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Despite Food Riots, Endemic Poverty, Envoy Sees Hope for Embattled Haiti
The Washington Diplomat / August 2008

By Larry Luxner

With food riots, kidnappings and political violence dominating recent news headlines out of Haiti, it’s hard to be optimistic about the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Yet Raymond Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, says he has reason to believe things are turning the corner in his perennially troubled homeland.

“I don’t see a rosy picture in Haiti, but based on all my years in exile, I see that Haiti is now on the road to democracy,” said Joseph. “What we need now is employment, because job creation is the major challenge to our economy.” Joseph, who looks considerably younger than his 76 years would suggest, spoke June 30 at an event co-sponsored by Inter-American Dialogue and the Center for Strategic International Studies entitled "Is Haiti Drifting Towards Crisis?"

Answering that question in the opening sentence of his speech, Joseph declared: "Haiti is not drifting towards crisis. Haiti is in a crisis, and has been since Apr. 12, when Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis was given a vote of no-confidence by our Senate." That, in turn, followed widespread street riots over rising food prices that have largely been blamed on the diversion of U.S. crops for biofuels.

On June 23, just a week before the Washington event, Haitian President René Préval nominated 60-year-old Michele Duvivier Pierre-Louis — a well-known civic leader — to replace Alexis as prime minister. Haiti's parliament had rejected two previous nominees, Inter-American Development Bank economist Ericq Pierre and political adviser Robert Manuel, on May 12 and June 12 respectively. It is unclear when or if Haitian lawmakers will bestow their blessing on Préval's third choice for prime minister, given the country's current political turmoil.

“The food problems in Haiti are real, but the rioters turned this into a political football,” Joseph said of the unrest that killed six people and wounded 200. Shortly after the riots, Préval — attempting to calm tensions in Port-au-Prince — announced that the price of a 23-kilogram bag of rice would be slashed from $51 to $43.

Préval also said the rice would be subsidized with international aid, and that he would seek assistance from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to improve Haiti’s desperate situation. “We are too poor not to accept assistance from those who want to help Haiti,” said Joseph, noting that Haiti maintains excellent relations with oil-rich Venezuela in the face of rising animosity between Chávez and the Bush administration.

Haiti also has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, despite the presence of mainland Chinese police officers who form part of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti. That has exposed the Préval government to accusations of playing Beijing and Taipei against each other in the hopes of getting more development money from the two Asian rivals.

“While I’m in Washington, I have to do a diplomatic dance between Taiwan and China,” Joseph explained as delicately as he could. “The embassy where I work used to be Taiwan’s embassy. The residence where I live in Chevy Chase used to be the residence of the Taiwanese ambassador. Taiwan has quite a few programs in Haiti, building bridges and assisting with rice production in the Artibonite Valley. So our relationship with Taiwan goes back a long time.

“But right now, there are about 125 Chinese policemen in Haiti, and the Chinese have an economic mission in Haiti — and they have a seat on the U.N. Security Council. Of course they’re pressuring us, but Haiti is able to take the pressure pretty well, and we do what we have to do for Taiwan. I think we’ll keep it that way for awhile.”

Slightly smaller than Maryland, Haiti has more than 8.5 million inhabitants — half of them illiterate — crammed into its cities, towns and barren hillsides. Haiti’s per-capita gross domestic product hovers around $300 a year, making it by far the poorest nation in the Americas.

It wasn’t always that way, however. In the 18th century, Haiti, renowned for its mahogany exports, ranked among the wealthiest French colonies in the New World. That came to a screeching halt with Haiti’s 1804 declaration of independence as the world’s first black republic. The new country was forced to pay Paris a crippling 90 million gold francs as the price for winning its freedom.

“France imposed an indemnity on Haiti and by 2000, in current dollars, that would be worth $24 billion to the French government. That is partly what makes Haiti so poor today,” Joseph said, arguing, “The Haitian experience was programmed to fail, because if it had succeeded, it would have been an incentive to other enslaved people.”

These days, according to World Bank figures, 80 percent of Haiti’s population lives in abject poverty; 76 percent of children under the age of 5 are underweight or experience stunted growth; and 63 percent of Haitians are undernourished. In addition, Haiti accounts for 90 percent of all HIV/AIDS cases in the Caribbean, and because there’s only one doctor for every 10,000 people, the country’s infant mortality rate stands at 93 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at Inter-American Dialogue, called the Haiti situation "a perfect storm of rising food and fuel prices."

"There's been a dangerous backsliding has begun without increased attention from the international community," Erikson told the 150 or so people attending the CSIS event. "Within the Caribbean context, it obviously shares a border with the Dominican Republic and it's next to Cuba, which is engaged in its own transformation."

Erikson said Haiti's "chronic problem" is that it's hampered by a weak government, poverty remains endemic and there's been almost no progress in creating jobs for the Haitian people, who spend 75% of their income on food.

"The cost of rice, beans and cooking oil is far higher today than when Préval took office in 2006. This undercuts Préval's political support," said Erikson, noting that gasoline now costs the equivalent of $6 a gallon. "I wonder if Haiti is the canary in the coal mine — and whether this could spill over into other Caribbean countries as commodity prices continue to rise."

