The Washington Diplomat / February 2010
By Larry Luxner
Barely two weeks before the earthquake that ravaged his country, Raymond Joseph and his wife, Lola Poisson, were hosting a joyous Haitian Independence Day celebration at their Bethesda, Md., residence. During the party, the ambassador boldly predicted that 2010 would be a record year for cruise ship tourism to his struggling Caribbean country.
Then, on Jan. 12, all the lights went out and a shroud of darkness settled in over Haiti.
The 78-year-old veteran diplomat was working at his desk when, a few minutes before 5 p.m., an aide informed him that Port-au-Prince had just been leveled by a magnitude-7.0 earthquake, a disaster that may have killed upward of 200,000 people — far more than the initial estimates of 50,000. Although with thousands upon thousands of bodies dumped into mass graves, a final count of the exact number of dead will probably be impossible, robbing Haitians not only of loved ones, but of their identities as well.
“Right away, I tried to call the president’s office, but I couldn’t get through,” Joseph recalled. “Then I tried the president’s chief of staff, Fritz Longchamp, and by pure luck, Fritz picked up his cell phone. He said to me, ‘Mr. Ambassador, you wouldn’t believe it. The houses are collapsing right and left. The only thing I can do is park my car and walk, not knowing when I’m going to get home or how.’”
Joseph, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States since 2005, has spoken to The Washington Diplomat several times since the quake, in between a constant flurry of high-profile media interviews, coordination of relief efforts, and meetings with State Department officials, local Haitian community leaders and fellow ambassadors. He’s been getting by on three or four hours of sleep every night (and at one point talked to The Diplomat until midnight after a long day).
“This is a catastrophe of major proportions,” declared the ambassador, who was fortunate not to lose anyone in the quake because most of his family left Haiti long ago. Joseph said he has no plans to go back right now “because they need somebody here in Washington to explain what’s going on there, and they say I’m doing a pretty good job.”
In the weeks since the deadliest natural disaster to strike the Caribbean in centuries, Joseph has in fact become one of the most recognizable ambassadors in Washington. CNN, PBS, MSNBC and Al Jazeera have all transmitted his calm, reassuring image to viewers around the world, and a Google search of “Raymond Joseph” and “Haiti earthquake” turns up no less than 65,000 results.
Meanwhile, the Haitian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue has been transformed into a virtual command center, its reception area crowded with volunteers wanting to help and Haitians seeking information on missing loved ones. A sign taped to the front door informs the public that what Haiti really needs right now isn’t blankets, clothing or canned goods but money — and directs well-meaning individuals to a Web site accepting online donations.
On Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Joseph presided over a solemn candlelight vigil at the embassy to mourn those who died in the quake and urge survivors and their families not to lose faith. The following day, he and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty appeared on the steps of the embassy for a joint press conference to announce that the District had donated 20 computers, phones and other equipment to help the small embassy deal with the worst crisis in its history.
“This is going to take away some of the burden from the embassy’s telephone system, which was overloaded,” said Joseph, whose 45-member mission survives on a monthly budget of $150,000, the bulk of that money coming from passport and visa fees. It also maintains close ties with the Haitian-American community, estimated at 1.5 million.
“This last Sunday, we got overwhelmed with donations, so the city put trucks at its disposal to cart these things away and store them in a D.C. government warehouses, where they’re being sorted through,” said the ambassador. “Massachusetts Avenue was blocked for hours. It’s unbelievable.”
Joseph said he’s heartened by the outpouring of sympathy and contributions from average Americans and nonprofit organizations. But he’s also asking Wall Street to open up its collective wallet and show its generosity at a moment when hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors are hungry, seriously dehydrated and sick.
“Today the president of Chase called me and said he’s giving $1 million to the Red Cross in the name of Haiti. I expect others to do the same thing,” he said.
