Haiti's current chaos, led in part by the street gangs, has been a long-time coming and it's past time for the "Morally Repugnant Elites" to take a stand for the nation.
This story is part of a special investigation into Haiti’s gang crisis and potential solutions. To view the full series visit our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look.
In 1996, as Laurent Desiré Kabila and his mutinous army were marching across the Democratic Republic of Congo – then Zaïre – The New York Times sent me to support our West Africa Bureau Chief Howard French and dispatched Nick Kristof to help Jim McKinley on the eastern flank of the country.
In New York Times parlance, we flooded the zone, demoralizing the competition. Howard knew Africa like the back of his hands and was well-sourced. However, I hired a local journalist, as I always do when sent abroad to cover a story. I don’t remember that reporter’s name, but he was a teacher of sorts. I peppered him daily with questions about the Congo’s history, current events, social life and so on. I wanted to immerse myself into Congolese culture so my reporting would have a patina of authenticity.
One day, as I sat with a few colleagues drinking beer at the Hotel Memling, I noticed a group of Congolese journalists and my guy huddled in what looked like a heated conversation. A few minutes later, they walked over, and my guy asked me where I was from. I told him New York and he asked me if there was somewhere else.
“Of course, I was born in Haiti, I thought you knew that. After all, I speak French fluently and my name is not your typical American name.”
“I told you,” he barked proudly at his friends.
I asked him why this was even a discussion. He said there was something about me that intrigued him. He went on to tell me that in the Congo the biggest compliment you can make to a person is to tell them, “You’re smart like a Haitian.”
How the brain drain started it
You see, back in the mid 1960s, Haitians were sent across Francophone Africa by François “Papa Doc” Duvalier to educate a generation of the newly-freed countries in the continent. It was not purely altruism or a sense of Black solidarity on the part of the dictator, mind you. It was a way to rid himself of the best and the brightest that Haiti had germinated.
As Duvalier consolidated his totalitarian grip on the country, sending these highly educated Haitians into a “golden exile,” he ensured that he would face little opposition. While Haitians were helping Africans, our country meanwhile began a slow march toward failure on the world stage. A march that processed uninterrupted through Jean-Claude Duvalier’s reign and beyond. A march whose results are playing out with the burning, looting and kidnappings that have become as common as the sun rising and setting.
Duvalier either killed, imprisoned or exiled his enemies, real or imagined. He forbade any konbit, a gathering of people in Kreyol. He took an ax to civil society groups, outlawing scouts, labor unions and political parties, to name a few. He banned Haitian music and artists he deemed revolutionary.
It was around that time that my family began to decamp to the United States. That trend has since followed a five-year cycle with a debilitating brain drain that has Haiti on the brink of total chaos, careening as we are toward the “failed state” status.
Looking at us now
Last week, The Haitian Times began publishing a series of probing articles that trace the origins of the “gang” movement back to the Duvalier era and how we got here today. The articles are disturbing on a human level. It is excruciating to read about the suffering people in Haiti face every day. But journalistically they are brilliant and expose the reality of what some people want to hide. They not only explain the problem but explore some solutions that may help turn around what seems like a series of intractable problems.
I urge you to read the series, which we’ve made available for free because I know many of you have a deep aversion to pay for the work that journalists do and think that quality journalism is a societal right. We’re patient and confident that such an attitude is slowly changing. But that’s a conversation for another day.
As I’ve said many times before, Haitian officials can enlist the help of the world’s military forces, dislodge the gangs and restore a sense of normalcy in the country. That will not solve the fundamental problem. It will return as soon as the tanks, AK 47s and military force return to their home base.
Our issues are too deeply societal to be solved by force alone. In the 1990s, the press corps covering Haiti dubbed the country’s elites the “Morally Repugnant Elite,” or MREs. It was apt then and it remains more so today. The rich in Haiti think of their lot as manifest destiny and the poor are penurious because they are akin to India’s Dalits. They are outcasts and untouchables.
During the elections that ushered Jovenel Moïse to power, I shadowed one candidate, Edmonde Supplice Beauzile, who was running for president. I’ve watched her from afar for years. I found her to be honest, competent and progressive to the core. She is a Social Democrat, the same ideology espoused by Bernie Sanders.
One night after a reception at her residence in Kenscoff, one of her top deputies asked me for a ride down the mountains to Pétion-Ville. I asked him about the campaign and Beauzile’s chances, and the grinding poverty in Haiti. He replied to the latter, saying the solution was simple.
The government should surreptitiously launch a nationwide campaign to sterilize poor women to stem the flow of poverty, he said.
The path to true freedom for Haitians
A Haitian-Canadian friend of mine gulped when she heard his comments. Bear in mind that this man is a progressive. Imagine the thoughts of the extreme right that make up the majority of the MREs.
I know of many friends and acquaintances in Haiti who are deeply uncomfortable with the status quo. They face derision if they volunteer to help those less fortunate. They are seen as traitors to their social class or their light-skinned hue. The thinking is, ‘Why are you helping these people?’
No one wants to be ostracized from their tribe, so these people remain silent as the poor continue to suffer. I’d like to remind those people that silence is complicity, as the Black Lives Matter movement clearly articulated.
I often wonder what the Africans, who once so revered Haitians, think of us these days. I wish I could reconnect with that Congolese colleague. It would make for an interesting conversation.
Read more about about Haiti’s gangs in our special section, Gangs in Haiti: A deeper look.