Restitution - Interview: Joseph Philippe Antonio


Restitution by France to Haiti
for the Ransom Paid for its Independence

A Radio Solidarity Interview With Haitian Minister of Foreign Affairs
Joseph Philippe Antonio

Port-au-Prince, April 10, 2003 (Translated from Creole)

RS: Good morning Mr. Joseph Philippe Antonio. Welcome to Radio Solidarity.

JPA: Good morning, thank you.

RS: On April 7, 2003, which marked the 200 anniversary of the death of Toussaint Louverture, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made a statement in his speech where he asked France to pay restitution to Haiti in the amount approximately $21 billion U.S. because France had forced Haiti to pay 90 million gold francs in order to recognize Haiti's independence and for all of the transgressions France perpetrated against Haiti during the colonial period. Today the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Dominique de Villepin responded that there is no way this would happen. What is your reaction as Haiti's Minister of Foreign Affairs?

JPA: Let me say that President Aristide did effectively raise the issue of restitution during his speech. I should say that this is an issue that had already been raised in Durban, South Africa two years ago during the Conference Against Racism. There was an anti-slavery seminar on the theme of reparations and pardon, where I, the Haitian Foreign Minister, brought up the subject of restitution. That is to say this issue is not a new one. The second thing I would like to say is that I have read the reaction of the French authorities in response to the President Aristide's declaration. You will notice a certain embarrassment on their part. You will notice that they begin to talk about how much cooperation and aid Europe has given to Haiti, when we raised the very specific question of the ransom of 90 million gold francs Haiti paid to France for its independence. We in fact paid much more because we were forced to take out loans at very high interest rates at the time the debt was incurred. So, in effect, the issue today is that there were monies that were wrongly paid by or taken from Haiti, which France obliged us to pay. The issue today is a matter of restitution with all the interest due. This is a rational position for Haiti to take, especially during this very difficult period we are presently living. Let me underline for you that lately there have been other countries, other populations who were victim during this period [of slavery] who have requested indemnity for the wrongs done to them from several European countries. At the onset, all of these countries said they would not pay, but in the end did in fact pay. They paid very graciously. What I mean to say is that the initial reaction of the French government is normal. The day before yesterday, President Aristide raised the issue and the French government responded by saying no. But I think that good sense and reason will in the end prevail and at some point the two parties will sit down around the table to clearly outline the issue and there will be a compromise reached to put an end to this controversy.

RS: Mr. Dominique de Villepin said in his declaration that France, through the aid that the international community has given to Haiti, has already turned over to Haiti the value of about 200 million euros as part of the 2 billion this community has given to Haiti. He estimates that this is already a large amount. Do you believe that the French are going around the issue, as we are now talking about something very specific, that is the debt Haiti had to pay for its independence - restitution for this debt?

JPA: That is precisely what I just said. The reaction of the French is evidence of their embarrassment. They are embarrassed by the question. The proof is that we are talking about the ransom we paid, and asking them to pay restitution and they respond by talking about cooperation. We are talking about $21 billion and they have come back with cooperation in the sum of 200 million euros. These are two totally different issues. On the one hand, monies we were forced to pay that we should not have had to pay, plus interest. On the other hand, aid that is part of cooperation, which is part of normal relations between countries.

RS: Not to mention, the monies the international community have given to Haiti are loans that Haiti must pay back and is in fact paying back.

JPA: Look, let's not have a debate on aid that Haiti receives from X or Y. Some aid is in the form of loans, which we reimburse. Some are investments in the country, which do not have to be returned. That is to say this type of aid has no interest and does not need to be reimbursed. But, as I have said, this is not the issue. And as you have said yourself, they are off-point with the 200 million.

RS: Do you think, Mr. Antonio, that in Mr. de Villepin's declaration, there is an implicit recognition that they owe Haiti?