The need can’t be overstated in a nation that was already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The United Nations estimates that 3 million people — a third of Haiti’s population — need assistance. The United Nations itself suffered its single greatest loss of life ever when the Christopher Hotel, which housed the world body’s headquarters in Haiti, collapsed. Haiti’s Presidential Palace, Parliament and National Cathedral are also in ruins.
Heart-wrenching scenes of bloated, decomposing bodies piled up the streets and human limbs poking from the rubble stunned the world. But as an outpouring of international support flooded in, aid workers faced a logistical nightmare in the barely functioning country, leaving Haitians desperate for food, water, shelter and medical attention.
Meanwhile, strong aftershocks — including a 6.1-magnitude tremor on Jan. 20 — rattled terrorized survivors and aid workers on the scene.
The United Nations has authorized sending 3,500 peacekeepers to restore order and protect relief convoys, raising its presence in Haiti to more than 12,500, though it remains to be seen how quickly those forces can be deployed. Meanwhile, the United States has taken the lead in coordinating much of the immediate relief effort. There are 2,000 U.S. troops already on the ground and 9,000 on ships or helicopters offshore.
Despite the widespread loss of life, the decimation of infrastructure and buildings, and the general chaos and frustration, Joseph told he doesn’t expect a breakdown of authority in the wake of this latest tragedy.
“Something has changed in Haiti in the last few years,” he said. “With René Préval’s election as president in 2006, there’s been a big change and you have to give Préval credit. He is the first modern Haitian president to create a broad-based unity government. If you didn’t have that kind of government, when there were food riots in 2007, the whole government would have collapsed.”
As of press time, Joseph has not spoken even once with his president, who’s been criticized by some observers as aloof and unwilling to visit stricken areas of Port-au-Prince. The ambassador has, however, been in regular contact with Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and other senior members of Haiti’s leadership — much of which was wiped out when key government buildings were destroyed.
Since the quake, Haiti’s cabinet has been meeting on a daily basis in the headquarters of the judicial police, right near Port-au-Prince’s international airport, which is now under the direct control of the U.S. military — though the United States stresses that Préval government is in control and that Haiti’s sovereignty remains intact.
But will law and order remain intact in the critical weeks to come? Asked about rising concerns of widespread disease, looting and even civil war in the wake of this tragedy, Joseph got a little testy.
“Put civil war out of this list,” he said. “There is no civil war in the making. Most Haitian political parties are now working together. President Préval did something great in 2006 when he brought members of the opposition into the government, so everybody has a stake in the government.
“And as far as the looting we’ve seen on CNN, when you have people who haven’t eaten for four or five days and now they have a chance to get something, they’ll go for it. That’s human nature,” the ambassador pointedly added. “But has law and order broken down? Far from it. These are only isolated cases.”
The ambassador’s ease with journalists following the earthquake — which has thrust Haiti into the international spotlight like never before — stems perhaps from his own background as a journalist.
Born in the Dominican city of San Pedro de Macorís, he 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 the 1970s and early ’80s, Joseph worked as a financial reporter for the Wall Street Journal, resigning in 1984 to edit the Brooklyn community newspaper he co-founded with his brother, Haiti Observateur,the first crusading commercial Haitian weekly. In 2005, he became Haiti’s first full-fledged ambassador in Washington since 1998.
A graduate pastor from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Joseph has also devoted much of his life to religious studies, as did his father, a Baptist minister. Having come from such a deeply devout country, Joseph said he isn’t sure what impact the earthquake and its aftermath will have on his 9 million fellow Haitians.
“It may turn them more toward religion, or it may shy them away from it,” he wondered. “Some people may ask if there really is a God. And if there is a God, what did we do to deserve this?”
That’s a question some Americans might have wondered in the wake of televangelist Pat Robertson’s comment that the unlucky Haitians somehow had it coming to them because their ancestors had “made a pact with the devil” to free the country from French rule in the early 19th century, resulting in the country’s independence in 1804 as the world’s first black republic.
