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Hollande's Haiti visit draws protests

For many Haitians, the French president's visit reopened old wounds stemming from France's legacy of colonialism on the island. Some residents insist France pay reparations for its past crimes.

French President Francois Hollande was in Haiti Tuesday to pledge economic assistance to the impoverished Caribbean nation, becoming the first of his country's presidents to make a formal state visit to France's former colony.

Abundant natural resources and plantation slavery once made Haiti France's most prized Caribbean possession, before the residents of what was then called St. Domingue gained independence from their French colonizers in an 1804 slave revolt.

For Haiti's government and business community, Hollande's visit is viewed as an opportunity to encourage investment and highlight the island

nation's recovery from a devastating 2010 earthquake

that destroyed much of the capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding regions.

But for some Haitians, Hollande's visit has reopened old wounds and is an unpleasant reminder of the crippling costs of the country's successful revolt for independence.

'Punished for our independence'

In 1825, encircled by French warships enforcing an international embargo, Haiti agreed to pay France an "independence debt" of 90 million gold coins in order to compensate former colonists for the costs of lost land and slaves. That sum is estimated to be worth $19 billion (17 billion euros) today.

"We Haitians know that a big reason why we are suffering today is because we were forced to pay France for our freedom. If we were not punished for our independence long ago, we would have had a better time," said Port-au-Prince resident Jean-Marc Bouchet to the Associated Press.

Hollande / Martelly / Frankreich / Haiti

France will spend $145 million over the next five years on development projects in Haiti

Some 200 protesters greeted Hollande upon his arrival at the Champ de Mars plaza to lay wreathes at the statues of heroes of Haiti's revolution.

"No negotiation, no compensation can repair the wounds of history that still mark us today," said Haitian President Michel Martelly. "Haiti has not forgotten, but Haiti is not stubborn," he added, attempting to quell the demands of many Haitians that France pay reparations for its brutal colonial legacy on the island.

"There is a moral debt that exists," Hollande said. "We can't change history, but we can change the future," he added.

France has refused to pay reparations, but Hollande said his nation will spend $145 million (130 million euros) over the next five years on development projects in Haiti, including $56 million (50 million euros) for education.

Doubt and cynicism

But for some Haitians, Hollande's pledge of economic assistance fell on deaf ears, with many in the impoverished nation demanding France pay for its past crimes.

"We believe French reparations should go to schools, hospitals, roads," 25-year-old law student Gymps Lucien, who was protesting Hollande's visit, told AP. "Our kids should have a better life."

Other residents were cynical about what President Martelly would do with the promised aid.

"He'll just keep it all for himself, and the poor will get nothing as usual" said protester Philistin Servilus, speaking with AFP. "France should build us houses and invest in factories, to give us jobs."

bw/cmk (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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