Diplomatic Pouch / September 22, 2016
By Larry Luxner
Haiti will overcome political chaos and sporadic violence to hold its long-awaited presidential elections on Oct. 9 as scheduled, predicts the country’s ambassador to the United States, Paul Altidor.
The envoy spoke earlier this month at the Washington Diplomat’s inaugural Ambassador’s Insider Series event of the 2016-17 season. Held at the Kimpton Glover Park Hotel in Georgetown, the Sept. 8 gathering attracted more than 80 people — including former Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph — and covered issues ranging from corruption and cholera to poverty alleviation and post-earthquake recovery efforts.
Altidor conceded that “27 presidential candidates for a population of 10 million can be a little bit cumbersome” but said that the upcoming elections represent “a critical moment in Haiti’s history” and that their results must be respected.
Haiti’s botched 2015 elections resulted in a victory for banana plantation owner Jovenel Moise, the handpicked successor of current then-incumbent President Michel Martelly. But widespread protests over the violence and fraud associated with that race led to its eventual cancellation and rescheduling.
“I believe the elections will take place on Oct. 9 as planned, and peacefully as well. There’s been a major shift. This is the first time in recent history that Haiti’s elections are being financed by Haiti’s own resources,” Altidor said, estimating the cost of holding such elections at $55 million. “It’s a good thing for us to begin to stand on our own feet and take responsibility. But we need the support of the international community. From that point of view, we have no choice but to succeed.”
Altidor, 43, appeared on the cover of our September 2012 issue — under the headline “Haiti’s New Envoy Wants Investment Dollars, Not Pity” — shortly after taking office at the new Haitian ambassador in Washington. At that time, Haiti was still reeling from the effects of the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and killed as many as 300,000 people.
Before taking on his current role, Altidor was vice-president of the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund. After the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, he led a team of professors and researchers from MIT to Haiti to provide guidance on housing policy and financing.
“I had the fortune and the misfortune to see up close the process of funding post-earthquakes,” he said. “President Obama stood at the White House and had two former presidents say we want to help the people of Haiti. But trying to do the right thing and knowing what the right thing is are two separate issues. Many of the folks who gave money to Haiti had good intentions and good resources, but those resources did not align with Haiti’s true needs.”
Altidor, a native of the Haitian coastal city of Jeremie, has an undergraduate degree from Boston College and an advanced degree from MIT. He also pursued graduate studies in law and economics at the University of Paris. Asked how he’d characterize the U.S.-Haitian relationship, he said it’s “good, but not great.”
“My challenge as Haiti’s ambassador is to direct the relationship in a way that will become beneficial for us. There’s a long history between the United States and Haiti that goes back to Haiti’s independence,” Altidor said, estimating that 800,000 to 900,000 Haitians now live in this country, mainly in the New York area and South Florida. “The U.S. has been the destination for many Haitians who over the years of dictatorship opened its arms to Haitians. At the same time, many organizations come to Haiti to do charitable work. But as far as making it better, we want to be certain that the policy the U.S. is putting forward actually aligns itself with Haiti’s development process.”
Altidor complained that much of the money donated to Haiti following the earthquake was not stolen, but spent on the wrong things.
“People said, ‘we’ll do anything but we’re not giving a dime to the government of Haiti on the grounds that it’s corrupt,” he noted. “Therefore, we’re not doing anything. It means I’m working for a board, sitting in Washington, making decisions on Haiti but my boss tells me don’t do anything with the Haitian government because they’re corrupt.”
Even more disturbing is what Altidor had to say about his tenure as vice-president of the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund.
“Projects don’t mean much unless the sum of it comes to something,” he lamented. “The money was spent on a number of things — some were very good projects, and some of it, quite frankly, was wasted, in part because there are folks who lobbied to get projects done. It’s a presidential fund. Everybody wanted to be in bed with us because there were two former presidents involved in it.”
He added: “It wasn’t the politically correct thing to do to ‘create wealth.” But very few people have the patience or the mindset to go that route.”
Yet, asked whether a Hillary Clinton victory in November will help Haiti more than a Trump victory would, Altidor refused to say. “Regardless of who’s in the White House, we’re going to have to deal with it,” he replied. “That is a reality we do not control, so we don’t spend much time thinking about who’s best for us.”
Last month, after years of denials, the United Nations formally apologized to Haiti for having introduced cholera to the country five years ago through a contingent of infected UN peacekeepers from Nepal who had emptied their camp’s contaminated septic tanks into one of Haiti’s largest rivers. Since then, the epidemic has killed more than 10,000 Haitians, with thousands more being infected every month. On Sept. 7, the New York Times published an op-ed calling for the UN to own up to its responsibilities and compensate Haiti for its gross negligence.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but the admission of guilt is not there yet in the language,” said Altidor, though he did not specifically answer a question about how much compensation Haiti is entitled to for its suffering as a result of the outbreak.
On the larger question of the UN’s continued presence in Haiti — specifically its peacekeeping operation known as MINUSTAH (the UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti) — Altidor was more forthcoming.
Asked when MINUSTAH’s remaining 5,000 or so troops should leave his country, he replied: “They should have been gone yesterday. They should not have been there in the first place.”
He added: “Given Haiti’s history of dictatorship, is it time for Haiti to revive a national army? My argument is that the very presence of UN forces would justify the presence of an army. You have guys with guns walking around to protect us. A country that wants to stand on its own two feet should be able to do that.”