By Jacqueline Charles 

As an entrepreneur, he helped pioneer cellular service in Haiti as the chief executive officer of a mobile phone company where he made corporate giving and responsibility the rule rather than the exception, gave working Haitians access to technology and the chance to get connected. 

And as a retiree, he used his skills as a former assistant dean of students at Miami Dade College to groom Haiti’s next generation by giving them a shot at a college education as chairman of the board of the Haitian Education & Leadership Program, HELP.

But it is Bernard Fils-Aimé’s role as a militant activist and organizer, which eventually led him to become a founding member of one of the most powerful Haitian rights organizations in the United States, the Haitian Refugee Center in Miami, that he was most proud of and will be best remembered for.

“I was at the forefront of the battle to gain legal status for Haitian refugees,” Fils-Aimé told State Rep. Dotie Joseph in Mayas part of a spotlight on trailblazing Haitians during Haitian Heritage month. “We won many legal battles, which paved the way for the development of the vibrant Haitian-American community in South Florida today.”

Fils-Aimé, who spent his life working to raise the voice of Haitians at home and abroad, died Saturday at the University of Miami Hospital in Miami after becoming infected with the novel coronavirus. He was 67.

“What gave his life meaning, besides his loving family, is he always fought for people’s rights and for communities, especially for Haiti,” said son Karl, 35. “He was an exceptional human being and an even better father. He will be missed dearly.”

Fils-Aimé’s untimely death is not only hitting his family hard but a closely knit circle of friends and collaborators in South Florida and Haiti, the two communities where he and his wife of 41 years, Marise, called home and divided their time after moving back to Haiti in 1995. 

A former president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Haiti who advised his close friend, the late President René Préval, on the development of Haiti’s private sector, Fils-Aimé had spent a lot of time lately thinking about the country’s political future, its struggling private sector and how he could best influence Haiti’s path.

As news traveled this week about his death, former employees of his mobile phone company, Communication Cellulaire d’Haïti, S.A. or ComCEL, which was better known by its trademark Voilà before being acquired by Digicel Group in 2012, remembered Fils-Aimé as a caring and generous boss..

“He was really proud at one point because ComCEL/Voilà was the No. 2 organization that had paid the most taxes,” said daughter Erica Brown, 46. “He was proud because it was about providing stability for the betterment of the community.”

Another proud moment came just weeks before the Jan. 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake. In late December of 2009, the company’s U.S. subsidiary, Trilogy International Partners, was honored by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Voilà’s corporate responsibility programs, transparent business practices and contributions to the economic development of Haiti under Fils-Aimé’s management. 

“Some would like to see in Bernard two different people,” said Fritz Longchamp, a longtime friend and former Haiti foreign minister who served as chief of staff to Préval during his second term in office. “The militant activist who fought for the rights of the Haitian people and the minority owner of a telecom enterprise. But that was absolutely not the case. For Bernard, it was two sides of one coin. His primary objective was always the wellness of the people.”

Rulx Jean-Bart, a former director of the Haitian Refugee Center, agreed. Continue reading

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