Francois Hollande on Tuesday became the first president of France to make a formal state visit to Haiti, where bountiful resources and brutal plantation slavery made it the European nation’s most profitable colony before an independence uprising more than two centuries ago.
For Haiti’s government and business community, the visit is a welcome opportunity to encourage more investment and highlight progress made since a devastating 2010 earthquake obliterated much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas.
But for some in impoverished Haiti, Hollande’s presence is a reminder of the debilitating costs of the successful slave revolt that made Haiti the world’s first black republic in 1804.
Crippled by an international embargo enforced by French warships, Haiti agreed in 1825 to pay France an “independence debt” of 150 million gold francs to compensate colonists for lost land and slaves. Although the indemnity was later reduced to 90 million gold coins, the debt crippled the Caribbean nation, which did not finish paying it off to French and American banks until 1947.
About 200 chanting protesters and a heavy police presence greeted Hollande when he arrived at the Champ de Mars plaza in downtown Port-au-Prince with Haitian President Michel Martelly. He and Martelly laid a wreath at a statue of Toussaint Louverture, a hero of Haiti’s revolution.
“We can’t change history, but we can change the future,” said Hollande, who pledged new support to develop Haiti, including roughly $145 million to help improve education.