After historic trip to Cuba, French president to visit Haiti

A day after calling for an end to the U.S. trade embargo during his historic visit to Cuba, French President François Hollande will end a five-day Caribbean tour today in Haiti, once France’s richest colony.

Hollande’s arrival in Port-au-Prince will mark only the second time that a sitting French president has visited the poverty-stricken nation, which declared its independence from France on Jan. 1, 1804. President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French leader to make a state visit when he traveled there a month after the cataclysmic Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people.

France and Haiti have shared an uneasy relationship especially after France in 1825 demanded that Haiti compensate former slaveholders by paying 150 million gold francs. Known as the “independence debt,” it was later reduced to 90 million gold francs, the equivalent of 17 billion euros or $18.9 billion, which Haiti was still paying in the early 1940s.

Speaking at a slavery memorial on Sunday on the French island of Guadeloupe, Hollande mentioned France’s “debt” but stopped short of agreeing to reparations, dashing hopes but reigniting a thorny debate.

“When I come to Haiti, I will settle the debt we have,” Hollande said. His team later said the president was referring to France’s moral, not monetary, debt.

The issue of reparations has long been controversial, with former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide demanding compensation from France during Haiti’s 2004 bicentennial. Last year, the 15-member Caribbean Community, of which Haiti is a member, announced a 10-point plan for seeking reparations from France and other slaveholding European nations on behalf of Haiti and other former colonies.

During his visit, Hollande will visit several historic sites in the capital, and the quake-damaged Hospital of the State University, which France and the United States are rebuilding. Haiti and France also will sign several cooperation agreements. As with Cuba, Hollande will arrive with five ministers. But there are close to 70 people in the official delegation.

Meanwhile, nearly two dozen French executives joined Hollande in Havana where he met with Cuban leader Raúl Castro and former leader Fidel Castro. At a business forum, Hollande called on Cuba to improve its business model and said France was ready to join Cuba on the further opening of its economy “while respecting your identity, your model, your independence.”

Before his hourlong visit with Fidel Castro, Hollande, speaking at the University of Havana, called for the lifting of the U.S. trade embargo. France, he said, would do what it could to ensure that “the measures that have so badly harmed Cuba’s development can finally be lifted, repealed.”

Hollande was the first French president to visit Cuba since the country’s 1898 independence, and the first Western head of state to travel to the island since the thawing of relations with the United States in December.