Haiti: France must repay its debt

Issue 
French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Below is an English translation of an open letter to the French government published in the August 16 French daily Liberation signed by a wide-range of writers and activists. Signatories include writers Tariq Ali, Eduardo Galeano and Naomi Klein, Filipino parliamentarian Walden Bello and US academic Noam Chomsky. The English statement, and the introduction below, are reprinted from The Bullet, where a full list of signatures can be found.

The open letter concerns the US$21 billion (current dollar equivalent) extorted by France from Haiti from 1825 to 1947. This was the “independence debt” that France imposed on Haiti as a condition for diplomatic and trade relations, under threat of military intervention.

Haiti won its national independence in 1804 from the slave/colonial empire of France. It was quickly embargoed and otherwise isolated by the empires of the day, including France, Britain and Spain, and by the new, rising power on the scene, the United States.

The open letter follows a successful international media expose of France's historic extortion. On July 14, activists in several countries — inspired by the “Yes Men” comedy/political duo and calling themselves the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti (CRIME) — issued a fake announcement that France would finally pay its historic debt.

France was forced to deny that it was doing any such thing, and threatened legal action against the activists. The action brought media attention, reminding journalists and the public of the historical context behind Haiti's poverty.

In 2003, the elected government of Haiti headed by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide initiated legal action at the World Court in The Hague to recover the $21 billion. That action was dropped by the human rights violating regime that took power in Haiti on February 29, 2004.

Aristide and the elected government were overthrown on that date by Haitian paramilitaries with military and political assistance from the United States, France and Canada. That foreign military intervention was, in turn, endorsed by the UN Security Council.

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An open letter to French President Nicolas Sarkozy

The French government has indicated that it is pursuing possible legal action against the Committee for the Reimbursement of the Indemnity Money Extorted from Haiti (CRIME) over a Yes Men-inspired announcement last Bastille Day pledging that France would pay Haiti restitution.

We believe the ideals of equality, fraternity and liberty would be far better served if, instead of pouring public resources into the prosecution of these pranksters, France were to start paying Haiti back for the 90 million gold francs that were extorted following Haitian independence.

This “independence debt,” which is today valued at well over the €17 billion pledged in the fake announcement on July 14, illegitimately forced a people who had won their independence in a successful slave revolt, to pay again for their freedom. Imposed under threat of military invasion and the restoration of slavery by French King Charles X to compensate former colonial slave-owners for lost “property” (including the slaves who had won their freedom and independence when they defeated Napoleon’s armies), this indemnity burdened generations of Haitians with an illegitimate debt, which they were still paying right up until 1947.

France is not the only country that owes a debt to Haiti. After 1947, Haiti incurred debt to commercial banks and international financial institutions under the Duvalier dictatorships, who stole billions from the public treasury. The basic needs and development aspirations of generations of Haitians were sacrificed to pay back these debts.

Granting Haiti the status of Highly Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) and cancelling part of the current debt only begins to reverse the financial damage done by these recent debts.

More recently, in 2000, Inter-American Development Bank loans of $150 million for basic infrastructure were illegally blocked by the US government as a means of political pressure. This also did measurable economic and human damage. Each of these institutions and governments should be responsible for the harm they did to Haiti's society and economy.

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 CRIME 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 January 12, 2010, we urge you to pay Haiti, the world’s first black republic, the restitution it is due.