Patrick Gaspard discusses his Haitian dissident parents, meeting Mandela and protecting democracy
Barack Obama could be forgiven for considering himself a big shot. But Patrick Gaspard used to keep his ego in check.
“You’re of course an extraordinary historic figure but I’m sorry, this doesn’t compare,” Gaspard would joke, “meeting Nelson Mandela will always be the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for me.”
The 53-year-old has a unique perspective on the men who became the US’s and South Africa’s first Black presidents. As a trade unionist and community activist, he first met Mandela a few months after his release from prison. Later he became close to Obama, serving in his White House and as his diplomat in South Africa.
Now Gaspard is the new president and chief executive of the Center for American Progress (CAP), described by the Politico website as “the most influential think tank of the Biden era”. He succeeds Neera Tanden, who left to become a senior adviser to the president.
In a wide-ranging interview in his corner office, Gaspard offered lessons learned from Mandela and Obama, his verdict on Biden’s first year in office and what his global perspective tells him about the survival of American democracy.
He was born near Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), to Haitian parents. The family moved to New York when he was four. “All of my interest in politics comes from the origin story of my family,” he says.
His father was a qualified lawyer in Haiti who belonged to a generation of young activists pushing for free and fair elections and open society. But this was the start of the dictatorship of François ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, who waged political violence to crush dissent.
“My father had a shotgun put to his head and [was] told in no uncertain terms he had to cease and desist from that kind of rhetoric,” Gaspard says. “He had the opportunity to leave Haiti as hundreds of thousands of Haitian intellectuals did in that moment, and he became an educator in the Congo. Unfortunately, many of his classmates couldn’t leave and they were jailed or killed in Haiti.”
Congo was experiencing its own exodus of Belgian and French educators. A UN programme encouraged French-speaking educators and intellectuals from the African diaspora to come to the country and train the next generation of leaders. Gaspard’s father was among them and, when he moved to the US, he remained connected to a new pan-African community.
Gaspard grew up in this milieu, mingling with South African exiles and Black trade unionists who organised national demonstrations against the apartheid regime. He joined Jesse Jackson and others protesting outside the South African embassy. When he was 19, Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto of sanctions against the white minority government.
“That sent me on a path that this work was important, collective action was impactful and this was a government here in America that could self-correct,” recalls the Columbia University graduate. “That’s the thing that most inspired me about politics in America.”
In February 1990 Mandela walked to freedom after 27 years in prison. A few months later he visited the US, where Gaspard was a lead organiser of New York’s rapturous welcome. He met Mandela a second time in 1991 when David Dinkins, the mayor of New York, led a delegation to South Africa.
“I was quite moved by the combination of conviction and humility that I had never experienced before,” he said.
After leadership roles at the Service Employees International Union, one of the biggest unions in the US, Gaspard served as national political director of Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign, which culminated in the once unthinkable fall of a racial barrier.
“It is an extraordinary thing for someone who comes from a minority community in a country to be elected to the highest office in that country,” Gaspard says. “That moment says something about America, but it also says something about the world that we exist in and the possibilities here.
“There is an unmistakeable history of brutality towards Black people in this country that was legal, systemic and tied to profit systems in America and that legacy continues to be manifesting in so many ways. It’s undeniable but what’s also undeniable is the fact that America has made a journey at every level of society to push through that, overcome that, recognise it and in this strange twist of history, even use some of that to its extraordinary strength in the world.
“When I had the privilege of serving in South Africa, I was asked constantly about how America could be lecturing the world about human rights when it had this condition inside of its own country, the historic treatment of Black people. I would say it was actually because of that history that we had a perspective that was unique, that gave us a sense of what we could contribute to the broader conversation of rights in the world and what it means to promote and then protect the interests of the most vulnerable in society.”
He adds: “So the night that Barack Obama was elected, and I was standing in Grant Park [in Chicago] with tears streaming down my face, it was a moment of reflection on a long arc of the American journey, but also a sense that I had as an immigrant, as an Africanist, of how that would be reflected in the rest of the world and the opening and the opportunity that it would create for America to be a more consequential standard bearer of the principle.”
From 2009 until 2011, Gaspard was director of the White House office of political affairs before switching to executive director of the Democratic National Committee. He was ambassador of South Africa from 2013 to 2016, witnessing the nationwide eruption of grief and gratitude that met Mandela’s death at the age of 95.
South Africa has made rare headlines in the US in recent weeks because it was the first country to identify the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Subsequent evidence suggests that this was may have more to do with the country’s world class scientists rather than it being the variant’s ground zero. Yet South Africa was a victim of its own success, punished by a US flight ban even as Omicron raged elsewhere.
What do Americans get wrong about South Africa, and Africa generally? “Everything,” Gaspard says. “In general, Americans writ large know very little about the continent and what they know falls into a space of negative information and, until that changes, I think they will continue to get bad policy and I think we’ll continue to have our lunch eaten by China, for instance, in those spaces. The flight ban against South Africa is a perfect example of how very little we understand about the continent.”
