Aristide's Call for Reparations
From France Unlikely to Die
by Dionne Jackson Miller
Inter Press Service News Agency,
www.ipsnews.net/, March 12, 2004
Whether Jean-Bertrand Aristide ever returns
to the homeland he left under such controversial circumstances,
his call for France to make reparations to his troubled Caribbean
nation of Haiti is as important as ever and must not be allowed
to die, say observers.
Some analysts believe that France's refusal
to support the deployment of an international peacekeeping force
to Haiti until after the president's departure was linked to Aristide's
unpopular -- in Paris -- demand for reparations.
The United Nations Security Council,
of which France is a permanent member, rejected a Feb. 26 appeal
from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) for international peacekeeping
forces to be sent into its member state Haiti, but voted unanimously
to send in troops three days later, just hours after Aristide's
"I believe that (the call for reparations)
could have something to do with it, because they (France) were
definitely not happy about it, and made some very hostile comments,"
Myrtha Desulme, chairperson of the Haiti-Jamaica Exchange Committee,
"(But) I believe that he did have
grounds for that demand, because that is what started the downfall
of Haiti," she says.
Last year, Aristide demanded that France
pay Haiti over 21 billion U.S. dollars, what he said was the equivalent
in today's money of the 90 million gold francs Haiti was forced
to pay Paris after winning its freedom from France as the hemisphere's
first independent black nation 200 years ago.
Historians say that the massive toll
that France exacted on Haiti played a large part in the Caribbean
country's subsequent descent into stark poverty and under-development.
How closely the reparations issue influenced
French actions in the days leading up to Aristide's departure
from Haiti is debatable.
French professor and commentator on Haitian
issues at New York University, Michael Dash, says the call is
unlikely to have been the major factor.
"This demand certainly did not endear
him (Aristide) to the French, but their recent actions in Haiti
may have more to do with attempting to form some kind of alliance
with the U.S. after the falling out over Iraq," he told IPS.
France refused to back Washington's call
for support in the U.N. Security Council as it prepared an invasion
of Iraq last year.
But the Haitian crisis has clearly pulled
the two countries closer after a chill in relations over the U.S.-led
invasion of the Middle Eastern nation.
Days after the intervention in Haiti,
U.S. President George W. Bush telephoned French President Jacques
Chirac to express pleasure over the two countries' cooperation
on the issue.
But with Aristide gone, will the demand
for reparations also die?
Desulme, a Haitian now living in Jamaica,
is not sure.
"Geopolitics is a matter of how
much muscle you can flex and now Haiti has no muscle to flex.
It's in such a devastated state that it's a reconstruction process
that's needed, and they have no muscle to demand (reparations),"
But the issue, she adds, must be kept
alive, by advocates inside Haiti or via its friends outside.
"Haiti has suffered massive injustices.
I think that they may have to give up the reparations argument
because it seems to be offensive to France, but I believe that
(outside advocates) should keep the issue alive."
"They should continue to ask for
reparations even if they don't get it. I think it's a massive
injustice that was done and the world needs to know that,"
Dash says the issue is unlikely to fade
"Aristide got a lot of support for
this demand both inside and outside of Haiti. The reality is that
he in particular was unlikely to receive a cent from the French.
A successor could however ask (more diplomatically), that some
gesture be made by the French to compensate for what Haiti has
"The French, it is true, do not
like to face up to their slave-owning colonial past. But we live
in an age when reparations of all kinds are being asked for, and
this one is a documented sum of money paid to a colonial power
to compensate for loss of property, and which plunged Haiti into
decades of debt," Dash says.
One avenue to help Haiti could be through
development of the country's crippled infrastructure, says Desulme.
"The French have a moral duty to
put into Haiti the equivalent of what was paid," she says.
"They could put that amount into infrastructure in the country,
like roads and water."
"The international community will
have to come in and do that, whether they call it reparations
Journalist and reparations activist Barbara
Blake Hannah says the Haitian reparations issue touches the entire
"Haiti is part of the same 'slave
boat' we all suffered in, and is part of the reparations issue
-- if only because they have set a precedent by paying it to France,"
Blake Hannah told IPS.
Coordinator of the Jamaica Reparations
Movement, Blake Hannah says there has been little action there
recently, as the organisation waits for the government to fulfil
a promise to hold a national round-table to discuss restitution
from former colonial power the United Kingdom.
In the meantime, demands for reparations
have been growing globally.
The Bunyoro-Kitara kingdom, in western
Uganda, home to a population of about one million people, has
just announced that it will seek three trillion pounds (5.5 trillion
dollars) from London in reparations for atrocities alleged to
have been committed during the era of British colonialism, reported
Agence France Presse recently.
Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan
has also called on the United States and England to honour reparation
The U.S. movement received a setback
in January, when a Chicago judge dismissed a lawsuit against 18
companies said to have profited from slavery. 'USA Today' quoted
U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle as saying the plaintiffs were
"trying to assert the legal rights of their ancestors"
without proving they had suffered injury.
Norgle also said the courts do not have
the constitutional authority to decide the question of reparations
for slavery, and that the issue should be dealt with by the U.S.
Congress, while noting that the statute of limitations had run
out on crimes committed during slavery, which ended in the United
States in 1865.
These events are unfolding against the
backdrop of U.N. celebrations of 2004 as the International Year
for the Commemoration of Slavery and the Slave Trade, and the
celebration of the Haitian bicentennial, an event entirely overshadowed
by the dramatic events of the past weeks.
Dash says the overall impact on the commemoration
depends on the expectations in which it was organised.
"If it was the raising of racial
self-esteem or some such folly they will no doubt be disappointed.
But Haiti is not just a racial symbol. It's a real Caribbean country
going through a long and violent post-Duvalierist transition,"
he said referring to Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, father
and son dictators who ruled Haiti from 1957 to 1986, and are accused
of massive corruption and numerous incidents of human rights violations
during their tenure.
"Celebrations must necessarily take
in the reality of the struggle to establish a new social and political
order in that country," adds Dash.
But Blake Hannah, a member of Jamaica's
organising committee for the bicentennial observances, says that
far from diminishing the significance of the year of commemoration,
the upheavals in Haiti have deepened its import.
"Haiti is a beacon in the issues
of slavery, rebellion and abolition," she says.
"Jamaicans have had their eyes opened
on our slave history by Haiti. Jamaicans have bonded with their
slave past as never before. It's such an ironic coincidence that
it has taken another revolution to bring history into focus again.
Whatever the outcome in Haiti, slavery is again in our focus."