JPA: Absolutely. This question is not new; it's not the first time this has been pointed out. Lately there have been several seminars and conferences on the subject; French Parliamentarians have taken to the floor of Parliament to ask their government to reimburse Haiti, to pay restitution of this ransom. This question is a contemporary one in France and in certain African countries. It is a current question for the entire world. So France cannot say now that they never received the money. And as I said previously, it is almost normal that their first reaction is to say, "we won't pay."

RS: Do you believe that in the end the French government will pay this money? Money that the government of Haiti is waiting for and according to what it has said will use for large development projects in the country.

JPA: The first reaction is normal. You say I owe you. I say I don't owe you. But eventually, reason and good sense will prevail. I know that the two interested parties, the Haitian Government and the French Government will sit down around the table to discuss this issue. They must in the end reach a consensus. That is to say France will pay restitution for the monies that it owes Haiti. One will accept to pay and the other will accept to receive.

RS: Coupled with the declaration that the Head of State made in his speech earlier this week, are there steps being taken to officially and formally submit a demand for restitution from the French Government?

JPA: Let me begin by saying, we are not going to go public with all of the initiatives and maneuvers that are actually taking place. But I can certify to you that the Haitian Government, the Haitian community and even those outside of the Haitian community - people who are interested in Haiti - they are on the matter. And at the government level there are measures being taken to meet with the French authorities on this subject. But I will ask you not to ask me for too many details. I don't think now is the time for us to say what we are or are not doing.

RS: Have you found support from certain other communities, other countries that share the same predicament and that are claiming the same recompense, with respect to the initiatives being taken by the Government?

JPA: Let's be clear, we are asking for restitution. Restitution means to reimburse what you took that did not belong to you, with interest. And, to my knowledge, we are the only country that has raised the issue as such. But there are tens of other countries that were victims of colonialism, that were victims of slavery, and who are requesting reparations for the harms done to them by slavery. Don't forget that the French Parliament a few years ago voted a law or passed a resolution that declared slavery to be a crime against humanity. Given that France was a country that practiced slavery, it follows that once it has declared slavery to be a crime against humanity, it must then do what it takes to make whole those whom it had enslaved. I can say that reparations are the second step in our struggle. The issue is posed as follows: first, restitution and then reparations. And in Durban, a third aspect was added - pardon.

RS: When you speak of reparations, does that mean there is a judicial action in the works that would ask the French to pay reparations for the offenses that France committed against this land?

JPA: Do understand that the issue of reparations is different from that of the ransom paid to France by Haiti. In effect what you say is true. There are reparations to be made for wrongdoings inflicted upon our ancestors, the first population of this country, by slavery. But as I have said, I don't think it will come to judicial action. I think that France is a country that has a long tradition of respect and democracy. After all, we cannot forget the French Revolution. It is my belief that the French government, the French authorities and the French people will in the end recognize the necessity for both restitution and reparations. We will see with regard to the pardon.

RS: You say you do not think it will come to the need for a judicial process, but we know that there are no reparations without justice. And if we would need to initiate judicial action, it would be before what body?

JPA: Recall that it is said that a good settlement between adversaries is likely better than a good trial. So what we seek first is the settlement. Justice can be attained through the settlement, through negotiation. That is to say, initiating a judicial process is the last resort. This would come at a point when the other party refuses absolutely to take any step in your direction. We would be forced to take the ultimate step - a lawsuit. You asked me where this lawsuit would be heard. It could be heard before international authorities. It could be in Haiti. It could be in France. It is those learned in international law that could judge such a case. As I have said, I do not want to dwell too much on the details of this aspect of the issue.

RS: A moment ago, you spoke of the issue of pardon. Are you anticipating that after resolving the issues of restitution and reparations, that France would publicly seek pardon from the Haitian people for the offenses inflicted upon this land?

JPA: I do not believe that France will come and seek a pardon from the Haitian people. France is a country that at a certain time had a policy of slavery. The French Parliament, who declared slavery to be a crime against humanity that deserves reparation, has denounced this policy. I think that once these things have happened, it would already be an admission. It is a way of saying, "We were wrong. We will try to repair." Once reparations are made, pardon will immediately follow. I don't think France will seek a pardon. This is not the issue. It is a question of logic. Once France pays restitution and reparations, humanity will pardon its past.

