French Compensation Could Make Amends to Haiti
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Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monitoring Political, Economic and Diplomatic Issues Affecting the Western Hemisphere
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Unique form of French Compensation for Past Injustices Could Make Amends to Haiti, if Action is Immediately Taken
Haiti’s political opposition decided this
afternoon to turn down Secretary of State Powell’s peace
plan solution. If nothing is done, Haiti’s current reality
can only change for the worse in the next few hours and
days, as forces of the violent opposition tighten the noose
around the nation’s capitol. Meanwhile, the benighted
country continues to suffer from its historical scourges of
repression, violence, and unforgiving poverty. Even before
the current devastating crisis, Haiti was one of the most
hapless human habitats on the globe, ranking 146th on the
UN’s Human Development Indicator scale, out of a total of
173 countries. It was far behind its Caribbean neighbors:
Bahamas (41), Cuba (55), Jamaica (86), and Dominican
Republic (94). Haiti’s social profile very closely parallels
that of the most impoverished Central African nations, with
almost 50 % of its adult population being illiterate, and
65% of islanders living below the poverty line.
In addition, Haiti’s political system has been accompanied by unrelieved venality, with the annual Corruption Perception Index placing Haiti on the bottom of the 133-country list in 2003. As city after city is being seized by a well-armed force led by former members of the Haitian military and their even more blood-stained paramilitary force, the FRAPH (together responsible for the murder of over 5,000 innocent civilians during the period of military rule), Haiti as an organized polity will cease to exist if decisive action isn’t taken immediately.
Powell’s Flawed Haiti Policy
opposition now having rejected the U.S. proposed peace plan,
and continuing to insist upon not dialoguing with President
Aristide, France would do well to move into the vacuum
caused by Powell’s inaction irrespective of U.S. action.
Powell’s strategy can be faulted on several fronts. He
irresponsibly dallied while Haiti’s security situation
continued to worsen over recent months.
In the persons of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, he allowed incompetent extremists to take over key Latin America posts, where they almost immediately began to insult regional leaders. Except for his grudging acknowledgement that Aristide was the legal president of the country, he did nothing to shore up the Haitian leader’s stature or enable him to project his authority to the entire nation either symbolically, or in terms of being able to obtain vitally needed supplies like tear gas and protective devices for the police force from the U.S. Nor did Powell even hint that the almost four-year aid embargo against Haiti would be lifted, whereby almost $500 million in critical development funds that had been pledged by international donors to Haiti would at long last be released. Powell did not take any action even after Aristide had agreed to every recommendation made by Washington and other donor countries and institutions participating in the boycott. Inevitably, Aristide’s isolation and fall in popularity and esteem was their self-fulfilling prophecy which came true.
Now that the opposition has refused to cooperate, only hours remain for a solution to be had before Haiti goes up in flames. Already, Powell has given away the store to an opposition that has been invalidated at the polls, has put forth no national program to discuss, or has even established its primacy over the thugs and renegades who are members of the “violent opposition,” and who now reach out to the armed opposition as its cadres head for Port-au-Prince to sack the city as they did Cap-Haiten and Gonaives.
If Powell continues to be indecisive and if the group of international donors remains as faithless to lawful government as the League of Nations was to Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie in the 1930’s, we will shortly be witnessing the death of democratic society in Haiti. As of now, a decisive voice is needed with a firm action plan that will save lives. The time has come for France to play the role that Powell has been unwilling or unable to assume.
Even though a growing percentage
of the Haitian population who have been demanding more
economic development, more personal freedom, more
transparency in government with many calling for Aristide to
step down, hundreds of thousands more maintain a fierce
loyalty to Aristide even though he has failed to fulfill his
pledge of more food, housing, health service and jobs for
his people, due to a lack of access to resources.
As a result of such tensions, including a huge risk of
civil war and of a resulting human catastrophe, Haiti has
moved into a new sphere of danger as the island becomes
increasingly dominated by violent anti-Aristide activists
with disreputable pasts. These reprobates plan to seize
control by force, driving the country’s constitutional
president out of office. Clearly, in order to spare Haiti
the colossal human and physical costs of unremitting class
and ideology- based warfare, an outside police/military
force must be introduced on the island. For the last
several weeks, as the security situation deteriorated,
increased attention turned to the possibility that some
combination of U.S., CARICOM, French and Canadian security
forces be introduced to the island to serve as a buffer to
the spread of violence. Almost all of these potential
contributors have accepted the illogical scenario put forth
by Secretary of State Powell that a political solution must
come first with the peacekeepers being sent after (rather
than before) a settlement is achieved.
The island which Columbus named Hispanola was first discovered in 1492, in what was the explorer’s first voyage to the Caribbean. At the time, he described the island as having “the greatest softness of the world”. By the middle of the 17th century, Haiti (which the French named Saint-Domingue) fell under French control and soon became a hot spot in the world economy. During the colonial period, the island produced cacao, cotton, sugar, coffee, and leather; as a result of this it was famed for its wealth. Today, Haiti is in near desperate circumstances, with President Aristide blaming France’s historical “plundering” as one of the factors contributing to its dire circumstances.
has long been connected to Haiti and has had a much greater
historical and cultural impact on the island than the U.S.’s
one that goes well beyond the influence of the French
language on the country’s native Creole dialect. Between
1664 and 1804, Haiti was a French colony. During this time,
French interests on the island prospered, but at the price
of slavery. While the island was relatively rich, its
enslaved population led lives of utter destitution. France
imported raw materials from Haiti at an artificial low
price, and gave little thought to share some of the
resulting huge profits with those who actually produced the
goods and crops.
