Haitian community comes together to bid former Ambassador Paul Altidor adieu, as theories circulate on motivation behind the well-liked diplomat’s departure
By Claire Savage
The Haitian Ambassador to the United States bid his post goodbye at the embassy following seven years in the position, but told The Haitian Times he would still be heavily involved with supporting Haiti.
Members from the Haitian and Washington D.C. community gathered at the Embassy of Haiti on March 2 to bid farewell to former Ambassador Paul Altidor. During the farewell reception, a number of leaders from the community delivered remarks and presented the former ambassador with recognition plaques honoring his work over the past seven years.
“As my tenure comes to an end, I would like to express my deepest gratitude to the Embassy staff, the numerous volunteers and the community at large for embarking on the mission to change the Haiti narrative during these last seven years,” Altidor said at the farewell reception. “We have put tremendous efforts into achieving this goal but it was your support that carried it through. Thank you. The next person will come and I expect you to give them the same support you gave to me.”
Former Ambassador Paul Altidor was recalled Feb. 13 as protests rocked Haiti and President Jovenel Moise’s hold on power grew slippery. Questions about the timing of the transition remain.
“I don’t see myself as moving away from what I’ve been doing, I’m simply moving away from the current position that I’m in,” Altidor said.
Altidor is known for transforming the Haitian Embassy into a welcoming cultural hotspot and for his commitment to changing the Haiti narrative in the U.S. and beyond. Members of the Haitian American community were surprised and saddened by his sudden departure.
“Keep in mind I’m not a political man, I’m a political appointee. I started this job thinking I was going to do it for just two years,” Altidor said. He actually submitted his resignation to the president a year ago, Altidor noted, and had been planning to move on.
“He’s done an astonishing, incredible job bringing Haiti realities to the Congress, which is most important, and to the American media and people, secondarily important,” said Ambassador Timothy Carney, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti from 1998 to 1999.
Carney emphasized that Washington leaders were prepared to help Altidor’s successor, Ambassador Hervé Denis, in any way they could.
“Whether it be contacts, understanding of the Washington scene or just playing an ear that he can put his questions to or his frustrations to,” Carney said.
Haiti Special Coordinator Kenneth Merten said: “He’s done a great job representing Haiti and really trying to change the narrative, trying to emphasize the good things about Haiti, positive things, and I think that needs to be articulated more.”
Haitian politics expert Francois Pierre-Louis suggested a darker theory for the staffing transition. The Moise administration is “weak,” Pierre-Louis said. “The only thing holding him there is the U.S.”
Moise may have made a deal with the U.S. government to back Venezuelan opposition candidate Juan Guaidó, in exchange for support amidst mounting protests, Pierre-Louis theorizes.
Look at it this way, Pierre-Louis said, “Before Merten went to Haiti, Haiti had said it would support Venezuela. After Ken Merten came back, that’s when Jovenel changed his position.”
Neither Merten nor Carney were able to shed light on the situation.
“It’s normal for us diplomats to leave our postings after a while and move on to other things,” Merten said.
Historically, Venezuela has been a strong partner for Haiti, Pierre-Louis said, and he thinks the Moise administration threw away that alliance in return for U.S. protection that might not come through.
The move away from Altidor in favor of a more traditional political candidate like Denis signals a return to old ways and playing it safe, according to Pierre-Louis. “They’re not going to bring any new innovation or new ideas,” he said.
“Altidor was a professional young man, educated, open,” Pierre-Louis said. “Things wouldn’t be in such a mess if we had more people like him.”
Altidor said after taking a couple of months sabbatical to spend time with his family, he is planning to jump back into the scene, possibly teaching courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his alma mater.
While Altidor’s departure came as a surprise to many, Pierre-Louis said he had been expecting the news.
“It’s not fun to be a diplomat for the Haitian government,” Pierre-Louis said. First, Pierre-Louis explained, there are payroll issues— nobody gets paid on time. What’s more, the Haitian government’s actions are often difficult to defend, Pierre-Louis said.
“If you are the ambassador, you have to apologize and lie and do things you don’t feel are morally right,” Pierre-Louis said. “Altidor wasn’t going to compromise his integrity for the job.”
Citing the corruption, gangs and other issues Haiti is facing, Pierre-Louis said it may be a relief for Altidor to step down.
“In a way,” Pierre-Louis said, “He is free.”
The way forward
Asked about the timing of his departure, Altidor replied that it was not because he was disappointed with the state of affairs or because he had accomplished everything he needed to do.
“I just felt the time was right not to be in this position, but to continue the movement in some other way,” Altidor said.
Although much has been achieved in seven years, the movement to shift the Haiti narrative is just beginning, according to Altidor, who said he has met and discussed strategies with his successor.
“I’m hoping they’re going to continue to embrace the movement and embrace my successors and hopefully carry the same baton that I’ve been carrying for the last seven years,” Altidor said.
The movement won’t be missing his voice, Altidor said, because his voice was never there in the first place; he was only echoing what others in the community had been saying for a long time.
“I don’t think my departure will create a vacuum,” Altidor said. “…if a movement is synonymous with a person, there’s a problem. People come, people go, but the movement continues.”
To Haitians, and those that are interested in moving the Haitian community forward, Altidor said:
“We keep marching.”