By Garry Pierre-Pierre | The Conversation
Several years ago, as my son was about to enter college, I told my niece in Haiti that she could no longer count on me to send money for her monthly expenses. The arrangement had been part of our routine since my brother passed away after a long battle with cancer.
At the time I made the promise in 2006, I had every intention of keeping it. But this dependence on me for everything felt unsettling. So I explained to my niece that universities, especially the private type my son would eventually attend, are expensive and that I wasn’t sure I could keep the arrangement.
I told her then that I could give her a lump sum to start a business so she could be off my payroll and that I would help with emergencies like an illness or death in the family. Since then, I have sent her money for Christmas and other occasions, but she is not dependent on me and has not asked me for any cash in years.
This story is not unique to me. Every Haitian living abroad has one person or even a whole family — across all economic status — depending on them to eke out a living. In fact, The Haitian Times has reported that the Haitian diaspora sent $3.8 billion in remittances to Haiti in 2020 alone. That’s not even counting informal giving.
So I’ve been really puzzled about the ubiquity of the anti-diaspora sentiment we hear come out of Haiti. It makes little sense that the people whose relatives overseas are helping them would resent them. But all of those negative views often come from the ruling classes in Haiti, the oligarchs and their corrupt political allies.
An unsustainable middle class model
Since July 8, the day after the country and the world learned of the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, I’ve been seein some of these feelings being amplified on social media. To sum them up: “Give us your money, not your opinion.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about because you’re not living the daily reality, or hell, that Haiti has become in the last three years.”
Guess what? I know of one country that rose up for being taxed without representation. The United States.
With Haiti though, it’s the diaspora that serves as the de facto middle class, the backbone of the society. The uber rich don’t care who’s in power and the bottom trodden shrug off politics too because their station in life doesn’t change, regardless of who’s president.
The problem with this scenario is that it’s unsustainable. Those with the most to lose live outside the country and the nation struggles to function as a republic. The fighting is being done by a small group of people who have been marginalized in Haiti, despite their education.
A word to Haiti: Stop rigging the system
How we fix this problem and build a significant middle class in Haiti is as complicated as Haiti itself. But not figuring it out will stunt the country’s economic development.
One strategy could be to lure a large number of diaspora back to Haiti, but the country is not ready for that either. At the very least:
- The government would have to put the oligarchs in check first. Have them pay their fair share of taxes and use that money to pay the civil servants who get paid irregularly and are vulnerable to corruption.
- It would have to launch an anti-corruption campaign and hire Internal Affairs at each ministry to do undercover work.
- Those ensnared in stings can be made an example of what happens to corrupt civil workers as a warning to others.
Then there is the question of quality health facilities. Just recently, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide had to be flown to Cuba for Covid-19 treatment, one year after the disease struck the world. The treatment protocols are not available in Haiti.
We also don’t respect the rule of law. Your property or business can be taken over or set ablaze at the snap of a finger and no one will ever be arrested, prosecuted or sentenced for the crime.
The last thing any Haitian government needs to do is to democratize the economy, which rests in the hands of the oligarchs. If I’m going to lose money, I want it to be a fair fight. I don’t want a system that’s rigged. Only mercenaries would invest in Haiti, because it’s dirty money and a get-rich-quick scheme.
Viter Juste, the revered pillar of Miami’s Little Haiti, once told me of his efforts to bring a goat farm to his native La Gonâve, two decades before his death. He said he got spinned around in circles like a wide receiver spins a football after scoring a touchdown. Meanwhile, cash was flowing out of his pocket like a broken water faucet. He lost thousands of dollars and gained no farm. He owned the land.
Again, there are scores like Viter Juste, the father of my colleague Carl, a visual journalist at The Miami Herald.
A word to the diaspora: Get our house in order
The diaspora is not ready for such a drastic move either. It too needs to get its own house in order. We have many organizations, but they might as well be social clubs. Most of them don’t have staff or executive directors working full time. Even the Haitian physicians association is not structured.
It’s true we’ve come a long way since the 1990’s, but we’ve got an even longer way to go before we can exhort influence and power anywhere, including in Haiti. We are still another generation away.
In the meantime, what is Haiti to do? I think it is imperative that every Haitian begins to trust one another, to honor their word until proven otherwise. That trust can bring about a togetherness and allow us to find our common denominators, whether we are rich, poor, dark, light, urban or rural.
A word to all: Rise up socio-economically
What Haiti needs is a socio-economic Bois Caïman revolution where we take an oath to respect each other and ostracize those who violate the covenant. We need to reject the notion that ‘Depi nan Ginen, nèg rayi nèg ,” Creole for, “Ever since Guinea, we don’t like the other.” That mindset isn’t going to take us anywhere.
We’re not all from the Guinea region, for one. We’re also Dahomey, Congo, Hausa and all kinds of Motherland mélanges. There’s European, Asian and others in the mix too. Let that be our strength so we can show the world that we are serious about stability and progress.
I’m betting that at some point, my grandchildren will reach the apex of American society. But as you know, they will always be Haitian because in America, we all come from somewhere else. In my vision, I could see them being some financial titan’s roommate or dating the U.S Secretary of State.
Flush with Haitian pride, they will decide to entice their rich and powerful friends to change Haiti, the land that their grandpa talked so much about when they were growing up. They will bring skills and money, the kind that will transform Haiti and restore the moniker “The Pearl of the Antilles.”
This scenario has played out in front of us. You look at Italy and Ireland, once the largest purveyor of immigrants across the world. Italy was wretchedly poor and Ireland faced the potato famine. Look at these places today. Though not perfect, they are functioning nations with strong economies whose diasporas helped them greatly. Fourth and fifth generations of Italian, Irish and others I meet have a strong bond with their ancestral homelands to this day.
And then there is Israel, a Jewish state that was carved out in a hostile Arab environment. This and the other successes are the work of their diasporas, the people who wanted to change the narrative of their grandparents’ homelands.
For those reasons, I’m confident that there is hope for Haiti.
In the song “Dyaspora,” Zenglen sings about a man who falls in love and marries a woman in Haiti. Once she comes to the U.S., they divorce. Basically, she was using him. It’s time Haitians start working with, not conning, the diaspora.