Sarkozy makes historic Haiti visit

French president Nicolas Sarkozy landed in Haiti on Wednesday, offering aid to a country in desperate need after a catastrophic earthquake.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy landed in Haiti on Wednesday, offering aid to a country in desperate need after a catastrophic earthquake.

Sarkozy was greeted on the tarmac at Haiti International Airport by Haitian President Rene Preval as a brass band played the Marseillaise, France's national anthem.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, walks past the honour guard with Haiti's President Rene Preval upon Sarkozy's arrival at the Haiti International Airport in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. ((Dario Lopez-Mills/Associated Press))

He toured a French field hospital in the earthquake-ravaged capital before giving a brief speech at the French Embassy, which was miraculously unharmed during a magnitude-7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12.

He said his visit had particular resonance given France and Haiti's historical ties and acknowledged that the "wounds of colonization" were perhaps still fresh in the minds of many Haitians. Some Haitians blame France for the country's troubles.

"We are living a pivotal moment, a moment of truth for Haiti," Sarkozy said.

'Vive la France, vive Haiti'

The massive earthquake smashed up the capital Port-au-Prince, killed more than 200,000 people and left more than a million homeless.

Haiti's reconstruction plan should bolster the outlying provinces to help shift people away from Port-au-Prince, said Sarkozy. He said one reason the death toll was so high was that the city was not built to sustain such a large population.

It is time for Haiti to take control of its destiny and free itself from dependence on foreign aid, he added.

"The Haitian people have been wounded ... The Haitian people are standing," he said, ending the speech by saying "Vive la France, vive Haiti."

Visit evokes memories, some bitter

Some Haitians are welcoming France's new interest in their nation as a counterbalance to the United States, which has sent troops there three times in the past 16 years. But Sarkozy's visit is also reviving bitter memories of the crippling costs of Haiti's 1804 independence.

A third of the population was killed in an uprising against exceptionally brutal slavery, an international embargo was imposed to deter slave revolts elsewhere and 90 million pieces of gold were demanded by Paris from the world's first black republic.

In 1825, crippled by the U.S.-led international embargo that was enforced by French warships, Haiti agreed to pay France 150 million francs in compensation for the lost "property" — including slaves — of French plantation owners.

Haitian politicians this week diplomatically skirted the question of French reparations — a demand put to Paris by ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004. That suggests Sarkozy's four-hour visit could herald a new era.

France has already said it would cancel all of Haiti's 56 million euro debt to Paris, worth about $77 million US.