By Sam Bojarski | Sam@haitiantimes.com
The #FreeHaiti hashtag, shared on social media by Haitians and renowned celebrities like Cardi B, has brought international attention to Haiti’s political crisis. For some in the United States, the viral phenomenon has given new urgency to charting a path forward.
“In Haiti they are so paralyzed,” said Josue Renaud, president of the New England Human Rights Organization (NEHRO), which advocates for Haitians and has organized protests in the U.S. this year, to demand President Jovenel Moise step aside.
Haiti has been paralyzed by rampant violence that has disrupted daily life. “The diaspora has a big role to play in the dynamic of Haiti [in terms] of demonstrations and calling their [congresspeople],” Renaud said.
As #FreeHaiti emerged March 12 and caught on throughout the weekend, many who posted the hashtag called attention to the connections that Haiti’s gang leaders often have with Haiti’s sitting government. They also questioned the role of the U.S. in supporting that administration, among numerous concerns. Regular mass protests demanding that President Jovenel Moïse step aside also caught the attention of Haitians and non-Haitians alike online.
In itself, a social media campaign is insufficient, when it comes to changing Haiti’s political fortunes, some have noted.
“Time for us to mobilize from social media to a ground response,” Ilio Durandis, a Boston-based biotechnologist, wrote on Twitter. “In my opinion, we have enough tweet[s] on this awareness campaign.”
Time for us to mobilize from social media to a ground response. Who is willing to take the lead in organizing this collective effort to finally #FreeHaiti ?— ilio (@durandis) March 15, 2021
In my opinion, we have enough tweet on this awareness campaign.
By March 15, some groups had taken their grievances and demands offline as well. The progressive advocacy group Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) organized two demonstrations ‒ one in Washington, D.C., in front of the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters and one in Chicago at the Haitian consulate. In public statements, BAP criticized the OAS as an extension of U.S. power and demanded the Biden administration stop supporting Moise, who claims his constitutionally mandated term ends Feb. 7, 2022.
To date, the U.S. State Department has stood by Moise’s claim, albeit while voicing concern about the situation in Haiti.
“I share concern about some of the authoritarian and undemocratic actions that we’ve seen,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a congressional hearing this month. The U.S. Embassy in Haiti retweeted the statement March 15.
“We need to see the Haitians organize, with international support, genuinely free and fair elections this year,” Blinken said in the statement.
The advocates that protested on March 15 denounced the role that the U.S. has played in Haiti, including its recent political support for Moise.
“Our goal is to support this [#FreeHaiti] movement on social media and make sure folks are aware,” said Kyndelle Johnson, an outreach coordinator for BAP. “But also in the same breath, [to] motivate people to go out on the streets.”
#FreeHaiti calls for Haitian-American leaders to step up too
In the past six weeks, Johnson said, social media has helped her organization’s Haiti subcommittees connect with the diaspora and their allies following events in Haiti. Now, they are seeking Haitian-led groups to help collaborate on upcoming demonstrations, she said.
For its part, Boston-based NEHRO has taken steps to educate the diaspora and broader public. The organization will host a March 28 information session about Haiti’s constitution and its political and economic challenges. The event coincides with the likely protests on March 29, which marks 34 years since Haiti’s current constitution was approved. The public can tune in to the March 28 virtual event at 3 p.m.
In Haiti, opposition leaders have named a new president to replace Moise. But the political division within the opposition and Haiti’s long history of political instability have raised doubts about whether a new government can change the country’s direction, even if Moise steps down.
The free Haiti movement calls for all Haitians, including in the diaspora, to work together as one, said Nahra Nezius, co-founder of the New Jersey-based Haitian Diaspora United for Haiti, a coalition that aims to unify the diaspora to promote Haitian self-sufficiency.
“If we have to free Haiti, all the Haitians need to free Haiti,” said Nezius, stressing the need for a Haitian-led plan, independent of foreign governments. “The Haitians in the diaspora, they have to put all the differences that they have aside.”
Prominent political leaders can play an active role in promoting a unified agenda for the diaspora, which is often fragmented in its advocacy and political allegiances, Nezius said.
The Biden administration has two Haitian-Americans ‒ Special Assistant for Presidential Personnel Karen Andre and Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre ‒ working in the White House. Also, dozens Haitian-American elected and appointed officials, from state representatives and Supreme Court justices, to an attorney general, occupy positions that many believe can provide access to U.S. policy makers and leaders with the power to influence events in Haiti.
“We have the leaders, but they need to come forward,” said Nezius.