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Haiti making $21.7 billion restitution demand

Aristide pressing payment by France; mixed views voiced

CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti -- Even a sudden rainstorm couldn't dampen the euphoria among throngs of Haitians cheering a recent speech by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.


In an homage to the battle of Vertieres, the slave revolt near this sultry coastal city two centuries ago that toppled French rule over Haiti, Aristide was pressing his latest pet cause: that France return the money Haiti was forced to pay its former colonizer after independence -- a sum, he claims, that now totals a whopping $21.7 billion. That sum is 44 times Haiti's current annual budget.

"Today or tomorrow, we will win the battle of restitution, the same way our ancestors won the battle of Vertieres," Aristide said. "Restitution!" his supporters screamed in agreement. Dozens of red and blue banners fluttering overhead spelled out their cry in Haitian Creole.

As Haiti kicks off celebrations for its bicentennial as the world's first black republic, the restitution demand has enthralled the tiny Caribbean nation and become a microcosm of the broader debate over Aristide's presidency.

A former slum priest elected president twice by championing the rights of the poor, and restored to power by US troops in 1994 after being ousted in a coup, Aristide has pitched restitution as manna from heaven that could unshackle Haiti from its slave legacy. On television and radio, ads set to pulsating rhythms allude to the fabulous public works projects that Haiti, the poorest and most ravaged nation in the hemisphere, could launch with the $21.7 billion.

Aristide, increasingly criticized for failing to lift his country out of destitution, has used the restitution theme in his campaign against foes he paints as a greedy elite bent on ousting him before his term ends in 2006.

"Coup d'etat! No! Elections! Yes! Restitution! Yes!" goes one popular restitution jingle.

Haiti contends that $21.7 billion is the equivalent, after adjustments made for inflation, of the 90 million francs it paid France in the early 1800s for the loss of the latter's most profitable colony. Though it physically relinquished Haiti, France boycotted and threatened to invade its former colony until it agreed to pay for formal recognition of its independence. So cash-starved was the fledgling Haitian republic that it had to borrow a third of the money from a French bank -- at 6 percent interest -- to make the payments.

"The main reason we're so poor today is that we had to pay France that money," said Leslie Voltaire, a Cabinet minister and key member of the government's restitution panel. By emptying the coffers, he said, the French intentionally made it impossible for Haiti to build schools and roads and make other improvements for its population of former slaves.

Over the centuries, "the Spaniards took our gold. The French cleared our hardwood to create coffee and sugarcane plantations," continued Voltaire. "The only recourse left to us is restitution."

The demand is unprecedented on the part of a former colony and, not surprisingly, has met a cool reception in France. Haiti's economic woes, French President Jacques Chirac initially suggested, are the result of corruption and mismanagement, not French greed. As Haiti made loud noises about taking the case to international court, however, Chirac created a special commission to review Haitian-French relations. Though he didn't mention restitution, Haiti immediately crowed that the panel's mission was to explore the possibility of it.

The commission's head is Regis Debray, part of the creme de la creme of French leftist intellectuals. He declined interview requests. In a news conference in Haiti last month, he appeared dubious that France would fork over any money, but said that his country might have "a certain moral debt" toward Haiti.

The restitution campaign has divided Haitians.

"Aristide wants to use the restitution issue to turn France into a scapegoat for his own ineptitude and corruption," said Laennec Hurbon, a sociologist and one of 100 prominent Haitian intellectuals who have signed a petition protesting Aristide's presidency.

But at the Cap-Haitien rally, supporters who climbed onto tree branches, balconies, and even the roofs of portable toilets to catch a glimpse of the president hailed the restitution plan as proof that Aristide is a man of the people.

"We're still suffering here because of slavery and the trouble the French gave us after we kicked them out," said Kilmen George, 25, an unemployed resident of Port-au-Prince. "Aristide's the only one brave enough to do something about it."

France is getting off easy, said Francis St. Hubert, an economist and restitution committee member. If Haiti charged 7.5-percent interest on the money, France would owe $4 trillion today, he said -- and much more tomorrow.

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