The San Juan Star / September 19, 2005
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON — For the first time in eight years, Haiti has an ambassador in Washington. And that ambassador is warning lawmakers here that if Congress doesn't do something quickly to jump-start Haiti's economy, the United States will face a refugee crisis in its backyard.
Raymond Joseph, 74, is Haiti's first ambassador in Washington since 1998. He represents the interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue, who took over following the February 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. National elections to replace the transitional government in Port-au-Prince are scheduled for Dec. 11, with a runoff set for Jan. 3, 2006.
Yet elections will matter little if the Haitian people remain mired in poverty, he warned.
"The Dominican Republic will get advantages through CAFTA, but Haiti is left out. If nothing is done to keep Haitian workers in Haiti, they will keep crossing the border to the Dominican Republic. It's an explosive situation — as explosive as in the 1930s, when Trujillo massacred about 30,000 Haitians."
To that end, Joseph says he enthusiastically backs the Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity (HERO) Act, which would give his country the same trade advantages as those given the six nations of Central America and the Dominican Republic under CAFTA.
Joseph said the HERO Act, currently being sponosored by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York), would create between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs in Haiti's once-vibrant manufacturing sector.
"From 80,000 jobs at one time, the manufacturing sector has dwindled to 25,000 jobs," he said. "My priority is to help get this HERO act passed in Congress, in order to entice U.S. companies to come back to Haiti, especially in textiles. We think it would be a good thing, especially when China is gobbling up the whole market."
But many members of Congress are likely to oppose HERO — even aside from protectionist sentiments — given Haiti's particularly volatile political situation.
Joseph, who spent many years in exile in New York, working as a financial reporter for The Wall Street Journal, insists that the interim government has visibly improved the quality of life in Haiti since Aristide's ouster. He also says Aristide was a corrupt leader who helped himself to millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, and in turn corrupted the police force.
"From the beginning, I felt Aristide had no managerial capability. He had a silver tongue, that's for sure. So when he was elected, although I didn't think he could manage things, I thought that the stealing of Haitian funds would stop. I said to myself, 'finally we have a priest, somebody who's honest and has a conscience.'"
But Joseph said grew disillusioned with Aristide rather quickly.
"This guy became a multimillionaire on a salary of $10,000 a month," he said. "There is still no inquiry on how he managed to get such a position as the poorest priest in the poorest parish of Port-au-Prince."
Joseph also alleges that Aristide was heavily involved in cocaine trafficking, and that he spent $9 million a year on his personal security detail, not including $2 million for a fleet of three presidential helicopters — this in a country whose total Gross National Product is around $300 million a year.
"One of the most important things I did was to help lift the arms embargo against Haiti," he told the Star. "Our policemen had their hands tied behind their backs — no weapons, no ammunition. That has been solved. My other priority is to open up the avenues of aid to my country. With the help of our finance minister, Henry Bazin, we have sanitized Haiti's finances to the point where the IMF and World Bank are again giving us loans and grants for the first time since 1995."
One country that's been enormously helpful to Haiti is neighboring Cuba, yet on this subject, Joseph has to be really careful what he says.
The ambassador walks a tight line between offending Fidel Castro, who has sent over 700 doctors to work in his country, and offending the U.S. government, which is Haiti's most important source of international aid.
"That's how we feel," he said. "We cannot afford to anger our big neighbor and benefactor who helps us quite a bit, but at the same time, we wonder whether the Cuban people should still be suffering for the sins of Mr. Castro."
Despite the violence and political chaos that continues to this day, Cuba's doctors have remained in Haiti, treating millions of impoverished Haitians that would otherwise never get medical treatment.
"Our relationship [with Cuba] has remained the same as it was when Aristide left," said the diplomat. "The Cuban doctors in Haiti who have been very helpful. When some of our people, especially police officers, have health problems, they're flown to Cuban hospitals. So we leave it like that. The interim government does not want to come in and disrupt anything. They're not the warmest of relations, but they're correct."
Even so, Joseph hints that he doesn't support the U.S. embargo against Cuba .
"As the second independent country in the Western Hemisphere after the United States, we know the problems of an embargo," he said. "For the first 60 years of our independence, an embargo was imposed against us [by France]. So we feel Cuba's pain."
He says the United States should change its economic policies toward both Caribbean nations. "Allow the Cuban economy to flourish, so that the Cubans can stay home, and allow Haiti to be on par with countries like the Dominican Republic."
Joseph added that he's also not happy with Washington's immigration policy, particularly the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act that automatically allows Cuban refugees who make it to U.S. shores to stay, and eventually apply for citizenship.
"The wet-foot, dry-foot policy is a relic of the Cold War," he complained. "It means that all Cubans who left are running away from a communist dictatorship, so they're welcome as soon as they set foot in America. But the Haitians were running away from dictators who were friendly to the United States, so you cannot accept them as refugees. I believe it's unfair. On the other hand, the Haitians are considered black, so we feel there's a little racism here."