As the Haiti Support Project of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century convened a major African American/Haitian American briefing on the status of democracy and development in Haiti last week in Washington D.C., there were/are signs that the stars are aligning in favor of significant progress in the first Black Republic in this hemisphere. One indicator of this positive alignment is the recent appointment of former President Bill Clinton to the position of Special U.N. Envoy to Haiti by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. By appointing President Clinton, the Secretary General is sending a clear signal to the global community that Haiti is a priority and that the U.N. is committed to staying the course to nurture democracy and development in Haiti.
Thanks to Congressman Charles B. Rangel (D-NY), chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, I was recently invited to join a number of Haitian American leaders for a meeting with President Clinton. I left the meeting thoroughly convinced that President Clinton has a sincere passion for Haiti and is devoted to utilizing his extraordinary influence and global reach to assist in effecting meaningful change in this culturally and historically rich nation. While economic investment is clearly at the top of his agenda, he is working to improve the image of Haiti by lobbying to get the State Department to remove the negative travel advisory/warning that gives the impression that visiting Haiti is unsafe (Canada recently removed its Advisory). He is also committed to winning Temporary Protective Status for some 30,000 Haitian immigrants who face the threat of deportation. President Clinton’s engagement and commitment is definitely generating excitement/enthusiasm about the future of Haiti.
This excitement certainly was evident as more than 75 participants representing 42 organizations and agencies gathered for a briefing on Haiti July 17 in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Five members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) joined a panel of experts and leaders of national organizations in delivering a similar message: the opportunity for progress in Haiti is greater now than at any time in the recent past. The challenge is to seize the moment to maximize the potential of the moment. In this regard, Gary Flowers, Executive Director of the Black Leadership Forum, strongly encouraged African Americans and other people of African descent in the U.S. to collaborate with our Haitian American sisters and brothers to strengthen the process of development in Haiti. Dr. Leon Pamphile, author of the book Haitians and African Americans: A Heritage of Tragedy and Hope, provided a historical vignette documenting the long history of collaboration between Haitian Americans and African Americans. He noted that African Americans have always been inspired by the example of Haiti and have supported the Haitian people’s struggle for self-determination.
Ambassador Raymond Joseph informed the audience that under President Rene Preval, the old “winner take all” attitude of governance has been replaced by an inclusive model where representatives of opposition parties are included in the government. This positive development was emphasized by several speakers including, Dan Erikson of the influential Inter-American Dialogue. Between votes on a very busy day in Congress, CBC Members John Conyers, Jr., Charles B. Rangel, Gregory Meeks, Yvette Clarke and Sheila Jackson-Lee stopped by to offer their perspectives on the status and future of Haiti. The Members referenced a recent meeting with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton where the delegation stressed that making meaningful progress in strengthening democracy and development in Haiti is CBC’s highest foreign policy priority. By all reports, Secretary of State Clinton embraced the message and expressed her willingness to maintain a sustained and constructive engagement with Haiti – another star in the positive alignment.
The panel of experts, who offered their analyses of progress in Haiti, made several important observations. Dr. Robert Maguire, Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, who is widely regarded as the leading expert on Haiti, presented a thought provoking overview. He acknowledged the “good news” of increased political stability and security in Haiti but detailed the staggering challenges ahead in terms of overcoming illiteracy, massive unemployment, overcrowded cities/urban areas and a fragile state apparatus. He warned that Haiti must strive to achieve and maintain equilibrium/balance by encouraging the haves to see it in their self-interest and the interest of the nation to improve the standard of living of the have-nots. It is important to note that Haiti is still largely a rural nation where the majority of the people still live in the countryside. Unfortunately, far too little attention and resources have been dedicated to improving the capacity of peasants/farmers to produce commodities that could ensure food security and reverse the often fruitless migration to Haiti’s overburdened urban areas.
The imbalance between a fragile state/government, viewed as “predatory” by its citizens, and thousands of well meaning but uncoordinated Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) needs to be rectified. Foreign aid/assistance should be funneled through the government, thereby enhancing its capacity to deliver basic services to the people and gaining greater legitimacy with the people. In addition, the potentially explosive unemployment rate, especially among young people, can be partially addressed by the adoption of a National Civilian Service Corp similar to the New Deal Civilian Conservation Corp created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. For the stars to remain favorably aligned, Haiti must achieve equilibrium in these vital areas -- most importantly, dramatically closing the gap between rich and poor.
