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Americas

Hollande in Haiti to trumpet trade and reconstruction as colonial past lingers

media Haitian President Michel Martelly was to meet French President François Hollande in Port-au-Prince on 12 May 2015. AFP/Hector Retamal

French President François Hollande arrived in Port-au-Prince on Tuesday to seal trade deals with the government of his Haitian counterpart Michel Martelly as well as reconstruction efforts after the 2010 earthquake. Historians debate whether the long and fraught colonial past can pave the way to mutually beneficial future relations.

Hollande is only the second French president to tour what was once France’s richest Caribbean colony, as his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy paid a short visit following the devastating earthquake in 2010.

A large delegation of ministers, secretaries of state and business leaders are accompanying Hollande to sign several agreements in hopes of developing relations with Haiti via France’s overseas territories Martinique and Guadeloupe.

One deal to be signed would let Haiti export organically grown bananas to Europe.

Aside from about 20 million euros pledged to help rebuild the university hospital in Port-au-Prince – where Hollande is also slated to make an appearance – current ties between the two countries are relatively meagre.

“The French and the Haitians know they share a common history and also a common language, which is not negligible given France’s concern for its language around the world, but the amount of help France has provided since the earthquake is quite small,” says historian Christophe Wargny, who served as adviser to former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from 1993 to 1996.

“France made huge efforts in 1990, when Aristide came in power, but things deteriorated afterwards," he said. "Now the efforts remain small, just like France’s economic influence on the country, which is close to nothing.”

The dearth of trade relations up until the present does not mean the visit is without substance.

“François Hollande going there is not just a visit to remember the past, because they’re planning to sign a few agreements,” says Olivette Otele, a senior lecturer in history at Bath Spa University.

“The Haitians would see that as recognition of some form of stability. The visit of a European nation means they’re considering they’re talking,” which may not necessarily be perceived as “a dialogue among equals, but among people who respect one another.”

Also on Hollande’s agenda is a joint address to the nation alongside Martelly at the statue of the country’s revolutionary leader, Toussaint Louverture. The tone being set ahead of the meeting is that the France of today is aligned with Haiti’s revolutionary past and no longer with that of its former colonial leaders.

“Haiti was the first country whose slaves freed themselves from their bondage, and it was the world’s first black-led nation,” said Michaëlle Jean, the United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, ahead of Hollande’s arrival.

“Haiti paid a heavy price for its audacity, but it also paved the way for others. I find it magnificent that, after visiting Cuba, President Hollande is visiting Haiti as a reminder of that, and to show that the best response to this dark past is the one of reconciliation and partnership.”

Indeed, Haiti paid for its independence with a debt sentence it paid off over about 75 years. Some critics blame the debt for the country’s poverty, and call on France to pay reparations estimated between 15 and 20 billion euros. But Otele doubts Hollande will broach the subject.

“Since 2013, he has been talking about a moral debt, but that reparations are really impossible,” she says, adding the French president “might mention it, because most newspapers are talking about it, but I don’t think he will offer to pay any money back in terms of reparations.”

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