Wow… Where does this land even end?
That’s what I thought when I landed at McCalla Field in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the fall of 1991. I had flown to the military base with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other luminaries to report on the thousands of Haitian refugees being held there temporarily. The U.S. did not want to give them asylum and couldn’t send them back to Haiti because a brutal military junta made it unconscionable for then-President Bill Clinton to deport.
I thought about Guantanamo Bay recently, while watching Haitians flee – again. This time, the escapees were residents of neighborhoods around Port-au-Prince running from intense gun battles between local gangs. Mothers clung tightly to their children’s hands, scurrying to find a haven. Others carried their meager belongings on their heads as gunshots rang out nearby.
This ongoing war has displaced thousands of Haitians, albeit internally.
It is even more difficult to watch these images knowing that so many have made the ultimate sacrifice – their lives – and others have fought incredibly hard to render some level of dignity to a people more abused than a wet mop.
So I wonder: How can the lives of Haitians be left in the hands of such fools?
The latest iteration of the fool is Dr. Ariel Henry – a taciturn, tone-deaf person who became Prime Minister after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. He has remained largely quiet and has not taken any public action to reassure the country and its citizens that he empathizes with them.
What makes this all the more frustrating is Henry has a living, breathing role model he could emulate: Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukraine’s president is a profile in courage, leading his country under persistent and punishing attack from Russia’s missiles and bombs.
When world leaders encouraged him to leave Ukraine for his safety, he remained defiant and said that he didn’t need a ride, he needed weapons. Now, almost three months since the unprovoked Russian invasion, Zelensky has some of the weapons he requested. What’s more, he has been talking with, leading and reassuring his countrymen they’ll fight to the bitter end, if necessary.
He has also addressed parliaments across the world, being open and transparent about the existential threat facing his nation, to rally their support.
I know Ukraine is considerably more important on the world’s sphere than Haiti. But leadership is leadership, and in this instance, Henry has not lived up to expectations. The other day, he was taken to task on Twitter for sending his condolences to Cuba after about 30 people died in a hotel explosion. He has rarely expressed any empathy for what’s happening to the Haitian citizens he purports to lead.
Henry has become an invisible man, clearly out of his depth. Yet, he has Washington’s full support.
To Haitian rulers, everyone else is to blame
He is not alone in being utterly clueless. I received a WhatsApp message from a longtime friend and former government minister that said: “Haiti stimulates and organizes corruption in the diaspora. A new tactic.” The friend was troubled about a story about some Haitian Americans being implicated in arms trafficking in Haiti and in Moïse’s assassination.
“Tet chaje,” I responded, the Creole utterance us Haitians use when at a loss for words.
My takeaway here is that people in Haiti are already framing the gangs they’ve created as a problem somehow manufactured by the diaspora. Don’t be surprised when you start hearing that line. That’s the conversation taking place in the living rooms of Haiti’s ruling class.
To be sure, there are some bad hombres in our ranks in the diaspora. They are mercenaries and miscreants who will do anything for a buck, who have no qualms about shipping illegal arms to Haiti and even taking part in the plot to assassinate Moïse. But to frame these intractable gangs as a “diaspora” issue is intellectually dishonest at best, hypocritical at worst.
It’s just deflection. ‘That old dog won’t hunt’ anymore, as they say in the South. Everyone can see your game and they’re not going for it. The country is a mess, and you don’t know what to do, except to revert to what you know best.
There is a parlor game of blame that has remained fashionable among the political elite and private sector.
We have problems. It’s because the Americans are conspiring against us.
We can’t settle our differences. It’s got to be the United Nations.
Our economy is cratering. Of course, it’s the Dominicans. They get rich at our expense.
Now, it’s the diaspora’s turn.
The history of bad actors in Haiti is well known, and is no secret. But Haitian leaders, you must own most of it.
Have some dignity, take some accountability
My son has been living in Vietnam for the last two years, so I’ve followed developments there quite a bit. While it’s no Japan or South Korea, Vietnam is a functioning society.
I refer to it now because few countries in modern times have suffered like Vietnam. It was destabilized by the French, then bombed to smithereens by the United States. But these industrious people maintained their dignity and have managed to carve out a life for themselves. The country has reached a level of development that few people predicted when the Vietnam War ended 47 years ago.
Coincidentally, a Vietnamese firm, Viettel Global, is part owner of the old Teleco, Haiti’s national telecommunication company, now called Natcom.
I want those concerned with the future of Haiti to listen to the song, “Haiti,” by the indomitable
System Band. There are many songs extolling the virtues of Haiti, but this one captures the beauty and challenges of Haiti perfectly. In his baritone, the late maestro Isnard Douby lists the different types of leaders we’ve given a shot as a country:
Nou eseyew ak doktè
Nou eseyew ak militè
Nou eseyew ak profesè
Nou mem eseyew ak pè
Alon ou mizè
A doctor, the military, a professor, even a priest. What misery.
I would add a chantè, a certain pop singer, who also failed.
So as we move forward, let’s own some of this mess. We’re not innocent bystanders.