Haitian Expats, Long Dissed By Haiti, Set To Play Key Role In Sunday's Election

Oct 3, 2016

Back in July, State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed the U.S. had “suspended its assistance toward completion of the presidential electoral process” in Haiti.

Which means: Uncle Sam is not helping to pay for the presidential election being held in Haiti this coming Sunday. Nor will it help with the likely run-off election scheduled for January.

Other international donors, like Canada, have also cut off election aid. Simply put, they’re fed up with Haiti’s political leaders.

“All those nations, they have reached what I call Haiti fatigue,” say Jean-Robert Lafortune, who heads the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami.

RELATED: Dissing the Diaspora: Why Can't Haitian Expats Vote in Sunday's Haitian Elections?

Why? Pay attention:

Haiti held a first-round presidential election last year. The U.S. alone donated $33 million for it. International observers OK’d the results, which had the ruling party’s candidate, Jovenel Moïse, and opposition candidate Jude Célestin headed for a second-round runoff. But the opposition accused then President Michel Martelly of having tried to rig the election in favor of Moïse.

That sparked violent street protests, and the run-off election was never held. Term limits forced Martelly to leave office in February. But there was no new President to take over. Haiti’s parliament instead chose an interim President: Jocelerme Privert.

Privert and Haiti's election commission then scrapped last year’s first-round election and called for a complete do-over, set for October 9.

We have been left in the cold for very, very long. This time we were surprised. We were well received. – Jean-Robert Lafortune

Get all that? Here’s the bottom line:

“The whole international community, they’re very frustrated,” says Dr. Joseph Baptiste, another Haitian-American leader who heads the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians in Washington.

“They feel like they’re wasting their money.”

But Baptiste points out that Haiti and Haitians are themselves fed up with that they call U.S. and international meddling in Haitian elections.

So with Haiti and its international donors divorced right now, who’s going to help Haiti put on Sunday’s election?

Haiti says it can handle the $25 million cost for this new first round. But who’s going to monitor the vote to make sure there’s no repeat of last year’s electoral chaos?

“We’re not going to stay on the sidelines,” says Baptiste. “We’re going to come down.”

In other words, stepping into the void will be Haitian-Americans.

PORT-AU-PRINCE PACT

That’s significant because Haiti usually keeps its diaspora at arm’s length. Although Haitian expats send $2 billion back to Haiti each year, Haiti’s elite tends to resent them. But that may be changing now that Haiti feels itself more isolated.

So last month Baptiste and a dozen other diaspora leaders, including Lafortune, visited Haiti and President Privert. It was a rare instance of a Haitian head of state meeting with a diaspora delegation.

“We have been left in the cold for very, very long,” says Lafortune. “This time we were surprised. We were well received.”

In fact, as the expats dined with Privert at the Karibe Hotel in Port-au-Prince’s upscale Petionville district, Lafortune was reminded of the Old Testament story of Joseph.

“Privert said, ‘Consider that you are home in Haiti,’” Lafortune recalls. “It’s like when Joseph was discovered by his brothers when he went into exile.”

Supporters of Haitian presidential candidate Jovenel Moise protest in front of riot police in Port-au-Prince this year.
Credit Dieu Nalio Chery / AP via Miami Herald

Privert and the expats struck a deal of sorts. On the one hand, the umbrella group known as the United Front of the Haitian Diaspora will send 150 neutral observers to help lend Sunday’s election more credibility. It’s the diaspora’s first-ever observation mission in Haiti.

“This is the first step toward us getting more involved in the political process in Haiti,” Haiti native and South Florida attorney Soeurette Michel told me by phone from Washington, where she’s been receiving election observer training.

“The more we get involved the better it will be. So I’m very excited.”

Which brings us to Haiti’s part of the deal. Privert and the parliament pledged three things: to push for dual citizenship rights for expats; draft a plan to give the diaspora non-voting representation in parliament; and follow through with letting expats vote in Haitian elections from abroad.

Lafortune says those are key to letting expats and their resources help rescue the most crisis-ridden country in the Americas.

“I believe it was smart for the government to open up its door because Haiti is basically sinking in poverty – hopeless and helpless,” says Lafortune. Haitian expats, he adds, “have the know-how” the country needs – from construction and engineering to healthcare and education services.

“If we have the good will to help, we should be able to do it,” says Michel. “So if the U.S. doesn’t want to help with the election, that’s turned out to be a good thing for us.”

Right now it’s that election that gives the diaspora a chance to show its know-how. The front-running candidates are still Moïse and Célestin – but at the moment the bigger question is whether Haiti can manage to hold an election so soon after the country gets hit by Hurricane Matthew today.