Ambassador Paul Altidor (center) with guests at a holiday pop up shop at the Haitian Embassy, December 2018. Samira Rashid

By Claire Savage

Haitian Ambassador Paul Altidor transformed his country’s image and connected the Haitian community by showcasing culture over strife, Haitian Americans said following news of his forced departure.

Altidor’s role at the Haitian Embassy was discontinued earlier this month as protests rocked the country, and Haitian Americans expressed surprise and regret at his termination.

By opening the embassy doors and showcasing the country’s culture, Altidor dedicated himself to “changing the narrative” for Haiti in the United States, according to Carla Durandisse.

Durandisse, 31, runs the Official DMV Haitians Instagram account, which has more than 3,000 followers. Durandisse said she created the account in 2016 to connect Haitians in the District-Maryland-Virginia area, and it expanded from there.

“As soon as I started the DMV Haitians account, the embassy of Haiti was the first place to open its doors to me,” Durandisse said.

A cultural hotspot

Throughout his tenure, Altidor was known for opening the doors of the embassy to both the community and those not familiar with Haitian culture. He often sponsored a variety of events — from fashion shows to panel discussions– in the palatial space that’s ordained with colorful pieces of Haitian artwork.

Durandisse said the ambassador understood how vital it was to portray Haiti beyond natural disasters and political turmoil.

“We are a country and we can stand on our own two feet. We have a vast culture. We have so many things to offer to the world,” Durandisse said. “We don’t need reactionary approach from people when a tragedy strikes Haiti. We want people to appreciate Haiti as it is now and as it has always been.”

Sabine Bernard, who works for a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, called Altidor a “rare gem” in the political world.

Altidor was committed, down-to-earth and accessible, according to Bernard, who moved to the District in June and within the first two weeks said she felt the welcoming atmosphere of the Haitian Embassy.

“I was blown away,” Bernard said.

When Bernard heard the news about Altidor’s recall, she said she knew the DMV would feel the loss.

“I was shocked and disheartened,” Bernard said, calling the Haitian government’s decision to recall Altidor “rash.”

Whatever the reason for the recall, Bernard said she hopes the decision was made with “strategic thinking” and the country’s betterment in mind.

Altidor’s influence extends well beyond the District. Sandra Florvella, a business owner based in South Florida, said she was “speechless” when she heard he was leaving. Florvella founded Haitian Businesses, a platform aimed at connecting Haitian businesses around the world. Last August, Florvella had the chance to work with Altidor firsthand when she hosted a leadership and empowerment brunch at the embassy.

“For the stupendous job that Ambassador Altidor was doing in Washington, it was surprising, to say the least,” Florvella said.

“I would like to publicly thank Ambassador Paul Altidor for his leadership and service to our community,” said Rosemonde Pierre-Louis, chairperson of the Haitian Roundtable. “Ambassador Altidor has been a steadfast partner of the Haitian Diaspora and his contributions towards creating a multidimensional understanding of who we are as Haitians are immeasurable.”

The other side of the story

While Altidor was revered by many in the Haitian community, there were those who felt his attention was too focused on cultural work and being a voice for the Haitian Diaspora, rather than representing the political interests of the Haitian government.

Scott Freeman, a professor at American University who focuses on development in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, said he knew the ambassador because of his cultural outreach, not diplomatic efforts.

That the ambassador’s recall has occurred as protests mount in Haiti has led people to speculate whether the events are related, said Freeman, who travels to Haiti every year for research.

“His departure at that particular moment seems notable, but it’s hard to draw any conclusions,” Freeman said.

Francois Pierre-Louis, a political science professor at Queens College, City of New York said he was not surprised by the timing. President Jovenel Moise, feeling pressure from protesters, may want a representative in Washington who is aligned with his agenda, Pierre-Louis said.

Pierre-Louis pointed out that Altidor had actually tried to resign a year ago and may not have agreed with all “orders and directions.”

“He was not attached to the job in a way that he would compromise his integrity for the job,” Pierre-Louis said.

‘We all have the tie’

Guerline Emmanuel, founder of Belle Vue Tours — a company dedicated to tourism in Haiti — said Altidor first caught her attention when he defended Haiti following President Donald Trump’s negative comments in January 2018.

Emmanuel said she appreciated Altidor’s efforts to portray Haiti as multidimensional and display its rich culture.

Durandisse, Bernard, Florvella and Emmanuel all have family in Haiti who are weathering the violent protests.

“We all have the tie, we all want to help. Earthquake, anything happens, we are always there,” Emmanuel said.

Florvella and Emmanuel condemned the cyclical violence in Haiti.

“We cannot keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” Florvella said.

Emmanuel echoed: “We need to create the Haiti that we want to see.”

Each woman thanked the ambassador for his service.

“I know he will continue to support the community no matter his title, no matter where he is located…I believe he is a true crusader for Haiti.” Florvella said. “We cannot wait to see his Act 2.”

Claire Savage is a freelance journalist who specializes in covering international news. She earned her bachelor's degree in Spanish and International Business at Washington University in St. Louis and her master's degree in journalism at American University in Washington, D.C.

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