PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Francois Hollande on Tuesday became the first president of France to make a formal state visit to Haiti, where bountiful resources and brutal plantation slavery made it the European nation’s most profitable colony before an independence uprising more than two centuries ago.
For Haiti’s government and business community, the visit is a welcome opportunity to encourage more investment and highlight progress made since a devastating 2010 earthquake obliterated much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas.
But for some in impoverished Haiti, Hollande’s presence is a reminder of the debilitating costs of the successful slave revolt that made Haiti the world’s first black republic in 1804.
Crippled by an international embargo enforced by French warships, Haiti agreed in 1825 to pay France an “independence debt” of 150 million gold francs to compensate colonists for lost land and slaves. Although the indemnity was later reduced to 90 million gold coins, the debt crippled the Caribbean nation, which did not finish paying it off to French and American banks until 1947.
“We Haitians know that a big reason why we are suffering today is because we were forced to pay France for our freedom. If we were not punished for our independence long ago, we would have had a better time,” water seller Jean-Marc Bouchet said on a dusty, unpaved street in Port-au-Prince.
About 200 chanting protesters and a heavy police presence greeted Hollande when he arrived at the Champ de Mars plaza in downtown Port-au-Prince with Haitian President Michel Martelly. He and Martelly laid a wreath at a statue of Toussaint Louverture, a hero of Haiti’s revolution.
“We can’t change history, but we can change the future,” said Hollande, who pledged new support to develop Haiti, including roughly $145 million to help improve education.
Over the last week, Hollande has been touring the region, stopping at French Caribbean islands and in Cuba, which he left Tuesday after saying France would be a “faithful ally” as Havana reforms its centrally planned economy.
Behind metal barricades, Gymps Lucien, a Haitian law school student who was protesting Hollande’s one-day stop, said the French president was not welcome unless he brought billions in reparations for slavery and the debt for independence.
“We believe French reparations should go to schools, hospitals, roads!” he shouted. “Our kids should have a better life.”
The small band of demonstrators gathered near a larger crowd of quiet observers. One of those, Giles Jean Sava, an unemployed father of seven, said that he disagreed with the protest and that Haitians should welcome Hollande. “Perhaps the French president can bring jobs,” he said.
Though then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a five-hour stop in Haiti weeks after the 2010 earthquake, it was an informal trip and not a state visit with the full ceremony that accompanied Hollande’s arrival.
Over the years, French administrations have acknowledged the historic wrong of slavery in Haiti and other former colonies. In 2001, the French government recognized slavery and the slave trade as a crime against humanity.
But French leaders, like those of other former colonial powers, consistently have dismissed assertions they need to pay any kind of financial reparations. France did cancel all of Haiti’s $77 million debt during Sarkozy’s administration.
During his speech Tuesday, Martelly described the indemnity Haiti was forced to pay as a “grand injustice,” but added that “no reparation can change what happened years ago.”
On Sunday, Hollande acknowledged his country’s historic role in the Atlantic slave trade as he helped inaugurate a $93 million slavery memorial in Guadeloupe. During that visit, he made mention of France’s “debt” to Haiti, but French officials stressed he was referring to a “moral debt,” not a financial one. They say it echoes comments he made in 2013 when Hollande said France’s “debt” to Africa “cannot be the subject of a transaction.”
Two years ago, leaders of more than a dozen Caribbean countries launched an effort to seek compensation from France, Britain and the Netherlands for what they say is the lingering legacy of the Atlantic slave trade.
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