An international group of writers and academics is calling on France to reimburse Haiti $21 billion that the Caribbean nation was forced to pay to secure its independence 200 years ago. The group, which includes journalists and members of the European parliament, made the appeal to French President Nicolas Sarkozy in an open letter published Monday in the French newspaper Liberation. American linguist Noam Chomsky and other signatories said France should repay Haiti's independence debt in light of the former French colony's "urgent" need to recover from a devastating earthquake in January. They called the 19th century payment demand by French slave owners seeking compensation patently illegitimate and illegal. Critics say international donors have not fulfilled their pledges of aid to Haiti, where the earthquake killed some 230,000 people and caused $7 billion in damage.
Haiti became the world's first independent black republic in 1804 as a result of a successful slave revolt against French colonial rule. In 1825, French monarch Charles X demanded Haiti pay 150 million gold francs to French slave owners as compensation or face invasion and a restoration of slavery. Haiti continued making the payments until 1947, transferring to France a reduced debt of 90 million gold francs, valued today at $21 billion.
In 2003, then-Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide also demanded that France repay the money. Monday's letter accuses Paris of responding to that demand by helping the effort to oust the Aristide government a year later. Mr. Aristide left Haiti in February 2004 during an armed rebellion and violent protests by Haitians who accused him of corruption and intimidating opponents. He has been living in exile in South Africa. The former Haitian president said after the earthquake that he was willing to return to his country to help rebuilding efforts. His offer has not been accepted.