Media reports that France would pay back an historic debt – essentially a ransom that it demanded in order for Haiti to have international diplomatic and economic recognition – in order to aid Haiti’s earthquake recovery were revealed to be a hoax. Embarrassed by the reports, which came out as France enjoyed its national holiday of Bastille Day, the French government has said it is looking into legal action against the perpetrators.
But the question should be why doesn't France make this restitution? In the Twenty First Century, it is difficult to argue that this is a legitimate debt that Haiti owed France, rather than economic punishment for Haiti's achievement of liberty. Imagine if all of Europe had shunned the newly born United States of America in 1784 upon its successful revolution, and that Britain had demanded an exorbitant sum from the US in order for it to have diplomatic recognition and be able to trade with other nations. Imagine if the sum were so large, and the U.S. were so damaged by the war, that it did not finish paying off Britain until 122 years later – which is how long it took Haiti to finally make its last payment.
But this analogy hardly is appropriate because the USA's relationship to Britain was never one of slave colony to colonial master as Haiti's was to France. France was explicit in the early nineteenth century that it wanted “compensation” for the loss of its property: Haitian slaves. This makes Haiti's “debt” to France perhaps the most odious in history. It is also surely one of the most debilitating: it ensured that Haiti would be impoverished for decades to come; its legacy today is evident (although other nations, included the U.S., played their part through military occupations, raiding the Haitian Treasury, and through damaging economic policies pushed by the International Monetary Fund).
France's unwillingness to pay back this ransom – in 1825 90 million francs, later bumped up to 150 million, and estimated to now be worth around $21 billion – makes France even more of an outlier considering that many institutions and countries, such as the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, Paris Club, and Venezuela, have recently canceled Haiti's debt. If France will not pay this money now, after Haiti suffered the most damaging natural disaster in modern history, when will it?
As the group claiming responsibility for the hoax stated: “The announcement was a hoax, but the far bigger hoax is how little France, as well as the U.S. and Canada, have offered Haiti in earthquake relief, relative to what Haitians are owed in reparations.”