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Haitian ambassador Raymond Joseph: Hope amid the despair
The Washington Diplomat / October 2005

By Larry Luxner

For the first time in eight years, desperately poor Haiti has an ambassador in Washington. And that ambassador is warning lawmakers that if Congress doesn't do something quickly to jump-start Haiti's economy, the United States will face a massive refugee crisis in its own backyard.

"The Dominican Republic will get advantages through CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement], but Haiti is being left out," said Raymond Joseph. "If nothing is done to keep Haitian workers in Haiti, they will keep crossing the border to the D.R. It's an explosive situation — as explosive as in the 1930s, when [Dominican dictator] Rafael Trujillo massacred about 30,000 Haitians."

To that end, Joseph says he enthusiastically backs the Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity (HERO) Act. This bill proposes to give Haiti's 8.5 million inhabitants the same U.S. trade advantages as those provided under CAFTA to six Central American nations as well as the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

In a lengthy interview with the Washington Diplomat, Joseph said the HERO Act — sponosored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) — would create 100,000 to 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."

The ambassador suggested that "passage of this act would go a long way to alleviate the problem of would-be economic refugees who desperately try to make it to Florida in search of a better life. Obviously, HERO will also benefit the United States, which won't need to spend valuable resources in its interdiction of boat people, and in the incarceration of those who manage to get through the Coast Guard net. It will also mean less foreign aid going out from the United States to Haiti."

But even non-protectionist members of Congress are likely to oppose HERO, given Haiti's particularly volatile recent history.

At present, about 7,000 UN peacekeepers — mainly Brazilians, Argentines and Chileans — are maintaining law and order in a country that has suffered from anarchy ever since the overthrow of Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986.

"I think 7,000 is not enough," he said. "We need 12,000 to 15,000 troops, and they should be concentrated in Port-au-Prince, because the rest of the country is now quiet."

Joseph, 74, is Haiti's first full-fledged 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 current transitional government in Port-au-Prince are scheduled for Dec. 11, with a runoff set for Jan. 3, 2006.

Yet chaos and violence is nothing new for Haiti, which in 1804 became the world's first independent black republic following a violent struggle against French colonizers.

The ambassador — who looks considerably younger than his age suggests — has been around long enough to know that 200 years of poverty and bloodshed won't be erased overnight.

He was born in 1931, in the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris, which is famous for producing more professional baseball players than anywhere else on Earth.

"My father left Haiti when he was 17, my mother when she was 20," he recalled. "I spent the first seven years of my life in the Dominican Republic. Spanish was my first language."

Like his father, a Baptist minister, Joseph devoted much of his life to religious studies. He attended Mooney Bible Institute in Chicago, and in 1960 translated the New Testament and psalms into Haitian Creole under the auspices of the American Bible Society.

Joseph later spent 19 years in New York, under a death sentence imposed in absentia by the murderous regime of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, who was enraged by his broadcasts and writings against the dictatorship. During that time, Joseph got a job as a financial reporter for the Wall Street Journal. From 1970 to 1984, he covered everything from the Manville asbestos trials to the advent of the Sony Walkman. In 1984, Joseph resigned from the Journal in order to edit the Brooklyn community newspaper he owned with his brother, Haiti L'Observateur. According to a recent column in the New York Sun,"after the Duvaliers were ousted, Mr. Joseph served as chargé d'affaires in Washington, but in 1991 he returned to the paper in Brooklyn. Although Mr. Joseph recognized the work against the Duvaliers of Jean-Bertand Aristide, he issued early warnings against Mr. Aristide's penchant for dictatorship. In the past two years, he kept readers of both the Observateur and the Sun well ahead of the curve of Mr. Aristide's descent."

Joseph returned as chargé d'affaires of the Haitian Embassy in April 2004, and officially became ambassador in March 2005.

"When I presented my credentials, I had to bring in the letter of recall of the last ambassador, Jean Casimir, who left here in 1997," he lamented. "There had been no Haitian ambassador for eight years, which means the former government didn't give the United States the recognition it deserves. Mind you, this is the most powerful nation on Earth, the biggest neighbor of Haiti, the one that did more to help the former government return to power than anyone else, and we didn't even have diplomatic representation at the level of ambassador."

In his new capacity, Joseph oversees 40 staffers. The Haitian Embassy, fronting Massachusetts Avenue, operates on a monthly budget of $150,000, the bulk of that money coming from passport and visa fees. It maintains close ties with the Haitian-American community, estimated at 1.5 million.

Joseph also supervises four Haitian consulates, in New York, Miami, Chicago and Boston; a fifth consulate will be opening later this year in Orlando, Fla. In addition to the United States, large Haitian expat communities flourish in Canada, the Dominican Republic and the overseas French departments of Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana.

"The Haitian diaspora is what keeps Haiti alive, with about $1 billion in annual remittances," he said. In addition, Haiti last year received $1.2 billion in pledges from the international community, with over $250 million coming from the U.S. government alone.

According to Joseph, "the United States and Canada are the only countries that have met their obligations."

Aristide, now in exile in South Africa, was first elected president of Haiti in 1990. He won 67% of the vote in an election in which more than 60% of eligible voters participated, said Joseph.

"The second time, in 2000, less than 10% of the population voted, and he won with 92%," said Joseph.

But in between those two elections, Aristide was ousted by his own security chief, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cédras, and it took the U.S. Marines — acting under orders of the Clinton administration — to restore Aristide to the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince.

"Aristide was the first democractically elected president," he pointed out. "So if we're going to set an example in Haiti, Aristide should be the first president to be tried democratically for what he has done to the country."

The ambassador added: "I don't think it's a priority right now [to extradite Aristide from South Africa]. Our priority are right now is the election, and the government that I represent is working diligently to have them. But if Aristide insists on coming back, the first thing he should do is go on trial."

Joseph accuses Aristide of being a thoroughly corrupt leader who profited from cocaine trafficking while helping himself to millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, and in turn corrupting nearly the entire Haitian 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. He promised so much, yet failed so miserably while personally enriching himself."

Joseph also alleges that Aristide 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 annual Gross Domestic Product is only $300 million. That translates into a per-capita GDP of $250 — about the same as Bangladesh — and falling every year.

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."

There is a glimmer of hope amid the despair, however.

Joseph said the June 2005 appointment of Mario Andresol as Haiti's new police chief has resulted in a little more law and order throughout the country.

"About six weeks ago, the bandits and thugs held sway over the whole country, but since then, we've seen an improvement in the situation," he said, noting that American Airlines — which had suspended one flight each from New York and Miami to Haiti — has put those flights back in service.

"One of the most important things I did was to help lift the arms embargo against Haiti," he told the Diplomat. "Our policemen had their hands tied behind their backs — no weapons, no ammunition. That has now 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."

Joseph also said Haiti's relations with the neighboring Dominican Republic are looking up — especially since Leonél Fernández is once again the Dominican president.

"At least the two leaders, Fernández and Latortue, are friends. However, they have to deal with years of enmity between their countries," he said. "It's understandable. The Dominicans won their independence not from Spain, but from Haiti. So Dominican nationalism is based on anti-Haitianism. I'm glad Fernández is in office now, and that Latortue is in Haiti. Otherwise, things would have exploded already."

As for the ambassador's own future, Joseph has done many things in his 74 years, though he may not be able to retire just yet — even if he'd like to.

"I took this position for two years, but I don't know what's going to happen after the elections," he commented. "Quite a few of the candidates have been making pilgrimmages here, asking me not to resign. I told all of them, 'I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.'"

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