RS: Steps being taken by the government to obtain restitution and reparations from France finds support from certain sectors, but some other sectors, especially the opposition, have opposed these initiatives.

JPA: The opposition is the opposition, and we are ourselves. We know that the large majority of the Haitian people are with us. We know that a large part of the international community, especially countries that were also victims of slavery support us. I must say that if we had shut our mouths and said nothing on the subject, the opposition would accuse us by saying, "Look they [the Government] are going into the bicentennial celebrations of 2004 and of the death of Toussaint Louverture, and they are not attempting to reclaim restitution or reparations." Any initiatives we take, whatever we do, they would criticize us. Consequently, the fact that the opposition is criticizing us does not pose a dilemma for me. We know certainly, the more we do, the more they will criticize. There are certainly people of good will and good sense within the opposition and they know that their opposition to this question is useless, even if they don't dare say it. But because of the political problems that we are living today, they take this stance. But deep in their hearts, deep within their patriotic selves, and being free Haitian citizens, they know the Government's position is just and I believe that on a certain level they support it. I believe if the crisis were to be resolved, the whole of the Haitian population would support this initiative. That on the eve of 2004, there are steps being taken to reclaim restitution from France.

RS: The opposition raises the issues of credibility and corruption within the Government as the reason we should not receive such monies. And certain opposition leaders, such as Evan Paul, have stated that if this money were to fall into the hands of the Government, it would be looted.

JPA: You know the old song that these people [the opposition] are always singing. It is normal that they say these types of things. Maybe Mr. Evans Paul in saying this is in some way disappointed that they were not first in bringing this issue to light. The fact that it is the Government, the majority Fanmi Lavalas party, that have made the decision to pursue this, they are trying to take it apart, criticize it, etc. It may be a form of "jealousy." But as I have said, I know that all Haitian patriots, no matter what political sector they align with, know these initiatives are legitimate. And that somewhere inside of themselves they know them to be proper. If tomorrow the political crisis ended, they would unite as one with us to make triumph this point of view. This is why these types of declarations do not bother me too much. They are political statements made in a political context. That is all.

RS: Since on January 1, 2004, we will celebrate 200 years of Haiti's independence, do we hope that before this time and in order to make the celebration more successful, we would receive not only restitution, but that France would pay reparations to this country?

JPA: Let me say this, the steps being taken do not envision that France will give us money to make "2004" 2004 times more beautiful. That is to say, 2004 will be a Haitian celebration that will happen with the resources available to the country. If it is small, it is small. If it is big, it is big. That said, we believe that the international community, African countries - who are very ready to help us, Caribbean countries, Latin American countries, and even European countries - including France will contribute to the celebration. I think that all these countries will come together with us to make a very beautiful 2004. That said, we are not counting on monies that France will give us within the framework of restitution or reparations, to celebrate 2004.

RS: What I mean to say is not that we are waiting for this money for the 2004 celebrations, but that if this money were to be paid before 2004, would not it be a better 2004?

JPA: In the President's speech yesterday, when he spoke of this issue, he followed with a dream. In essence, if in the next few months before the celebration of 2004, France would recognize the necessity to immediately liberate itself of this debt, this money would help make 2004 extraordinary. What I mean is, an extraordinary 2004 with regard to investments to benefit Haiti, to benefit the sons and daughters of the former slaves. To benefit our peasants, our countryside and the lives of every Haitian. So I think if within this timeframe, France recognized the necessity for us to receive this money, 2004 would be even more beautiful. As the President said, there would be hospitals, schools, electricity and roads. But as I have said, we are not counting on this money to celebrate 2004. 2004 will be celebrated within our means and the means that the peoples of the countries who wish to accompany us provide because they agree with the theme of our celebration. They will help us celebrate 2004.

RS: Mr. Antonio, thank you for accepting to speak to Radio Solidarity on this issue.

JPA: No problem. Have a good day.

RS: Thank you.

JPA: Thank you.

Thank you very much.