Five years ago today, Wyclef Jean – the Haitian-American hip-hop star whose 2004 hit song mused, “If I was President” – revealed in an interview with me that he was actually running for President. Of Haiti.
Whether Jean would have been a good pwezidan is certainly debatable. But what made his candidacy most significant – especially in the wake of Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake – was the prospect of finally seeing a real bridge built between Haiti and its large diaspora.
“I’m the only man who can stand in the middle and get the diaspora and Haiti’s elite families to cooperate,” Jean told me.
And yet Haiti’s elite families hardly seemed ready to welcome Jean into the presidential palace. Three weeks after he entered the 2010 presidential race, Haiti’s election commission disqualified him because it said he didn’t meet constitutional residency requirements.
This despite the fact that Jean was born in Haiti and hadn’t ditched his Haitian citizenship. As a result, many Haitian-Americans said his ejection was typical of how Haiti often treats the Haitian diaspora.
“It’s frustrating,” says Sandy Dorsainvil, who heads the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami.
Dorsainvil was born in the U.S. to Haitian immigrant parents. But as far as she’s concerned, “as much as I am American, I’m Haitian, and it’s part of my home. My mom lives there. Right now as we speak my two children are there on summer vacation. I own a home there. So I want to be able to participate in the political process.”
Which brings us to this Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Haiti.
After the Wyclef Jean controversy, the Haitian government promised to give Haitian expats and their families dual citizenship – including the right to vote and even run in Haitian elections. Haiti supposedly passed a bill to that effect three years ago. It still hasn’t been enacted, and as Haitian-Americans like Dorsainvil put it:
“I do not see the light at the end of the tunnel at this point.”
But there’s a lot at stake here for Haiti.
The 2 million Haitians who live outside Haiti – including 300,000 in South Florida – represent almost a quarter of the population inside Haiti. They send $2 billion back to Haiti each year – almost a quarter of Haiti’s GDP. And they’ve acquired critical knowledge and skills abroad.
So consider that Haiti is the hemisphere’s poorest country. That its government is one of the world’s most corrupt. Development experts say post-quake Haiti simply can’t rebuild unless it more fully incorporates the diaspora.
Even a top Haitian government official agrees.
“We have to have the diaspora with us,” Robert Labrousse, Haiti’s Minister for Haitian Living Abroad, told me during a recent visit to Miami, where he insisted to Haitian-Americans that President Michel Martelly wants to solve the diaspora issue.
“Right now we have a government that thinks the diaspora is very important to us,” Labrousse said. “This time we’re going to [enact dual citizenship] because we’re going to find a way to do it with them.”
But Haitian-Americans say they’ve heard that before. To them, the real question is: Why won’t the Haitian government ever follow through?
“It’s due to a total negative perception of the diaspora,” says Jean-Robert Lafortune, who heads the non-profit Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami.
As a political dissident, Lafortune left Haiti in the 1970s to escape being killed by the brutal Duvalier dictatorship. It was during that regime that Haitian authorities developed a mistrust for Haitians living abroad – and for the democratic values they were picking up in countries like the U.S.
“At that time,” says Lafortune, “they called us kamoken.” Meaning “troublemakers” in Creole.
ACT OF INDEPENDENCE
But Lafortune says even today – 29 years after the dictatorship ended – much of Haiti’s political and business elite still views the diaspora with suspicion.
“I would say it is fear of political competition,” says Lafortune. “It is resentment. So the political establishment, it’s doing filalang.”
Filalang can mean going back on a promise – in this case the pledge to let Haitians abroad vote in Haitian elections. But it also resonates with Haitian expats who want to do business in Haiti.
“There are a lot of stumbling blocks and a lot of gatekeepers” for Haitian expats, says Serge Jean-Louis, who heads Nicon Contracting in Coconut Creek, which has been trying to win building projects in Haiti since the earthquake.
“You get frustrated and tired,” Jean-Louis says, “and, like me, I just gave up.”
Jean-Louis was born in the U.S. to Haitian immigrants. But he spent much of his childhood in Haiti and has a home there. One of his ancestors even signed Haiti’s 1804 Act of Independence.
“Jean Louis François,” Jean-Louis tells me. “Brigadier General.”
But Jean-Louis says he and other Haitian-American contractors usually feel rebuffed when they bid for projects in Haiti – despite their desire, they say, to train and employ local Haitians and improve Haiti’s decrepit infrastructure.
“It’s almost as if they despise us because [our families] left” Haiti, he says. “But bottom line, you’re trying to generate work there.”
All these South Florida Haitians say they understand Haiti’s fears about outsiders meddling in its affairs. But they argue Haiti’s interests are theirs – and they’re well aware that this Sunday’s elections have been delayed three years because of Haiti’s epic political dysfunction.
That's all the more reason they want the vote. Under the circumstances, Haiti could probably use a few troublemakers to change things for the better.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.