Sarkozy is the first French president to visit the former French slave colony [Reuters]
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has pledged an aid and debt relief package amounting to about $450m to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
The amount includes a cancellation of Haiti’s debt to France of $77m, Sarkozy said during a brief visit to the Caribbean nation on Wednesday.
Sarkozy arrived in Haiti to support international relief efforts after last month’s deadly earthquake which killed around 230,000 people and left more than a million homeless.
His visit is the first ever by a French president to the former French slave colony, which fought for and won its independence in 1804, becoming the first independent black republic.
Staying in Haiti for less than four hours, Sarkozy greeted French embassy staff and aid workers and took a helicopter tour to see the extent of damage left by last month’s quake.Later speaking alongside Rene Preval, the Haitian president, Sarkozy said he wanted to turn the page in France’s long history of troubled relations with its former colony.
But for many Haitians, Sarkozy’s visit highlighted the bitter legacy of the price paid by Haiti to secure its freedom from French rule.
Following a succesful revolt in 1804, Haiti was forced to pay compensation to France – a debt that took more than half a century to pay off.
In today’s money the payments amount to more than $20bn.
Al Jazeera’s Sebastian Walker reports on the French president’s visit to Haiti
For many Haitians those payments are what set the seal on Haiti’s endemic poverty and at a demonstration on Wednesday hundreds of Haitian protesters called on France to pay back the money.”France has played an important role in the way the country is suffering economically, and it has a clear responsibility to pay reparations,” Camille Chalmers, a Haitian economist, told Al Jazeera.
During his visit Sarkozy acknowledged that France and Haiti had had a troubled relationship, saying he was conscious that France “did not leave a good legacy” in its former colony.
“We are staring at history in its face, we have not discarded it and we assume responsibility,” he said.
However, asked by Al Jazeera about the issue of reparations for Haiti’s post-independence payments to France he appeared dismissive.
“Non, non, non (No, no, no)”, he said.
Al Jazeera’s Steve Chao, reporting from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, said that French officials hoped that the visit “will summon a new era between France and its former colony”.
Protesters say France owes Haiti billions of dollars in colonial era reparations [Reuters]
“Sarkozy and his people are very much cognisant of the fact that Haitians hold a lot of suspicion and resentment over its former brutal years of slavery as a colony and over feelings that France has continued to meddle in politics on this island in more recent years,” he said.Sarkozy surveyed the devastated Haitian capital and other affected areas by helicopter, and was also to visit a French-run field hospital.
He was also due to meet Haiti’s leaders to offer France’s financial support for a plan for post-quake recovery and reconstruction that is being put together by foreign donors with the Haitian government.
Economists from the Inter-American Development Bank have estimated the cost of rebuilding Haiti after the quake, which killed more than 200,000 people and left more than one million homeless, could reach nearly $14 billion, making it proportionately the most destructive natural disaster in modern times.
Besides providing immediate emergency aid to the hurt and homeless from the quake, international donors are looking to support Haiti’s long-term recovery to try to pull the country out of a cycle of poverty and political instability.
While aid workers rush to distribute tarpaulins before the rainy season starts, the United Nations says only about 272,000 people have been provided with shelter materials so far.
In a separate development late on Wednesday, a Haitian judge ordered the release of eight American missionaries who had been charged with child kidnapping.
The eight were expected to be flown out of the capital, Port-au-Prince, aboard a US military transport plane.
Two others remain in detention after the judge said he wanted to question them about previous visits to the country.
The ten missionaries were arrested last month after trying to take 33 children out of the country without proper documentation.