On a pleasant fall day in Port-au-Prince, in the late morning, journalists gathered at the seaport to interview ‘boat people’ who had been interdicted at sea by the U.S Coast Guard and sent back to Haiti.
This was soon after a coup against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on September 30, 1991, had forced thousands of Haitians boarded mostly rickety boats to flee to the United States. The ones us journalists were going to talk to that morning obviously never reached the U.S., their dream destination.
As the group walked down the gangplank in single file, clutching their meager belongings, they looked forlorn. Watching them, a sadness engulfed me and I got emotional. A colleague would tell me years later that I cried at that moment. I don’t remember shedding any tears, but that moment was disturbing to me.
This week, as the world watched the searing images of border patrol agents in Del Rio, Texas — on horses, using their lassos in a manner reminiscent of slave drivers — to prevent Haitian migrants from putting their foot on U.S. soil, once again, I was overcome with emotion. This time, I know I didn’t cry. It was nevertheless unsettling.
And as Haiti has stubbornly refused to leave the front page of the news since July 7, the day President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated, my colleagues from the mainstream media have been asking the ultimate question in journalism: Why.
Why did the migrants choose this moment?
Why did the earthquake cause so much damage?
Why was the president assassinated?
I traced that question back to Feb. 7, 1986, the night that Jean-Claude Duvalier left Haiti for a comfortable exile in France, after the former president-for-life tenure was cut short by popular revolt. It may be arrogance on my part simply because this is when I began to follow Haiti closely and would ultimately spend my entire career moored in Haiti and its people, my people and its politics.
Also, 1986 was the window of opportunity where the international community, the Haitian elite — political and business – could have gotten Haiti right. But they didn’t. I remember my indignities when I read that then Secretary of State, the late George Schultz, went to Haiti after Duvalier’s departure to offer a military package to a country that just emerged from a 29-year dictatorship. The U.S and the other so-called Friends of Haiti have been making the same mistake, offering the wrong solution at the wrong time.
To get Aristide back to power, President Bill Clinton felt the need to deploy 20,000 soldiers. So, you mean to tell me that the rag-tag Haitian army could not be neutralized by diplomatic means. One thing that never got much publicity was that Clinton demanded that the Haitian government buy rice from Arkansas, where he was once governor. He admitted publicly later that “It was a mistake.”
Unable to compete against cheap and abundant rice, the local rice industry collapsed and may never recover. George Bush supported yet another coup against Aristide in 2004, the year Haiti was celebrating its 200th anniversary of independence from France. Both Republicans and Democrats are complicit in Haiti’s failed policies.
I could write a book on this topic, and a few have been written over the years, but my editor asked me to write a weekly column, so I don’t have the space. Trust me, there are many more examples of American complicity behind the “why’s” of Haiti.
Of Haiti’s gran nèg, government, gangs
None of this would have been able to happen without the duplicity and the cooperation of the Haitian political and business elites. Their appetite for money and a visa to the U.S. has them selling out Haiti every time, instead of selling Haiti. The latter is hard since you would have to think of your country. The former is way easier because a few million piastres here and there solve their problems and they can buy that mansion in Miami and Montreal. They can afford to send their children to boarding schools in the U.S. to attend America’s finest universities.
The oligarchy, the gran nèg as we call this group, lords over it all, raking in billions, which they stash in U.S banks because they know their money is not safe in Haiti. Or they don’t trust their country’s banking system. The American system. Yes, because when it comes to money, the blan, or foreigner, can be trusted. They don’t have to worry about anything because they are secure. They control government gangs and all.
Meanwhile, the people are forced to literally eat out of garbage dumps. They struggle and have no opportunity for social or economic mobility. They are destined to remain at the bottom of society, where their children become part of their caste system. It is some of the children of the lumpen proletariat who are becoming gang bangers now, making life so difficult and the country currently unlivable.
In the last three years, the tables have been turned. The gangs are in control of the government and oligarchy they used to work for. They set the rules of the game and are terrorizing even the people they purport to love and whose mistreatment they are avenging.
Geopolitical board games at play
Yesterday morning, President Joe Biden’s special envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote resigned because of the treatment of the migrants.
“I will not be associated with the United States’ inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs in control of daily life,” Foote, a career diplomat, wrote in his letter of resignation.
A few hours later, the White House revealed that Foote had been pushing for the administration to send troops to Haiti to fight the gangs. The only other people who support this idea are the oligarchs who want their fiefdom back.
Foote had gotten off the wrong foot in his mission. He was underwhelming and had a relatively low profile for a special envoy. To be fair, he was handed a sh*t sandwich and as a career diplomat. He understood that this was a failed assignment and was looking for a way out and the migrant fiasco handed it to him. But I don’t think he expected the White House to push back as strongly as they did.
Warning: The seductive powers of proximity
Now, I will raise another journalistic question. What?
What happens next?
It seems that the administration wants to partner with the diaspora in getting Haiti right. By all indications, Biden was not sticking to the old playbook of keeping the diaspora at arms’ length. There have been scores of meetings between administration officials and the community, and they seem genuine.
The scenes at the border have put a fly in that ointment and the community has condemned the mistreatment of their compatriots in the strongest of terms.
While I think the diaspora dialogue with the administration is a good step, I believe there is a missing component: Haitians in Haiti, civil society, government, and business leaders. You must insist on this because any solution has to involve Haitians in Haiti. It’s their country after all.
Fellow dyaspora: Do not be seduced by the proximity to power here and think you and the administration can solve it. That’s the same thinking that got us here.
Also, do not be emotional. Haitians in Haiti use it against us. Be clinical but caring. The U.S. has kicked the can down the road for decades and that path ends under a bridge in Del Rio. It’s here and now, we must get it right.
The so-called boat people who came here to the U.S. in the early 1990s have done alright, I would say. The ones in Texas need a chance and will make America a better place. I know. I have been following their journey since before it began.