francs — 10 times the new nation’s total annual revenues.
Under threat of a French military invasion that aimed at the re-enslavement of the population, the Haitian government had little choice but to agree to pay. Haiti’s government was also forced to finance the debt through loans from a single French bank, which capitalized on its monopoly by gouging Haiti with exorbitant interest rates and fees. The original sum of the indemnity was subsequently reduced, but Haiti still disbursed 90 million gold francs to France.
The money Haiti paid to France from 1825 until 1947 was estimated by the Haitian government in 2003 to be the equivalent of nearly $22 billion today.
Last month, a group calling itself the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted From Haiti — or, C.R.I.M.E. — drew attention to Haiti’s independence debt with an elaborate hoax, in which an actor impersonating a French Foreign Ministry official announced that France would repay the money.
As The Lede reported, video and text of the mock statement were posted on a near-replica of the French Foreign Ministry’s Web site.
Monday’s letter on the issue also appears on the fake Foreign Ministry site, above the names of dozens of well-known activists, including: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Noam Chomsky, Ariel Dorfman, Naomi Klein, José Bové, Eduardo Galeano, Cornel West and the founders of the group that seems to have inspired the hoax announcement, the Yes Men.
The letter ends by linking threats of legal action against the pranksters with the fate of the former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who asked France to repay the debt for Haiti’s bicentennial in 2004:
In 2003, when the Haitian government demanded repayment of the money France had extorted from Haiti, the French government responded by helping to overthrow that government. Today, the French government responds to the same demand by C.R.I.M.E. by threatening legal action. These are inappropriate responses to a demand that is morally, economically and legally unassailable. In light of the urgent financial need in the country in the wake of the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, we urge you to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due.
In March, international donors pledged to provide Haiti with just over $5 billion to help in its reconstruction. Earlier this month, Bill Clinton, who is helping to coordinate aid to Haiti, told The Associated Press that so far just five countries had made good on their promises and that less than 10 percent of that money had been delivered.