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Latin America Report

A diaspora lawsuit vs. 'Sweet Micky' reflects bitter frustration with Haitian education

Odilon Celestin2022.png
Tim Padgett
/
WLRN.org
LEAD PLAINTIFF Haitian expat Odilon Celestin in front of his North Miami restaurant, King Creole.

For years Haitian expats have paid service fees for what they thought was an education overhaul in Haiti. Many say it was a scam — and they're suing Haitian officials.

The armed violence that’s killed scores of people in Port-au-Prince this week is a reminder that Haiti has fallen into chaos — and that many, too many, of its youths are being recruited by the gangs that now control much of the country.

Like the masked teenagers who could recently be heard chanting menacing threats on the streets in Creole, including:

"I'm not afraid to get shot, because I have nothing to lose."

They have few other options in life thanks to Haiti’s poverty — but also because Haiti’s education system is arguably the worst in the western hemisphere.

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And that’s why angry Haitian expats in South Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. have a lawsuit pending against former Haitian President Michel Martelly.

When he took office 11 years ago, Martelly began levying fees on money transfers ($1.50 per) and phone calls ($.05 per) made into Haiti — mostly by Haitian expats. Martelly, a former carnival singer known as "Sweet Micky," said it would raise tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the free and universal public education system that's never really existed in Haiti.

But much of that money just sat in Haiti’s Central Bank — or, according to one government audit, a lot of it went missing through fraud. As time passed, Haitian officials admitted they couldn’t account for most of it.

READ MORE: Croix-des-Bouquets Crisis: a Caribbean arts center is Haiti's gang violence epicenter

That set off alarm bells for Haitian expats like Odilon Celestin.

“I say, ‘Whoa, wow,' " said Celestin, who owns a restaurant in North Miami called King Créole BBQ & Bakery.

"And I start thinking: Where I come from, we fight when we see something wrong."

Celestin is from the town of Obòy on Haiti’s north coast. When he suspected all those fees he and other expats had been paying weren’t going to Haitian education, he contacted relatives back home: Were they seeing new school funds or school improvements? No, they said: education there was as decrepit as ever.

“So now, I go back where I come from, to start my investigation," Celestin told me. "I start bringing evidence.”

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Courtesy Odilon Celestin
A school at Oboy, Haiti in 2017.

In 2017 Celestin visited Obòy and looked for signs of new school funding or renovations — any of the things Martelly’s education fund was for. He says he found none. He showed me photos and videos of the schools that were there, including the primary school he attended, the École Nationale de Legras. As we scanned them, he often muttered, "I don't know how we can call this a school...."

Most were still built out of dilapidated wood, cardboard, corrugated scrap tin, tree branches. They had dirt floors, broken roofs, flimsy benches for desks.

The teachers and parents in Celestin’s videos were upset. He said one of them told him, " 'Even animals — you don’t even treat animals like this. Houses for chickens and goats are better than this.'

"Haiti [doesn't] care about children. Children [don't] deserve this. I started looking for lawyers.”

I don't know how we can call these schools. You don’t even treat animals like this. Houses for chickens and goats are better than these schools.
Odilon Celestin

One of the first attorneys Celestin found was Haitian expat Marcel Denis.

Denis splits his time between New York and South Florida. And he was hearing similar complaints from other Haitian expats — the folks paying most of those Haitian government-imposed fees on phone calls and cash transfers to Haiti to fund a public education revival there they say never happened.

“I realized," said Denis, "that, OK, this is a scam.”

So in 2018 Denis helped Celestin and other expats file a class-action lawsuit against the former Haitian president, Celestin v. Martelly. Other Haitian officials are named as defendants, as are companies like the Caribbean cell phone service Digicel. But the focus is Martelly — who the suit alleges embezzled some of the education fund to help build a $9 million seaside house. (Martelly denies the charges.)

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AP
Then Haitian President Michel Martelly in 2016 in Port-au-Prince.

Initially, a U.S. judge dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs couldn’t sue here in America for alleged fraud committed in Haiti. But Denis insists the fraud was committed in the U.S. because the victims were the Haitian expats here.