“I had to respond very quickly to that,” Joseph said. “I would like the whole world to know — America especially — that the independence of Haiti, when the slaves rose up against the French and defeated the powerful French army, made it possible for the United States to gain the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. That’s three cents an acre. That’s 13 states west of the Mississippi that the Haitian slave revolt provided. Also, the revolt of the rebels in Haiti allowed Latin America to be free. It is from Haiti that Simón Bolívar left with men and boats to deliver Gran Colombia and the rest of South America. So whatever pact the Haitians ‘made with the devil’ has helped the United States become what it is today.”
The ambassador’s contempt for Pat Robertson is matched only by his admiration for President Obama and former President Bill Clinton, who along with his wife, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, spent their honeymoon in Haiti and have now emerged as Haiti’s most powerful advocates in Washington.
Joseph warmly praised the Obama administration’s decision to grant temporary protected status (TPS) to Haitians living in the United States illegally as of Jan. 12 (though TPS does not extend to those attempting to reach U.S. soil after that date). The administration has also said that orphaned Haitian children who are eligible for adoption by U.S. citizens would be allowed into the United States temporarily to receive care.
The next step, according to Joseph, is to put some more muscle into the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2006. Known as the HOPE Act, this piece of legislation gives preferential access to U.S. imports of Haitian apparel. Joseph argues that it should be expanded to create tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs throughout Haiti.
“Certain aspects of the HOPE Act can be liberalized to allow some third countries to benefit,” he said. For example, Haiti could use fabric sourced from China to be transformed into garments for duty-free export into the United States — a privilege not enjoyed by any country at present. That could bring Haiti back up to its pre-1992 levels, when apparel exports generated $300 million a year for the country.
The bottom line, says the ambassador, is that massive U.S. assistance to Haiti in its hour of need is not only the right thing — but also the prudent thing — to do. And it absolutely must continue long after the dramatic photographs and headlines have faded from the public’s collective memory.
“I’m talking about billions of dollars,” said Joseph. “We have to rebuild. That’s why I say we must find the funds, and the international community must come to the support of Haiti — because of what Haiti itself has done for the world long ago.”
But the ambassador declined to put a number on this urgently needed aid package. “It’s only been a week, and they haven’t sat down to plan for the long term. It’s rather early for us to have an idea how many billions of dollars it’s going to take. But I’m quite sure it’ll run into the billions of dollars,” he said.
On Jan. 25, the Canadian government will host a meeting of foreign ministers in Ottawa to focus on Haiti’s needs and prepare for a major donors’ meeting. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers from Haiti, Canada, France and several Latin American nations are expected to attend.
“Looking at it from the self-interest point of view, does the United States want to continue keeping Haiti down as it is — and for us to be feeling good always writing about the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” Joseph mused, “or does it want to help Haiti develop, and become a neighbor that is not causing problems anymore and attracting its citizens back, even those who are in the U.S. illegally?”
Joseph warned that if economic opportunities through tourism, construction and manufacturing aren’t created quickly, thousands of Haitian refugees might take to the seas, overwhelming the U.S. Coast Guard in their desperation to reach the shores of Florida.
“If you create economic activity, people are not going to leave. But if you don’t, I’m quite sure we’ll start having another exodus. It’ll become a big scandal, with a lot of people drowning. I don’t see the Obama administration doing that kind of stuff,” he said. “So it’s in everybody’s advantage to spend billions to help develop Haiti, put jobs in Haiti and keep the Haitians at home.”
But given the massive destruction, many Haitians have been forced to rethink where “home” is — leading Joseph to record a message in Haitian Creole a few days after the earthquake struck.
“I’ll be honest with you,” he warned in a sound bite transmitted over several leading Haitian radio stations. “If you think you will reach the U.S. and all the doors will be wide open to you, that’s not at all the case. They will intercept you right on the water and send you back home where you came from.”
