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Out of tragedy, hope that a new Haiti will emerge

The assassination of Haiti’s president tests anew the resiliency of a people beset by extreme poverty, economic exploitation, and gang violence

Photo by Richard Asinof

The painting by Haitian artist Gabriel Coutard captures the vibrancy and warmth of Haitian culture and its residents has kept Toby Simon rooting for Haiti.

By Toby Simon
Posted 7/19/21
Contributor Toby Simon reflects on the enormous challenges facing Haiti after its president was assassinated.
What is the appropriate role for the U.S. government play in protecting the people of Haiti? What are the links between the Colombian paramilitary agents allegedly hired to kill the Haitian President, apparently trained by U.S.-financed mercenary forces? What is the best way to create investments to protect the future of Haiti’s children? What opportunities are there for Rhode Island’s colleges and universities to provide emergency educational help for students from Haiti?
The history of Haiti’s rebellion against slavery is a tale not often taught in U.S. schools, reflecting a systemic racial bias about the economic burdens imposed of Haiti and other countries in the Caribbean. Did you know, for instance, in 1915, following the assassination of Haitian President Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson sent the Marines to Haiti, and they occupied the country for nearly two decades until 1934?

WELLFLEET, Mass. – For the past week, since Haiti’s President Jouvenel Moises was assassinated, I have not had the emotional strength – nor the will, nor the concentration – to speak publicly about his death. I’ve avoided posting any social media thoughts on the topic because I just felt numb. But mostly, I feel sad.

Nearly 30 years ago my husband and I started going to Haiti to work short stints at the Hospital Albert Schweitzer [HAS] in Deschapelles, a small village in the center of the country, in the rice-growing region of the Artibonite River.

I fell in love with the place and the people. The beauty of the rice fields in rural Haiti, surrounded by mountains, is as vivid and fresh in my memory today as it was 30 years ago. The crazy, chaotic market scene, with all its colors, smells, noises and laughter, is an indelible experience.

But what stands out the most are the people. Over and over again, for the past 30 years, I have been struck by the kindness, the gentle ways, and generosity of people living their incredibly difficult lives with pride and dignity. Mothers would bring their infants and children to the hospital for a pediatric visit, dressing their children in their Sunday finest. Home visits to struggling families always started with chairs brought in the yard for us to sit on. Local boys in Deschappelles attended to our then 13-year-old son one afternoon when he became sick from the heat.

A complicated history
Haiti’s history is a complicated one but to even begin to understand the assassination of their President, one cannot ignore some key aspects of their history and culture and current situation.

The country had begun as a slave colony for the French, where the Haitians learned from the French how to mistreat and torture each other. A slave rebellion in 1803 gave Haiti their “independence.”

But France demanded an exorbitant sum from Haiti to actually become independent. Forced to borrow the money from French banks, with interest, it resulted in a huge debt for Haiti – one that the French, until the massive earthquake in 2010, refused to forgive.

Haiti is a country of 11 million people; it produces enough food to feed 2 million people. The equation simply doesn’t work, on so many levels. Food scarcity is a way of life for millions of people, especially in the rural areas. The poverty is intense, the absence of a civil society creates enormous problems, and there are approximately five or six oligarchical families who actually run the country.

Disturbing details
By now, many in the U.S. are familiar with the story of the assassination; new disturbing details continue to emerge about Moise’s death. He was murdered in his own home, where he was shot in the eye and arm first, then tortured, then riddled with bullets. His wife was also shot and is in critical condition in a Miami hospital.

His young adult daughter, upon hearing the gunmen in the residence, ran to hide in her brother’s room. Who paid for the hit seems to be the big question, but there’s a chance we’ll never find out. The great agronomist and Radio Haiti founder, Jean Dominique, was assassinated 25 years ago, and no one ever found his murderers.

I was in Haiti during the election when Moises won by a mere 600,000 votes. Some 18 percent of the country voted. My friends there were hopeful about him. He was the first President in many years that came from humble roots.

His family had been farmers and he had run a banana-exporting business. He was hailed as someone who would understand the “little guy,” that he understood poverty because he was raised in a family that had little money. My friends thought that he just might be able to get the country advancing since the devastating earthquake in 2010.

Not a popular President
By most accounts, Moises was not a popular President. For the past two years the country has been in deep turmoil. All of my trips to Haiti have been  postponed due to the unrest, gang violence, lack of security, and an increase in kidnappings and random murders.

Many felt totally disappointed in Moises, who never had a mandate and was unable to get anything done. During his four years in power, he had done away with many people within the government; at the time of his death, the country had only about 11 elected officials. Eleven people for a country of 11 million.

Moises had also done away with the Constitution and said he was writing a new one, with the help of a few individuals he selected.

My friends in Haiti said they weren’t surprised to see he was assassinated. Upset and destabilized yes, but not surprised. The current conditions in Haiti have escalated to new lows and gangs are ruling neighborhoods all over the Port-au-Prince region.

Self-determination
I have no idea what will happen but I do know that all of my Haitian friends, both living in the country and part of the Diaspora, feel strongly that Haiti has to do this on their own – that the United States should not interfere, that the U.N. should not be deployed, and that this time, Haiti has to do this on their own. The Diaspora must be involved in the rebuilding, restructuring, and redefining Haiti, but in order for that to occur, major Constitutional changes need to happen.

Foreign aid to Haiti has had disastrous results, with the main consequence being a government with a hands-off policy on governing and a hollowed-out existence. All the NGOs [non-governmental organizations] have been pumping money and resources into Haiti since the 1930s, without any coordination among groups, enabling the government to continue a hands-off policy for their country. Following the 2010 earthquake, $13 billion flowed into Haiti from the international community. However, the amount of that money that actually is accounted for is miniscule.

I don’t know what will happen but I do know that the country is full of so many extraordinary people who have defied the odds when faced with ridiculous obstacles, who have lost absolutely everything but have still retained their dignity, and who love their country, despite all the problems associated with extreme poverty.

Haiti’s children deserve a country where gangs no longer rule communities and towns. They deserve a country where they can go to school every day and not worry that they’ll be kidnapped en route. A new Haiti needs to emerge from the latest tragedy but it’s not going to be easy.

I'll end this piece on a positive note because so many of my Haitian friends believe in their country's mantra: "L'union fait the force" [unity makes strength] and are actually hopeful about Haiti.

Magali Comeau-Denis is a Haitian businesswoman who has organized an effort known as The Commission, with 100 civil societies all working together. They represent human rights, the bar association, feminists, the farming collectives, religious groups, and artists. Their biggest concern is corruption, and they want an inquiry into how foreign aid has been squandered in Haiti. Madame Corneau-Denis is calling for less fighting and more collaboration. "Together, we can become a force," Comeau-Denis says.

It's a start.

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI, who has often written about Haiti. She links below to her stories.

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