It must have been strange for Gaspard, whose neighbourhood included Zimbabwe and other embattled democracies, to watch the rise of Donald Trump rise from afar. Just as in South Africa, there was no understanding it without understanding race.
“So here’s the funny thing. I’m sitting in South Africa in the run-up to the 2016 election and all of my white progressive friends in politics in America – I’m emailing with them, I’m calling with them, constant conversations – they’re all telling me, ‘No way is Donald Trump going to become the nominee of the Republican party’.
“All of my Black friends in America, ‘Oh no, he gonna be the nominee. They are definitely nominating that guy.’ All my Black friends to a person, the ones in politics and the ones who have nothing to do with politics are like, ‘Yeah, he’ll be the nominee and he’ll win’. I was like, ‘What?’
“There’s dismay, fear, but no surprise because when you have suffered the blows of history, you’re always anticipating the next blow and African Americans understand that in America there is a very clear story that can be told about elections.”
Trump infamously referred to Haiti, El Salvador and parts of Africa as “shithole countries” and never travelled to Africa. He eventually filled the diplomatic vacancy created by Gaspard’s departure from Pretoria with Lana Marks, a luxury handbag designer from Palm Beach, Florida.
Gaspard, meanwhile, returned to the US and became president of the Open Society Foundations, founded by George Soros and one of the biggest private philanthropies in the world. He oversaw a $1.4bn budget and staff of 1,600, grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic and rise of authoritarian regimes around the world.
Then came the CAP which, founded in 2003 by John Podesta, former White House chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is accustomed to having the ear of Democratic presidents. Gaspard says he is in regular contact with the Biden administration, key agencies and “the progressive ecosystem that’s helping to stand up the agenda”.
The CAP can also be a critical friend. “During the spike in Haitian asylum seekers at the Texas border, when the world saw those reprehensible images of how those asylum seekers were being treated, I didn’t hesitate as the president of CAP to speak out against the policies and to personally go to the border to bear witness to what was occurring and to call for and demand different practises in how we adjudicate those matters.”
There has been “tremendous progress” at the border since then, he says. But Biden’s approval rating remains stubbornly low and there is a sense of gloom in the air. As the president nears his first anniversary in office, what is Gaspard’s verdict so far? “My god, can we step back for a second and have some perspective?
“If someone had told me or anyone on January 5th that 11 months later Joe Biden would have managed to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill, successfully advanced a historic stimulus bill that’s led to the fastest 11 month job growth in America that we’ve ever had … and was also on the precipice of passing a piece of legislation that will expand access to Medicare benefits, lift up low wage workers who are the frontlines of the care economy, make the most progress on investments in climate change in two generations, I would have taken all of that if you’d offered it to me.”
In his inaugural address, Biden vowed to address the interlocking crises of climate, coronavirus, economy and racial justice. On the last of these, police reform and voting rights have stalled in Congress, raising fears that last year’s Black Lives Matter protests after the police murder of George Floyd could prove a moment, not a movement, after all.
Gaspard, however, believes the momentum is sustainable. “Of course there was the white knuckle moment of George Floyd and the explosion of pent-up advocacy and rage but now there’s a lot of good, thoughtful work. You’re going to have your setbacks but there’s also been extraordinary progress in a number of states – Missouri, Ohio, California – where you can quantify what’s changed. That will continue. Civil rights just does not move in a linear way.”
Less than a year after the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol, however, the existential threats to democracy itself persist in a deeply divided nation. Gaspard describes himself as “radically optimistic” but not “Pollyannish” about the gathering storm.
“This is a thing I hesitate to say out loud but I really do believe that we should have the understanding that in 2024, when we are conducting elections across the country, there is the potential for us to experience January 6 on steroids, for us to see it in state after state in state capitols.”
“There’s the potential for that kind of civil disruption if we are not on our side intentional about pushing back now and about making as persuasive an argument for democracy as we can and an argument that’s manifest in actual legislation and executive orders.”
Reagan famously referred to America as a “shining city on a hill”; Biden has said the country can be defined in one word: “possibilities”. It was such promises that enticed Gaspard’s parents here half a century ago. But the turmoil of recent years has tarnished its image. Does he think his mother and father would have made the same choice today?
“We have seen that America, as an aspirational brand, has taken a hit the last several years. There’s a direct relationship between that and the previous president of the United States and how he postured on the world stage and projected us as a closed, hyper sovereign space that did not cooperate in a multilateral way and that led with military might and ‘America first’ as opposed to partnership and cooperation.
“There is a fear that I hear among immigrants that are in our community: they worry that the face of America has changed. When they see things like ‘the great replacement’ conspiracy that’s driving all kinds of not just rhetoric but actual policy on the ground for conservatives, they worry about what kind of violence it can visit on their children. All that anxiety is real.”
But again he sees the glass as half full. “I can tell you I’m pretty confident that if my parents were faced with that choice today that America is still the place they would see as this shining beacon of hope and opportunity, irrespective of its challenges which are real and more nakedly exposed than they have been in some time.