Haiti Independence Debt - Petition for France Repayment

Jim Egalite - April 28 2011, 9:54 AM

Haiti's Independence Debt

France must repay the $17.8 Billions paid by Haiti for its freedom.

Before its independence in 1804, Haiti was an economic powerhouse.

Its huge production, which was due entirely to slave labour, was exported to an imperial superpower.

Haitian exports of coffee, cotton, rum, sugar and indigo to France exceeded the total exports from the thirteen American colonies to Great Britain.

By 1789, sixty percent of France' and Great Britain's coffee and three-quarters of the world sugar came from the island.

Haiti was the New World's richest colony and its busiest trade center.

Even before the 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 220,000 people, Haiti was the Western hemisphere's poorest country with 80% of its population living below the poverty line. Haiti ranks 153 out of 177 on the UN Human Index, which measures poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, childbirth and other health factors.

There is no doubt that Haiti and France share deep ties of history, language and culture.

They also unfortunately share a history of extortion and structural injustice that left Haiti so impoverished.

It is a story of profound tragedy and unfairness.

Haiti's Independence Debt, 90 million gold francs paid by Haitians to France, is unique in world history and as tragic as slavery.

The Independence Debt easily explains the historical context behind Haiti's vicious circle of chronic underdevelopment.

It all started at Haiti's birth, on January 1, 1804, following a twelve-year slave revolt.

Before the revolt, it was more cost-effective to work a slave to death and purchase a new one than to invest in his or her food and care. Subjected to horrible treatment and under the boot of the most brutal and efficient slave colonists, one third of the slaves died within a few years of their arrival.

A slave revolt was inevitable.

Under General Leclerc, a French expedition of more than 52,000 men, the largest expedition ever to sail to the Americas, came to crush the revolt.

At the Battle of Vertières, the French army was annihilated.

Napoleon had failed in his attempt to re-enslave Haiti and thus, had no alternative but to abandon his plan of building his New World Empire and, to give up its invasion plans against Great Britain.

As a result, in March 1803, US President Thomas Jefferson offered to purchase Louisiana from France, a territory of 2.2 millions Km2, (828,800 square miles) and equivalent to 23% of the current US territory.

That land, whose area is equivalent to the area of about 14 US States, was sold for $15 million.

The negotiations lasted only a few weeks.

France, on the other hand, originally demanded 150 million in gold francs, later reduced to 90 million, for the Haiti territory of 27,750 km2 (10,714 square miles) or 1 % of the Louisiana territory.

The Independence Debt, equivalent to $17.8 billion in today's money, was to compensate France for its losses of property.

It took Haiti 122 years to pay this astronomical and exorbitant sum. Haiti is still greatly suffering from this act of extortion.

France subjected Haiti to blockages and embargoes for years after its independence.

It stationed 14 warships off the coast until 1825. Haiti, ravaged by war, isolated and cut off from export markets had no choice but to agree to pay restitution.

Negotiations took place under the threat of military interventions.

They were demanded by the US, Britain and Spain as a condition for diplomatic and trade relations.

Alone, and in a world dominated by empires and reliant on slavery for their success and stability, Haitians began paying in cash the freedom their founding fathers had paid with their blood.

The first Black independent republic in the Americas abolished slavery.

Of course, that was a dangerous precedent that should not be encouraged in any way.

Generations after generations of Haitians contributed to paying the Independence Debt to France.

From 1825 until 1947, for 122 years, that ransom and illegitimate debt crushed the Haitian economy.

Ironically, the descendents of slaves were paying for slave liberation and their independence.

In fact more than a century after the official abolition of slavery in the world, school children were bringing 5, 10 or 25 cents to their schools or, whatever their parents could afford, to help pay the Independence Debt.

The Independence Debt shackled and mortgaged Haiti's future to the detriment of its real development.

Haiti still continues to suffer the effects of this injustice.

There is no denying that today's poverty in Haiti is inextricably linked to the payment of that debt. It explains why Haiti's public infrastructure was and remains so lacking.

For a very long time, more than 80% of the country's public revenue was pledged to debt service with nothing left to invest in school building, healthcare, water systems, roads and other basic infrastructure.

As well, the many hurricanes suffered by Haiti have contributed negatively to its horrendous living conditions.

The debt payment is not only illegitimate, but also illegal.

There is no doubt that Haiti has a compelling claim for unjust enrichment, a legal solution for one of history's most tragic wrongs.

We know about Holocaust claims against culpable states or against corporations that have unlawfully profited from the work of people.

Just recently, the US got 20 billions from BP for reparations.

Italy paid Libya 5 Billions for its occupation.

Japan paid reparation to South Korea, the US to Native American Tribes, Iraq to Kuwait, and New Zealand to the Maoris people.

The French government currently is negotiating with Vladimir Putin of Russia for repayment of money its citizens invested in Russia's railway system prior to 1917.

Haiti is entitled to ask and has asked France for restitution.

French ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity would be far better served if today France was to take the steps to return the money paid for the Independence Debt to Haiti.

The repayment of France's debt of dishonour to Haiti is an idea whose time has come. France should do the right, just and moral thing.

With more than 1.5 millions people living homeless or in shelters, following the devastating 2010 earthquake, it would seem more than appropriate for President Sarkozy to make restitution for France's ill gotten gains.

France does owe, in large part, its comfortable lifestyle to Haitians living homeless or in shelters.

The return of this Haitian money will go a long way in helping Haiti to rebuild its earthquake-ravaged territory.

This demand is not made because it would simply help Haiti tremendously in its rebuilding efforts, but because it is owed to the Haitian people.

It is money extorted from Haitians after defeating Napoleon's army and their gaining independence and abolishing slavery.

Haiti's right to restitution is morally, economically and legally unassailable.

President Nicholas Sarkozy visited Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, a first for a French president.

It was expected that a historic declaration that "France would return that money to Haiti" would be made on that occasion.

None was made. President Sarkozy contented himself in acknowledging that France's presence in Haiti did not leave good memories.

The French President did later admit that, "even if I did not start my mandate at the time of Charles X, I am still responsible in the name of France".

Haitians are not looking for verbal apologies or admissions of wrongdoing from France, but for restitution of the money paid under duress.

This letter is a call from all Haitians, in solidarity with all those who are friends of Haiti, in demanding through a petition that France returns the Independence money to Haiti.

The petition should be signed by 9.8 millions persons, one signature for each Haitian citizen, so as to send a clear and unambiguous message to the French government that time for restitution has come.

Haiti needs that money now to rebuild itself.

Anyone, regardless of his or her national origin, could sign the petition.

In view of this historical injustice and the harm done to the people of Haiti and its economy, France needs to know that the world is watching and knows about this baseless extortion.

Restitution would constitute a meaningful and tangible act in rebuilding the relationship between the two countries.

France needs to right this wrong and to rid itself of this ugly stain on its national conscience.

Jim Egalite

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