Diplomatic Pouch / April 16, 2015
By Larry Luxner
Born in Africa, raised in Haiti, educated in the United States and now back in Africa as a U.S. ambassador, Patrick Gaspard is a true Haitian-American success story.
Late last month, the 47-year-old diplomat shared his unusual life and career with some 120 guests attending the first in the Haitian Embassy’s new speaker series. His goal: to inspire other young Haitian-Americans to follow their dreams and make a difference in the world.
“This new, emerging diaspora is the most sophisticated, savvy generation of Haitians we’ve ever had in this country,” said Gaspard, who was appointed by President Obama in August 2013 as U.S. ambassador to South Africa. “Haiti has more challenges than anyone on the planet, but right now, it also has the fastest-growing economy in the Caribbean, by far. The growth is amazing, and if we’re smart enough and hungry enough, we can tap into those opportunities and make some real changes.”
In the audience was Gaspar’s mother, sister and brother, along with Fritz Cineas — Haiti’s longtime ambassador to the Dominican Republic until his recent retirement — and Stephen Vasciannie, Jamaica’s ambassador in Washington. Also present was the District of Columbia’s attorney general, Karl Racine.
“We’re hoping the embassy can be a platform in which we invite a slate of speakers from diverse backgrounds, and our friends come and engage in an intimate conversation,” Haitian Ambassador Paul Altidor said as he introduced his guest for the March 28 event. “We’re trying to create a movement, and we hope you’ll continue to be part of that movement, regardless of your politics or how you see things.”
Added the evening’s moderator, Joel Danies, chief of staff at the State Department’s Bureau of Administration: “It makes great sense for the Haitian Embassy to demonstrate the prominence of Haitian-Americans, and I couldn’t think of a better candidate to start off this series than Patrick Gaspard.”
The future diplomat was born in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, after his Haitian parents fled the regime of François Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc.”
“We had a brutal dictatorship that controlled our little island nation,” he explained. “Fortunately for my father, it coincided with a period of liberation on the African continent, a spirit of pan-Africanism. So he went to the Congo as a French-speaking educator through UNESCO, and Mom later joined him.”
But when Mobuto Sese Seko took power in a bloody coup in Kinshasa, Gaspard’s parents left Congo and resettled in New York.
“However, as we came of age, we were never allowed to forget who we were and where we came from,” he recalled. “My earliest memory is of being dragged around by my father and grandfather to the United Nations, to protest what was taking place in Haiti. We used to take the bus to Washington, D.C., to chant outside Lafayette Park whenever Duvalier or his son [Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc”] came to receive the embrace of U.S. presidents who lifted them up as examples of good leadership around the world.”
He added: “One thing I’ve been rather obsessed with, ever since I was a small child, is power,” he said. “For me, power is not an institution. It is not a structure, neither is it a strength we are endowed with. Instead it’s a condition. The nature of power is such that it’s not fixed, and does not reside eternally in the hands of the same people.”
Gaspard’s profound cynicism towards electoral politics took a different direction at the age of 16.
“That’s when I learned more about this country 8,000 miles away from us, whose 85 percent majority was subjected by a brutal minority, and that there was this guy named Nelson Mandela who was kept in jail for decades,” said the budding activist, recalling how — as a junior in high school — he’d often cut classes without his mother’s knowledge to attend demonstrations against U.S. investment in South Africa.
In 1986, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed sanctions against South Africa. On Sept. 26 of that year, then-President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill — calling it “economic warfare” — but lawmakers overwhelmingly overturned Reagan’s veto (in the Senate by 78 to 21, and in the House by 313 to 83).
“I understood that day the power of collective engagement and activism,” said Gaspard. “I was only 19 years old, but we had just done the most incredible thing. I was absolutely hooked, and I knew this would be the path of progress.”
Eventually, he met Rev. Jesse Jackson and became involved with his 1988 Democratic run for president — “and every single presidential campaign since then, right up to Obama’s 2012 re-election.”
Gaspard, who from 1998 to 1999 was chief of staff for the New York City Council and went on to work for then-Mayor David Dinkins, first met Obama when he was a state senator from Illinois.
“I was fortunate enough to develop a strong relationship with him once he became a U.S. senator. I did whatever I could to launch that candidacy. Then he asked me to be a member of his senior staff on the campaign. I turned him down three times. On the third occasion, he invited me to Washington to have a conversation with him in his Senate office, under the guise that we were going to talk about healthcare reform,” he said.
The black Democratic presidential candidate nobody had heard of until a few months earlier eventually convinced Gaspard to come on board as national political director for “Obama for America.” After his 2008 victory, Obama appointed him assistant to the president, making Gaspard one of the highest-ranking Haitian-Americans in the U.S. government. In 2011, he became executive director of the Democratic National Committee, holding that position until his current assignment in Pretoria.
“The president never wavered in his conviction,” said Gaspard. “He was determined to get some big things done, and he has. Now, of course, the verdict will be rendered on him, but I think we’ve something good.”
Gaspard has been in South Africa for 18 months. He calls it “a remarkable but a challenging country, and I have a tremendous amount of faith and confidence in its people.” But he also has tremendous faith and confidence in the Haitian people, given that country’s long history of poverty, corruption and mismanagement.
“We’re accustomed to seeing bad news from Haiti, but progress has been made,” he said. “Obviously, there’s a long way to do, but if we look back to 1970s, 25 percent of all children born to Haitian mothers died before the age of 5. Now it’s 7 percent.”
On the other hand, Gaspard added, “only 1 percent of Haitians have a full college education. And of that 1 percent, 84 percent leave the country and end going overseas. That’s a greater brain drain than we had during the worst times of the dictatorship.”
Following Gaspard’s speech was a Q&A. One listener asked him — given former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s just-announced campaign for the 2016 presidential race — whether the Clinton Foundation has done much good for Haiti in the long run.
“I actually don’t care. I’m focused on Haitian solutions for Haitian problems and I’m glad they made a contribution for Haiti,” he said. “Some investments they made were probably not the wisest, but other bets did pay off that were absolutely transformative.”
He said about 70,000 farmers in Haiti now have access to seeds and crops, radically increasing the country’s bean production.
“If you look at where things stood a few years ago, and where outputs are today, it’s like night and day. Whole communities are being lifted slowly but surely out of subsistence farming, and into products that sustain economies of scale,” he said.
Another audience member asked Gaspard what his biggest obstacle in life has been, professionally speaking.
“More often than not, I was the only black person at the table, and the youngest one too,” he replied. “One of my biggest challenges was trusting my own instincts instead of deferring to others. It takes a long time to find the courage.”