The first time I went to Cité Soleil, the infamous bidonville in Port-au-Prince, I had two thoughts. One: I had to talk my way out of harm’s way when a few toughs tried to accost me and the photographer who was with me. Two: How can people live in such abject poverty?
The Cité, as it was known, was a metaphor for Haiti. It was the poorest area in one of the poorest countries in the world. I saw children rummaging through trash, looking for a morsel of edible food. They competed with stray dogs and pigs that were also foraging for food.
As we drove out of the penurious area, I became somber, unable to believe what I just saw in a country that I felt had lost its humanity. It was a part of Haiti that I had heard plenty about, but never seen. The place was disturbing.
That was around 1990. By then, Haiti was an optimistic place where a nascent democracy was burgeoning, albeit flawed.
When I arrived at the hotel, I shared my experience with a few colleagues. I told them what I saw was shocking, but even more disturbing, was that residents there appeared nonchalant and resigned themselves to this hell. While the place was indeed scary, I came away sure that the Haitian people’s capacity to absorb abuse was unmatched. I told my colleagues that I don’t know of any other place where there would not be more violence with people living under such circumstances.
I had come to believe that Haitians were too passive and accepted inequity as though it were their birthright. But as the misery continued unabated, young Haitian men have become radicalized, like their Arab counterparts in parts of the Middle East.
A country on the brink
This violent transformation has been gaining a foothold in the country since the early 2000s and the authorities did little to curb it. They remained blind to it, falsely thinking they had the poor under their thumb even as the violence slowly creeped out of the seaside shanty towns coursing its way into the hillside, where the rich live.
As the gangs rose, the political factions and members of the private sector cleverly used them as shock troopers to sow chaos whenever it suited their needs. These powerful people thought they would control them in perpetuity as they have done with every other aspect of the country.
Now, the gangs are calling the shots and the country is teetering. Gang leaders like Jimmy “Barbecue” Cherizier, a former police officer turned bandit, are proclaiming to be a revolutionary fighting against the injustices that I witnessed in Cité Soleil — which has become even more pervasive and insidious.
While I believe that Haiti has needed its Black Lives Matter and Me Too movements for years, Barbecue and his acolytes are no freedom fighters. Rather, they are thugs terrorizing people whose lot is no better than theirs.
We hear every day about the average Haitian being kidnapped for ransom. No one is spared. You find yourself in the wrong neighborhood, you’re vulnerable to being abducted. The lucky ones turn to relatives in the diaspora to come up with the money for their release. If you have no one to bail you out, you need to believe in God and pray like your life depends on it, because it does.
Schools have been closed. Hospitals have shuttered their doors. Banks are operating three days a week. Haiti has become a country operating part time, furloughing and rationing everything from food to gasoline because the supply is scarce as gangs control the thoroughfares and canyons in and out of Port-au-Prince, the capital and most important city in the country.
Where do we go from here? No one knows. The police lack the tools and the intelligence to attack the gangs’ strongholds. Their attempts at regaining control are easily rebuffed by the gangs, which are better armed.
Real talk about the real ones
The seminal question for Barbecue and his counterparts is: How can you call yourself revolutionaries, when you’re just trying to get over? I have a better description for what you are: Two-bit thugs.
Revolutionaries are not terrorists. They believe in an ideology to change the life of their population for the better. Do you think that’s what you’re doing here? I doubt it. The poor people are getting poorer, and they live in constant fear that you’re wrought. Everyone who has a visa, citizenship in another country or some money has left Haiti.
Those who are left are the people you purport to want to help. So why the continued violence? Again, that’s thug life. Let me tell you all something that thug life: It inevitably ends in violence and bloodshed.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve seen a lot of your predecessors’ lives end that way. They too had colorful names, like “Grenn sonnen,” or balls that ring. One of the most notorious, Amiot Metayer, known as Cubain, fell by the sword as well. Ask some of your acolytes about him. They will tell you how Cubain met his fate in Gonaives.
I know your destiny with your maker is imminent. You have taken your violence to new heights. You’ve crossed the rubicon and now you are cornered. You’ve gone where no one before you dared to go and you’re about to find out soon enough. I don’t know when, but the cavalry is coming. These guys don’t play.
Wake up, wise up and roll up your sleeves
When the coast is clear and the country can breathe, I’m begging the elite and the government not to return to business as usual. It didn’t work and if you don’t change things, it will be a matter of time before another one of these thugs reemerge to sow terror on the population.
You need a prise de conscience and to realize that people in Cité Soleil and other wretchedly poor areas are not that way because of manifest destiny. This is by your design. You’ve been lying to yourself. No one wants to live that way.
I hope right now you’re learning how life in exile is not easy, as Tabou Combo reminded us in its song, En Exile. In Miami, you’ve realized you’re not selling any alibi. No one cares what your surname is and who you were in Haiti. There are no maids here, no drivers and no security guard at your beck and call.
And, you can’t get over. Over here, you’re just an average person. At the core, you’re insecure because you know that if the situation continues, you will lose not only your privilege, but also your money. Monopolies are not accorded to your kind in America. Capitalism reigns over here, a matter of “may the best person win.”
But I’m rooting for you, the ruling class, to get back home soon and change things. You have the power to do so. The poor people can’t. The diaspora is getting tired of having to bail you out, leaving us with few resources to invest here. Those of us who have the money to invest find roadblocks and a game rigged by the private sector and their corrupt partners in government, who gloat as they watch us lose money.
Let me tell you what’s going on. Right now, the diaspora has found open doors in the Dominican Republic. We’re no longer that nostalgic about doing business in Haiti. We’re on to your con. Next door is a suitable alternative for many of us and the Dominicans know how to do business, unlike you.
In Haiti, we find ourselves playing a game of chicken. But in this version of the game, the elite class has the most to lose. The gangs will wait out whatever comes and be the new loup garou, or boogeyman. The diaspora will invest its money elsewhere. So you better roll up your sleeves and get to work to build the nation. We’ll be here when you’re truly ready for some help.