The island finally won its independence in 1804, after a long slave uprising against Napoleon’s armies, which was followed by an imposed financial settlement negotiated in 1825, in which the former French colonists were paid 90 million in gold-francs by bribed Haitian authorities as compensation for “their” sequestered properties.
The above amount has been calculated by at least one source as being the equivalent to $21 billion today, and is the total cited last year by President Aristide that his country should receive from France in reparations. He called it the “price of independence,” because according to his April 7, 2003 speech, the enormity of the amount of money demanded by French landholders guaranteed the island’s subsequent economic failure which soon became almost institutionalized. Aristide denounced France for building its own economy by exploiting Haiti’s and that the island never should have had to pay such a huge sum. In the course of his speech, Aristide recited several examples of restitutions in history to support his argument, like the Jewish gold stolen by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945, which Germany paid for in 1946.
To quote Aristide, some Haitian “experts” have converted the original indemnity into its current value of money, and came up with the figure of $21,685,135,571.48. Their conversion method remains somewhat of a mystery, though the Haitian Foreign Minister attributed the calculation to a group of economists. While these economists failed to share the methodology they used to convert gold-francs of 1825 into the current value of the American dollar, nor the rates of inflation, and the interest levels they selected to base their calculations, the sum corresponds to what would be almost 50 years of the current annual budget of Haiti!
The French Prepare their Response
But a determined
Aristide, who now must have more pressing matters on his
mind, announced he was ready to take the issue to the
International Court of Justice if France refused to pay what
he insists is due Haiti. Jean-Pierre Rivasseau, the
spokesman of the French Foreign Minister, claimed that
France has already given more than 200 million euros of the
2 billions euros allocated by the International Community to
Haiti in recent years, and that the island has not been able
to take advantage of these funds due to political conflicts
and a lack of security.
As for French public
opinion, it is almost unanimous in rejecting any
reparations, even though much of the population agrees that
France has a duty to help the island. However, prevailing
French sentiment is that it is almost impossible to aid the
Haitian people due to the current corruption and political
instability which grip the island.
Aristide making this call for compensation, the French
intellectual and Latin Americanist Régis Debray was
appointed by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin
to head up a “Committee of Reflection on Haiti.” His report
was delivered to the government on January 28 and confirmed
France’s initial position rejecting such a claim. According
to the Commission’s findings, Aristide’s demands are said to
have no juridical base, because all the laws prejudicial to
the French position were enacted afterwards and are not
retroactive. Debray wrote that he is in favor of what he
calls “the duty of memory,” and not of “re-sifting.” He
advises the French government to help Haitians into building
up a “solid nation” and not to only hand out money.
France will not pay any compensation, and Aristide is highly unlikely to sue for what he believes is due his country. Some critics ask, how can France be asked to pay for something that happened two centuries ago? How to calculate the “real” conversion impact of 90 million in gold-francs? Even if it were possible, it establishes a perplexing formula if states had to pay for what their predecessors did centuries before. For example, Peru, Mexico and Bolivia could sue Spain for plundering the Incas and the Aztecs. African-Americans would ask for compensation from Europe and the U.S. for a slave trade that dated back to the 16th century, which they themselves have never personally suffered.
About a week ago, French Foreign Minister
Dominique de Villepin set off a bombshell when he proposed
that France would be willing to contribute some of its 4000
troops now stationed in France’s Caribbean possessions of
Guadeloupe and Martinique to peacekeeping efforts in Haiti.
At first, France tried to harmonize its position with
Secretary Powell’s formula stressing that a political
solution must be achieved in order for peacekeepers to be
sent in. The French government then seemed to veer away
from this earlier position as the Haitian situation worsened
and U.S. inaction became more and more evident. The
qualifier was that such French action would have to have the
consent of the UN Security Council. Now that the Haitian
opposition turned down the U.S. request for a political
solution, Washington has briefly indicated that it will go
to the UN Security Council for authorization concerning what
will be its next step. But what Haiti needs is action now,
in order to save lives.
While Aristide’s compensation demand briefly distracted Haitian public opinion from the country’s present perilous current strife, reality soon returned. But the declaration of the French Minister in favor of some form of military help for Haiti in order to halt the violence that is presently tearing the island apart could be a symbolic down payment on the symbolic debt owed by France to Haiti. The Chirac government had a “crisis cell” formed which included relevant French officials to find a solution to Haiti’s explosive situation, and that participating or leading an international military force would be a possibility.
The French proposal was initially harmonized to agree with the Powell position of first facilitating a political solution on the island before sending in a peace force. This formula was challenged by the more logical thesis that the peace force should be introduced now, while there is still a government to protect, rather than after such a hypothetical solution which, by its very nature, would reduce the need to have such a force in large numbers, in place. Dominique de Villepin appeared to be sympathetic to this position by stating that the outside world shouldn’t be “letting things degenerate.” This “peace-force” idea at first did not generate enthusiasm in other countries; especially in those potential contributors to such a body, including a particularly soft position taken by Canada. Washington wasted precious time by insisting that Aristide must first come to an agreement with the opposition and that such a solution would be based on power-sharing with the opposition. This would be facilitated with the help of the OAS or Caricom, conceivably making moot the need to send in military forces into the country. The UN was also initially somewhat cool to the French initiative, and it is unlikely France will act alone in Haiti. But if Haiti’s situation continues to worsen, concerned countries will have to react more aggressively. In this explosive context and with the lack of an energetic policy in place, France may have to, at the last moment, move up to the plate, even if Canada lacks the spirit to do the same.
This analysis was prepared by Jill Shelly, Christie Sheiry, and Nadege Touzé, Research Associates.
Issued 24 February, 2004
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