Haitians on Friday pushed back at U.S. President Donald Trump's reported description of the Caribbean country as a "shithole," instead celebrating a history of slave revolution and resilience on the eighth anniversary of a devastating earthquake.
The government said Trump should apologize if he made such comments, and summoned the top U.S. diplomat in the country for an explanation.
"Mr Trump may say what he pleases, but I am proud of being Haitian. If someone should be ashamed it should be Trump," said Michel Aubry, 38, who lost his left foot when his house collapsed during the 2010 earthquake.
"We are the ones who defeated slavery and freed ourselves in 1804," Aubry said, remarking that until the 1960s black people in the United States were subject to legal segregation from whites.
Aubry was speaking outside the remains of Haiti's National Palace, where President Jovenel Moise on Friday laid the first stone to rebuild the emblematic building that collapsed in the quake.
Haiti's ambassador to Washington, Paul Altidor, said it was distressing that attention was drawn to the comments on the anniversary and day of remembrance for about 220,000 people killed on the island by the quake.
"Haitians don't deserve such treatment," Altidor said. "Haitians should not be seen as a bunch of immigrants who come to the United States to exploit U.S. resources."
Altidor said the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Haiti had been summoned to explain the reported comments.
Trump on Thursday questioned why the United States would want to have immigrants from Haiti and African nations, referring to some as "shithole countries" during a briefing on draft immigration legislation, according to two sources familiar with the comments.
The United States should seek immigrants from Norway instead, he reportedly said.
On Friday, the Republican president denied making the vulgar referenced during the meeting.
But Democratic U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who had attended the White House meeting, told reporters Trump used "vile, vulgar" language, including the word "shithole."
Trump denied saying anything derogatory about Haitians.
"Other than Haiti is, obviously, a very poor and troubled country," he posted on Twitter. "I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians."
The storm over Trump's alleged language follows a New York Times story last year about a meeting in which Trump allegedly said Haitian immigrants “all have AIDS.” The White House later denied he used the word AIDS to describe Haitians.
The U.S. embassy in Haiti, in a Twitter post on Friday, said "we remember and honor the many lives lost 8 years ago in Haiti".
African politicians labeled Trump a racist, while the United Nations human rights office also rejected the reported comments as "racist" and inciting xenophobia.
Haiti, though the poorest country in the Americas, has played an outsized role in the history of the region. Its 1791 revolution against French rule was the first slave revolt to lead to a free nation, in 1804, making it the second country in the Americas to win independence, after the United States.
Later, Haiti gave refuge and support to Simon Bolivar, help that historians have described as crucial to the Latin American freedom fighter's successful liberation from colonial rule of Venezuela and Colombia, among other countries.
Haitian governments were for many years militaristic, which some trace to a tradition of resisting French attacks after independence. The country suffered trade embargoes in the wake of independence from powers including the United States, worried the freed slaves would spark revolt elsewhere.
Loans from French banks to cover indemnity payments to Paris for independence were only paid off in 1947.
"We have pity on (Trump) for his ignorance of what the Haitian people, the emancipated slaves, brought to humanity in terms of the experience and the determination to fight for freedom," said Gabriel Fortune, mayor of the southern city of Les Cayes.
Haiti also supported the American Revolution by sending troops to the Battle of Savannah in Georgia in 1779.
"We have been here for a long time and have contributed to what the United States is today. We even made the ultimate sacrifice when we shed our blood in Savannah," the ambassador said.
In 2015, there were 676,000 Haitian immigrants in the United States, up from 587,000 in 2010, accounting for less than 2 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
Special status given to about 59,000 Haitian immigrants, protecting them from deportation following the 2010 earthquake, will end next year following a Trump administration ruling last month.
(Writing by Frank Jack Dani