Jason Steinbaum, a staffer in the office of Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), recently came back from a fact-finding mission to Haiti. Also speaking at the CSIS event, he said that this year, the United States will provide $279 million in assistance to the Haitian people — but that what Haiti really needs is political stability.

"This isn't a famine like we've seen in other places. Food is available, but people just can't afford it," he said. "I saw food on the streets and in the markets, but the problem is poverty and a lack of jobs. In the end, businesses only invest in places where they think they can make a profit, and April's food riots didn't help."

A long history of coups and the notorious Duvalier family dictatorship, which reigned from 1957 to 1986, haven't helped either.

Joseph, who was born in the Dominican Republic and later attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, 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 Joseph’s radio 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 to edit the Brooklyn community newspaper he co-founded with his brother, Haiti-Observateur, the first crusading commercial Haitian weekly.

Joseph was called upon to serve as Haiti’s chargé d’affaires in Washington in 1990, the year Jean-Bertrand Aristide was elected into office, although Joseph returned to Brooklyn to work on the Haiti-Observateur after only a year. According to a recent column in the New York Sun, “Although Mr. Joseph recognized the work against the Duvaliers of Jean-Bertrand 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.”

Indeed, although Haiti has held elections since the ouster of the Duvaliers in 1986, coup d’états and political violence continue to plague the unfortunate country (Aristide himself was ousted twice, in 1991 and then again in 2004).

But this year, the violence is threatening to get out of hand. During the first five months of 2008, at least 150 people were kidnapped — up from 237 for all of 2007, according to Haiti’s National Network for the Defense of Human Rights. And since 2005, at least 27 hostages — including 12 children — have been executed by their captors, sometimes even after a ransom was paid.

Even so, Joseph said he hopes his fellow Haitians will rally around their current president, a 65-year-old agronomist who once worked as a restaurant waiter in Brooklyn while putting himself through school.

Préval was a close friend of former President Aristide, a one-time Silesian priest who was once praised by Washington as a beacon of hope for Haiti’s impoverished masses, but eventually came to be seen by the Bush administration as little better than the dictators who had preceded him.

Joseph was weary of Aristide early on and still has few positive things to say about the former president who now lives in exile in Durban, South Africa. “The propaganda is that Aristide was kidnapped, but sad to say, that’s not what happened,” said Joseph, who gave a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to Aristide’s departure from the presidential palace on Feb. 29, 2004.

“On the Saturday night [before his escape], Aristide called the American Embassy and asked for help to leave the country. The U.S. took him to a plane they prepared for him. If it’s true he was kidnapped, I say he was complicit in the kidnapping,” the ambassador charges.

In the years since Aristide’s departure, Joseph insists “there’s a new spirit in the country thanks to Préval, who has tried to do something I have not seen in recent Haitian history. He’s going back to the idea that in unity, there is strength, [even though] he won with only 51 percent of the vote.”

Joseph said that new spirit was even evident during the April food riots. “The riots brought down the government, and even though the House of Deputies tried to save [Prime Minister] Alexis, the Senate gave him a vote of no-confidence,” Joseph said. “In the past, the prime minister, the president and others would have been on the first jet out of Haiti, into exile somewhere.”

Now, he said, Alexis and other ministers are helping the government transition to new leadership, a sign “that Haiti is on the road to democratic development.”

Another promising sign, Joseph added, is that Préval is working to unite political forces in Haiti and plan a 25-year development program. “Whatever you hear about Haiti these days, this is the most important thing happening, where the president is using his office to reconcile the country.”

The ambassador also noted that in recent years, the Haitian Diaspora in the United States, which sends critical remittances back home, has begun investing in Haiti once again. “In 2006, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, Haitians abroad sent home $1.6 billion in remittances. Were it not for that Haitian Diaspora, these people could not live as well,” Joseph said. “As Haiti modernizes its laws and becomes more and more secure, investors will find Haiti fertile ground for tourism again. Secondly, just passed on the back of the U.S. farm bill is legislation to encourage investment in textile and apparel manufacturing.”

And one of the biggest foreign investors in Haiti today is Digicel, a Jamaica-based mobile phone giant present in 23 Caribbean markets. Digicel now boasts more than 6 million subscribers, including 2.2 million in Haiti. That gives the country a mobile penetration rate of nearly 26 percent — not bad when compared to neighboring Cuba, whose mobile penetration rate is under 2 percent.

“Digicel is doing a very good business in Haiti, and we in the Diaspora are paying for a lot of the phones you see there. Even some of those rioting over food had two or three cell phones on them,” Joseph said.

The real business opportunity, however, lies in tourism, “because Haiti has so much more to offer than other Caribbean islands,” the ambassador says. Joseph pointed out that in the 1940s and 1950s, Cuba and Haiti were the top Caribbean destinations for U.S. tourists. “But in 1957, a right-wing dictatorship took power in Haiti, and in 1959 a left-wing dictatorship took power in Cuba, so tourists started looking elsewhere,” he explained.

“If our government pays attention to tourism and refurbishes La Citadelle and all the other fortifications that were built to resist the French, Haiti would become a mecca for African Americans looking for their roots,” Joseph insists. “They will want to see what their black brothers and sisters did 200 years ago to bring about freedom. Marketed the proper way, Haiti will be a major tourist attraction again.”

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