Moïse Assassination Leads Diaspora To Question Its Involvement In Haitian Politics
Many expats feel their economic contribution to Haiti merits political clout, too. But the murder of Haiti's president may prompt a reality check for the diaspora.
The Haitian diaspora here in South Florida was stunned twice last week. The first shock was the brutal assassination of authoritarian Haitian President Jovenel Moïse at his home in Port-au-Prince.
The second was finding out Haitian-Americans from South Florida were allegedly involved in the crime.
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Especially Dr. Christian Emmanuel Sanon of Broward and Hillsborough counties — who in recent years has made self-promotional, almost messianic videos of himself claiming he's "the hope" of the Haitian people.
Haitian police have arrested Sanon as the mastermind of the Moïse plot. Supposedly, the assassins didn't intend to kill Moïse, just arrest him — and then have Sanon installed as Haiti’s president.
Sanon allegedly hired a security firm in Doral to recruit dozens of former Colombian soldiers and two South Florida Haitian-Americans to carry out the mission, which ended up wounding Moïse’s wife as well. The first lady was airlifted to Miami, where she's recovering at Jackson's Ryder Trauma Center.
The news dismayed Haitians here who’ve long insisted, with reason, that the diaspora is an all too untapped source for good in Haiti.
“Whether or not we are living in the country or outside of the country, we have a responsibility to ensure its development," said Marie Guerda Nicolas, a Haitian-American psychology professor at the University of Miami who, when Moïse was assassinated last week, helped take hotline calls from emotionally traumatized Haitians there and here.
Nicolas says if there was ever a moment for the diaspora to step up and help Haiti out of its economic collapse, its governmental chaos and especially its frightening violent crime crisis, it’s now.
“Tragedies have a way of leading to innovations," Nicolas said. "And so hopefully this will serve as an opportunity for us in the diaspora to recognize the role that we can play.”
You can’t go back and say, Hey, I have my U.S. passport but I also want to be Prime Minister of Haiti. To think you're going to know better, you're going to do it yourself, that’s not gonna work.
Haitians abroad send $3 billion dollars back to Haiti each year — more than a fifth of the country's GDP. Many expats suggest that, because of that, they deserve to play a greater political role in Haiti, too. Certainly not in the criminal, coup-mongering way Sanon and his mercenaries allegedly tried to play it but rather as champions of democracy.
Moïse himself wanted the diaspora more involved in Haitian politics. As he told WLRN in 2016 on a visit to Miami as a presidential candidate:
“We will work to integrate totally the diaspora, to participate in all the activities in Haiti.”
That was a significant change for Haiti, where an often corrupt political and business elite has long felt threatened by the diaspora and kept it at arm’s length. As President, Moïse even proposed a constitutional reform to let members of the diaspora run for president and other high offices in Haiti.
“President Moïse always believed the diaspora cannot be considered only as an ATM whenever we need money," Haiti's Ambassador to the U.S., Bocchit Edmond, told WLRN last week.
"It is very important for them to have a say in [Haiti's] political discussions.”
But many expats see big problems with wanting to hold office in Haiti. Haitians living in the U.S., Canada or France do bring democratic and capitalist know-how. But that’s not the same as knowing how to govern Haiti.
“When the diaspora is saying, 'We want to be integrated in the political affairs of Haiti,’ I think it’s a joke," said Soeurette Michel, a Haitian-American attorney in Miami.
Michel has long advocated for more diaspora involvement in Haiti. But she says it’s dangerous for expats to think they can run Haiti if they have little experience with its difficult, on-the-ground realities.
“You can’t go back and say, ‘Hey, I have my U.S. passport but I also want to be Prime Minister of Haiti,’" Michel said.
"The idea of ‘I’m just going to go there because I know better, I’m just going to do it myself,’ that’s not gonna work.”
Other Haitian-Americans warn that that diaspora mindset can become just another version of the foreign intervention so often imposed on Haiti.
“The presumption that anybody outside of Haiti has the answers, that all the expertise lies outside of Haiti — that’s what colonialism was about," said Haitian-American Chantalle Verna, a history and international relations professor at Florida International University.
"That’s why we need to listen more, be in collaboration with Haitian communities rather than presuming superiority of some kind."
Verna says one of the best ways expats can help combat Haiti’s violent crime, for example, is by investing in businesses that create jobs there.
Haitian expat attorney Regine Theodat realized that after Haiti's catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
"I came to Haiti then to do human rights work but I soon realized that had to entail economic empowerment," said Theodat, who started a food-and-beverage packaging company in Croix des Bouquets, Haiti.
Theodat says that in addition to investing in Haiti, expats also need to vote more in Haitian elections — which they’re now permitted to do from abroad — and most important, she adds: lobby the U.S. government more effectively for better Haiti policies.
“Our voice doesn't match our financial input in Haiti — it should be as loud as the U.S. State Department's," Theodat said.
"It shouldn’t be, 'We’re just waiting for what Biden has to say.' It should be, 'We’re also waiting for what the diaspora have to say.'”
And what the Haitian diaspora has to say — and do — after the Haitian president’s assassination may matter now more than ever.