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Nicolas Sarkozy's visit to Haiti revives bitter historical legacy

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Nicolas Sarkozy's visit Wednesday, the first ever by a French president, is reviving bitter memories of the crippling costs of Haiti's 1804 independence.

A third of the population was killed in an uprising against exceptionally brutal slavery, an international embargo was imposed to prevent slave revolts elsewhere and 90 million pieces of gold were demanded by Paris from the world's first black republic.

The debt hobbled Haiti, it seemed for life.

A country plagued by natural and unnatural calamities of Biblical proportions was desperately poor and mismanaged even before a magnitude-7 earthquake smashed up Port-au-Prince, killing more than 200,000 people and leaving more than a million homeless.

Haitian politicians this week diplomatically skirted the question of reparations — a demand put to Paris by ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. That suggests Sarkozy's four-hour visit could herald a new era.

Some are welcoming France's new interest in what was its richest colony as a counterbalance to the United States, which occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 and has sent troops three times in the past 16 years.

French officials say Sarkozy will announce details of "a French plan for the reconstruction of Haiti" — if Haitian officials agree. It differs little from proposals from Haitian, U.S. and U.N. officials to decentralize power away from the devastated capital and boost agriculture and tourism.

The trip brings Sarkozy to an island where, French officials acknowledge, fascination with things French duels with strong, lingering resentments.

One official close to the French presidency, briefing reporters in Paris on condition of anonymity, hinted that France is not deaf to calls for reparations, calling Sarkozy's visit "an occasion to show that France is mobilizing to give Haitians control of their destiny and pay past debts."

For Millien Romage, a legislator for Aristide's party when reparations were demanded, "This is not a time to be making loud demands. We don't want to fight. But perhaps the French could recognize their debt by helping us to get out of poverty. They can help build roads, houses, schools."

Sarkozy himself has said the catastrophe, following so many others, offers "a chance to get Haiti once and for all out of the curse it seems to have been stuck with for such a long time."

Some Haitians would say they were cursed by their French colonizers.

"The indemnity imposed by France condemned the Haitian people to a cycle of indebtedness, environmental degradation and underdevelopment from which they have yet to recover," said Norman Girvan, a professor at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad. "President Sarkozy would do France — yes France — a great service if he were to acknowledge the role of the French Republic in Haiti's present plight."

France has already said it was canceling all of Haiti's 56 million euro (US$77 million) debt to Paris.

In 1825, crippled by the U.S.-led international embargo that was enforced by French warships, Haiti agreed to pay France 150 million francs in compensation for the lost "property" — including slaves — of French plantation owners.

By comparison, France sold the United States its immensely larger Louisiana Territory in 1803 for just 60 million francs. The amount for Haiti was later lowered to 90 million gold francs.

Haiti did not finish paying the debilitating debt — which was swollen by massive interest payments to French and American banks — until 1947.

But Haiti's wealth already was destroyed. It had been the world's richest colony, providing half the globe's sugar and other exports including coffee, cotton, hardwood and indigo that exceeded the value of everything produced in the United States in 1788.

By the early 1780s, half of Haiti's forests were gone, leading to the devastating erosion and extreme poverty that bedevils the country today.

France's other former colonies in the region — Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Martin, St. Barts and Guiana (in South America) — all have voted to remain part of France and send legislators to the French parliament.

The human cost of the colonial exploitation in Haiti was staggering. Slaves lasted little more than 10 years under brutal conditions. Haitian slaves who displeased their masters were boiled to death in vats of molasses, buried alive in piles of biting insects, crushed by heavy stones or simply starved to death. Just before the rebellion, Haiti had some 450,000 slaves, 25,000 whites and several thousand freed blacks and a mixed-race elite.

The uprising was as brutal as what had gone before.

Haitians asked about their independence today quickly recall the bloody Creole slogan "koupe tet, boule kay" — cut off their heads, torch their houses.

Freed Haitians continued to be brutalized by a succession of military and civilian dictatorships and increasingly corrupt officials. Most recently, much of officialdom is accused of being in league with drug traffickers who have made Haiti a major transshipment point between South America and the United States and Europe.

Homeless Haitians who had not heard of Sarkozy's visit said they would welcome help, wherever it comes from.

"I hope he can bring me a tent, and the food, medicine and houses that everybody needs," said 19-year-old Joint Dewendsca, who expects to give birth to her first child under a tent made of bed sheets and wood poles on the grounds of Quisqueya University.

Many remain wary, however, in a country where people still describe a deceitful politician as "speaking French." The vast majority of Haitians speak Creole.

"France still has its eye on Haiti," said Evens Dangervil, 31. "It might want to control us politically and economically."

Michel Georges, a historian, hopes France does have its eye on Haiti — as a natural partner for much-needed investment. He complains that France has bigger investments in the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

The time has come, said the Roman Catholic Rev. Joseph Desire, for Haiti and France to turn the page on a bitter past.

"The French never forgave us for winning our independence. We were the granary of Europe and we broke the hegemony of the French," he said at Our Lady of Charity, among the few Port-au-Prince churches unharmed by the quake.

"But now we need help. We must rebuild this country and we hope the French are ready to help us."