“Why our laws, the laws of the United States, are implicated is because the collection of the fee occurs on American soil," Denis said.

A U.S. federal appeals panel in New York recently agreed and said the suit could move forward.

U.S. lawyers for Martelly argue the accusations against him “[lack] any supporting detail.” Digicel rejects any claim of its responsibility as “spurious.”

Nevertheless, the suit is seeking at least half a billion dollars in damages. Denis says any award would go toward the Haitian education projects he asserts Martelly lied about.

“What is at stake is the rights of the Haitian kids to be educated," Denis said, "in order for Haiti’s society to really change.”

EDUCATION SHUT DOWN

Haitian government critics say the fraud the lawsuit alleges reflects Haiti's historic betrayal of that educational right.

Haitian education may rank among the worst in the hemisphere — but not because Haitians don’t care about education. Free, universal schooling was promised in their Constitution when Haiti won its independence from France in 1804.

The problem, say education advocates, is the way Haiti’s elites have since suppressed that ideal.

“Education might be a threat to their power," says Haitian American Nedgine Paul Deroly, who runs a nonprofit schools project in Haiti called Anseye pou Ayiti, or Teach for Haiti.

"And so the beginnings of meritocracy and allowing people to move up the economic ladder was quickly shut down.”

Since its 2014 founding, Anseye pou Ayiti has more than 100 schools serving 14,000 students. Among the low-income students it hopes to lift up that socioeconomic ladder is 14-year-old Dieujuste Djouvensky, who just completed the sixth grade.

Djouvensky lives in the northern Haitian town of Gros-Morne. Without the program, his farmworker family would have few if any options other than one of the typically overcrowded and ramshackle open-air schools in the region with barely paid teachers — and bare-bones teaching material.

In his Asenye pou Ayiti school, "the teacher motivates us and us doesn't have to scream at us," Djouvensky said in a recent video. "He can take the time to explain the subject to us. I'm able to learn real subjects." He's learning more, as one Haitian education activist told me, "than 'just how to write my name.'"

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YouTube
Nedgine Paul Deroly

Paul Deroly said Anseye-pou-Ayiti aims to be a model for a quality public schools system that did once exist in Haiti — but only briefly — at the turn of the 20th century.

“It was highly regarded up to the point where really well-trained Haitian teachers were exported to Francophone African nations like Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire,” Paul Deroly said. (French is one of Haiti's two languages, along with the more widely spoken Creole.)

But after the 1915-34 U.S. occupation of Haiti, the Haitian elite soon regained control of education policy — especially during the Duvalier dictatorship, which turned schooling in Haiti into the ad hoc, you’re-on-your-own setup it is today.

Only a tenth of schools are public, and the government spends so little on those that students still have to pay tuition. Standards, meanwhile, are minimal. Paul Deroly said it’s all left Haitian children — and who they are — devalued.

“De-investment in the public school system in addition speeds up the de-Haitianization of the school system — this idea that what is Haitian is inferior," Paul Deroly said.

"That means excluding Haitian Creole and identity and culture. It becomes very much a cut-and-paste French, repeat-after-me instruction system.”

That’s the kind of hollow education experience many Haitian expats here remember. And that’s what they thought the fees the Haitian government’s been charging them for their money transfers and phone calls into Haiti for more than a decade now was going to change.

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AP
Young Haitian gang members in Port-au-Prince.

They say their lawsuit against former Haitian officials is their fed-up response to the fact that it didn’t change. Expats also say the fact it didn’t is a big reason Haiti is now overrun by gangs.

“Young people don’t wake up and say, ‘Participating in a gang is what I want for my life,' " said Marie Guerda Nicolas, a Haitian-American psychology professor at the University of Miami and co-founder of the nonprofit Ayiti Community Trust, which works with youth in Haiti.

“The diaspora was hopeful our participation is creating a better future for our young people in Haiti," Nicolas said. "So when things happen to trash that, then you diminish that sense of hope.”

The diaspora plaintiffs are counting on a successful outcome of their suit against "Sweet Micky," et al to revive that sense of hope — and the education system Haitian kids desperately need.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.