Mark Schneider, Senior Vice-President of the prestigious International Crisis Group also injected some good news into the discussion. Contrary to public perception, security is greatly improved in Haiti due to the presence of U.N. peacekeepers (MUNISTAH) and the vetting, training and deployment of some 9,500 National Police. The goal is to have 14,000 National Police trained and assigned in the near future. One indicator of improved security is the dramatic decrease in the number of kidnappings – which reached a peak of more than 300 three years ago but has dropped to fewer than 40 this year. The judicial and prison systems are still in need of significant repair, but there has been progress under the tough leadership of the Minister of Justice. However, drug trafficking continues to be a problem that could erode progress in other areas because drug money is used to bribe politicians, police officers and judges. The U.S. needs to have a hefty contingent of Drug Enforcement Agents in Haiti backed by helicopters to interdict vehicles transporting drugs to Haiti. This nagging problem notwithstanding, the overall security situation is favorable and improving!
There was a great deal of emphasis on the role of the Haitian Diaspora in supporting development in Haiti. Marleine Bastien, Executive Director of Haitian Women in Miami, demanded that the progress underway in Haiti avoid disruption by halting the deportation of some 30,000 Haitian immigrants, the vast majority of whom have lived outside the country for more than 10 years. It will be extremely difficult for Haiti to absorb such a large number of people, particularly at a time when the nation is struggling to overcome the devastating effects of tropical storms and hurricanes over the past two years. Moreover, the Haitian Diaspora sends some $1.3 billion to Haiti each year in remittances from gainfully employed, hard working taxpaying residents in the U.S. -- the single largest assistance program for the nation. Haiti cannot afford a reduction in this assistance. With no empirical evidence that granting Temporary Protective Status (TPS) will unleash a flood of Haitian immigrants seeking to enter the U.S., there is no excuse for the Obama administration not to grant TPS.
Responding to the presentation of the Panelists, Dr. Joseph Baptiste, President of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians (NOAH), pledged that the organization would continue to press for duel citizenship as an added incentive for the Diaspora to invest and engage in Haiti. In addition, NOAH will continue to focus on improving the health care delivery in Haiti. Dr. Bernier Lauredan, President of the Haitian League, noted that the organization has already proposed a Civilian Conservation Corp type program for Haiti to expand training and employment opportunities. Most importantly, the Haitian League, through its annual Diaspora Unity Congresses, will continue to work to mobilize the Diaspora for coordinated engagement in Haiti. Nnenna Ozobia, Director of Latin America and Caribbean Policy for the Trans Africa Forum, cautioned that an overemphasis on factory development could lead to sweatshops dominating the Haitian economy. Therefore, the struggle currently being waged for a just minimum wage should be supported. She concluded that one of the most promising developments for Haiti was the recent decision by the IMF, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank to cancel two thirds of Haiti’s $1.9 billion foreign debt. Canada is set to follow suit as well as the Paris Club of European donors and investors. This enormous victory is another star aligned in favor of positive change/progress in Haiti.
Such was the general atmosphere of cautious optimism prevalent at the Briefing. In addition to Members of the Congressional Black Caucus in attendance and a stellar panel of experts and respondents, a number of key officials were on hand. I was delighted that Stephanie Robinson from the Haiti Desk in the U.S. State Department (Velia DePirro, Director of the Office of Caribbean Affairs confirmed but was unable to attend at the last minute) and Amitabh Desai, Deputy Director of Foreign Policy, from the Clinton Foundation attended the Briefing. Ralph Chevry, a Haitian businessman who traveled from Haiti, and Walter Coreley, Assistant Secretary of Treasurer in the Clinton administration, were among a host of leaders who participated in what proved to be a highly informative and productive briefing.
As the convener, I was quite pleased with the event. My only cautionary note is that strenuous efforts to re-inspire the majority of the Haitian people to re-engage in the political process must be pursued. The low voter turnout in the recent Senatorial elections, coupled with the contentious struggle over the proposed increase in the minimum wage, should be viewed as signs of discontent that must be affirmatively addressed lest they erupt into the kind of disturbances that can threaten the legitimacy of the government. The balance/equilibrium Professor Maguire discussed in his overview is critical if the optimism in the air is to translate into permanent progress in our beloved Haiti. As the Haiti Support Project prepares for the Third Annual Pilgrimage to the Citadel in Haiti this October, I feel confident that working together and collectively, we will finish the unfinished Haitian Revolution. The stars are aligned in our favor!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.