By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Last week I was at Florida A&M University to talk to journalism students at the invitation of the dean of the school of journalism, Ann Kimbrough. It was also homecoming and I ran into classmates and friends who I haven’t seen in almost 30 years. It was a joyous time all around.
The campus, which sits on the highest of seven hills in Tallahassee, the capital, has grown tremendously. It has expanded to include a robust graduate program in the liberal arts and students now seem much more serious and career oriented than my generation.
The biggest change for me was the increase in the number of Haitian-American students attending the university. When I got there in 1982 I was one of four Haitian students on campus.
As expected, everyone I ran into wanted to discuss Haiti after the nostalgia of being back on campus had worn off. Dean Kimbrough had organized a news conference for me to talk about Haiti. I was flanked by a coterie of Haitian-American students and for half an hour fielded and answered questions about Haiti.
The Haitian students showed genuine concerns about Haiti’s plight. They wanted to know what they can do to help their ancestral homeland. Most of them had never set foot in Haiti and yet Haiti was always calling on them and tugging at their conscience.
One student asked pointedly what could she and others do to help. I answered that the first thing for her to do was not to be emotional when it comes to Haiti. Rather, she has to be clinical and approach Haiti the same way a physician deals with maladies and death.
I also told her that the best thing that she can do to help Haiti is to get involved on campus activities relating to Haiti so she can learn more about the country. She needs to also get involved in local Haitian organizations to bring a youthful enthusiasm to them and a fresh way of looking at old problems.
In short, she needs to help build local institutions that can become sophisticated players and eventually play a leading role in shaping U.S policy vis-à-vis Haiti. Sending money to Haitians in Haiti lowers our buying power and diminishes our capacity to build wealth in the United States.
Furthermore, Haitians in Haiti have little respect for us. They know that viscerally we cannot stop sending remittances to our relatives in Haiti. And they know that while individually we are well off, we are weak as a community.
They’ve played us for suckers and we have allowed them to do so because our American upbringing tells us that we must care for country and community.
But for us to help Haiti, Haiti has to decide that it needs our help. Over the years, I’ve watched a cadre of Haitian-Americans move back to Haiti only to return to the U.S. dejected after a couple of years of failure and rejection by their brothers and sisters. I don’t know of any Haitian entrepreneur who has had successful enterprises after returning to Haiti to invest. The streets of Petion-Ville are littered with Haitian-American entrepreneurs’ failure.
Haiti’s political and economic elites have been rapacious and have a sense that everyone owes them something. The international community is blamed for all ills in Haiti. No one from that class wants to acknowledge their role in the country’s dire straits. If they’re poor or struggling, it’s got to be someone else’s fault.
Despite all of this, I remain optimistic about Haiti’s future. The average Haitian is tough and yearning to be dutifully employed. They value education and are chomping at the bit for a better future.
This latest setback could be a clarion call for the country to unite and decide collectively what they want to be as a nation: leaders or beggars. Why are Haitian Americans so successful while those in Haiti are languishing? The answer is simple. We have opportunity here and the elite in Haiti makes sure that social mobility dries up as fast as cement mix.
The average Haitian dream is to leave Haiti despite the long odds. The rich, meanwhile clings on to its precarious finances and hide their insecurity behind the social status bestowed upon them by birthright.
At one time the jig will be up and it will all come crashing down. At that time real change will be needed and our cooperation will be requested.
After more than 25 years reporting on Haiti, I am of the belief that for Haiti to change, Haitian Americans have to turn our back toward it. We are abused by Haitians in Haiti, thinking that because we were the lucky ones to have left that we owe them something and we are expected to come to their rescue whenever there is a problem, which is often.
Of course, we owe Haiti a debt of gratitude. Most of us living here were either born there or our parents were. But the way the Haitians want to control that relationship puts us at a disadvantage. No matter how much money or goods we send there, it won’t be enough to alleviate the country’s crippling poverty.