PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – French leader Francois Hollande on Tuesday will make the second visit ever by a sitting president of France to its once prized possession of Haiti, where bountiful resources and brutal plantation slavery made it the European nation's most profitable colony some 250 years ago.
For Haiti's government and business community, Hollande's visit with a delegation of French ministers and executives 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. Over the last week, the French leader has been touring the region, stopping in French Caribbean islands and Cuba, where he said his country would be a "faithful ally" as Havana reforms its centrally planned economy.
But for some citizens of impoverished Haiti, Hollande's visit is reminding them of the debilitating costs of the country's successful slave revolt for independence. In 1825, crippled by an international embargo enforced by French warships, Haiti agreed to pay France an "independence debt" of 150 million gold francs to compensate colonists for their losses of land and slaves. It was later reduced to 90 million gold coins.
"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," Jean-Marc Bouchet said on a dusty, unpaved street in Port-au-Prince.
The slave uprising when it was territory known as St. Domingue secured Haiti's independence from France in 1804 and transformed it into world's first black republic. But the debt to France crippled the Caribbean nation, which did not finish paying off the indemnity to French and American banks until 1947.
Over the years, French administrations have acknowledged the historic wrong of slavery in Haiti and other former colonies. In 2001, the French government recognized the slave trade as a crime against humanity. And during the first visit to Haiti by a sitting French president, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke about the "wounds of colonization" during a five-hour visit to Haiti a few weeks after the 2010 quake.
But French leaders, like those of other former colonial powers, have consistently dismissed assertions that they needed to pay any kind of financial debt. With an eye on the old grievance, France cancelled all of Haiti's $77 million debt during Sarkozy's administration.
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.
"France is able to look at its own history because France is a great nation that is afraid of nothing, especially not afraid of itself," he said in the French island.
During that visit, Hollande also made mention of France's "debt" to Haiti, but French officials stressed that 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."
The campaign to win reparations from France was a cornerstone of the second administration of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. France dismissed Aristide's demand for restitution.
Two years ago, leaders of more than a dozen Caribbean countries launched a united 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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