Massive internal migration is already under way, however, as thousands of earthquake survivors attempt to flee Port-au-Prince by any means possible. “They’re not going to Les Cayes or Jacmel, because both of those cities were also hit. The whole southern peninsula of Haiti was hit,” Joseph explained. “They’re going to the central plateau, even as far north as Port-de-Paix, where they have family.”
With Port-au-Prince in shambles and people leaving en masse, the ambassador argues it may be time to completely rethink how the Haitian capital should be rebuilt, given that the earthquake epicenter was just 10 miles outside the crowded city.
“We should take this opportunity to carry out the decentralization of Port-au-Prince, which is something we’ve been talking about for a long time. By building cities outside of Port-au-Prince, you have a way of giving people jobs and creating an environment that keeps them home instead of taking to the seas in boats.”
Although it’s the ambassador’s view that the capital city and its 2 million inhabitants should be relocated, Joseph concedes that it won’t necessarily happen.
“Even if it doesn’t, Port-au-Prince will be downsized and the excess population moved elsewhere. We should start putting cities up in the mountains above Port-au-Prince, toward the Dominican border,” he said. “Port-au-Prince is a destroyed city. Everybody’s saying that. And I’m saying that the silver lining in this is that all those shantytowns that disfigured the city — this time they’re gone forever. Our government should take this opportunity to build outside of Port-au-Prince. We’ve been talking about that for quite a while.”
Of course, all of this takes money, and lots of it.
“In Brazil, they built a new capital, Brasília, from nothing, but they had money. I don’t know how we’re going to do it. I’m quite sure, however, that with the destruction of Port-au-Prince a lot of people who flock to the city are going to be afraid of staying there. In the long term, it will be for the good,” he said.
“The city was built for a population of 40,000 to 50,000. So with all the flimsy abodes and matchboxes dotting the mountainsides, the place was a disaster in the making,” he added. “Back in April 2004, when I wrote that Port-au-Prince was a disaster waiting to happen, I was thinking about flash floods coming in and washing all these little houses off the cliffs, and Port-au-Prince would become a doomsday.”
Yet chaos and poverty are nothing new for Haiti, which even before the earthquake struggled on an annual gross domestic product of only $300 million. That translates into a per-capita GDP of $250 — less than Bangladesh — and falling every year.
The impoverished country had finally been making some tentative progress, especially with Bill Clinton serving as U.N. special envoy for Haiti — which only adds another layer of heartache to the tragedy. Clinton — who’s now been joined by former President George W. Bush to lead a long-term fundraising effort — insists that the Haitian people “can escape their history and build a better future.”
“It’s gonna take a lot of help and a long time,” the former president warned.
So far, in the last few weeks, help has poured into Haiti from nearby countries like Cuba, which is supplying hundreds of doctors and nurses, and faraway ones like China, which doesn’t even maintain diplomatic relations with Port-au-Prince due to Haiti’s recognition of Taiwan.
Likewise, Haiti’s mission in Washington has received a steady stream of diplomatic visitors offering condolences — beginning with Roberto Saladin, whose country, the Dominican Republic, shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Others who visited or called the embassy in the first 24 hours after the earthquake included the ambassador of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, La Celia Prince, as well as the former envoys of Barbados (Michael King) and Grenada (Denis Antoine).
“This has given me a chance to see the world’s solidarity with the people of Haiti and has really empowered me to do more for this country, which deserves so much more than it’s gotten over the years from the rest of the world,” said Joseph.
He added that “if people see that the money spent in Haiti is showing good results, they might even see Haiti as the next place for them to go on vacation. I really think Haiti is like the last frontier as far as development. Even though now Haiti is a victim, it stands to benefit from all this consciousness.”
Asked how he might keep the world’s attention focused on Haiti long after the immediate crisis is over, Joseph responded: “We maintain it by getting to work and putting to good use all the help we have gotten. I think Haiti has a great chance to shine, to start doing things differently from the past. President Préval’s government over there — and I over here — are committed to doing just that.”