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Commentary: The saga and bravura of Haitian migrants
Published on July 8, 2017Email To Friend    Print Version

By Jean Hervé Charles

I was recently at the Toussaint Louverure airport in Port au Prince, Haiti, departing for New York City; the real action was not with JetBlue or American Airlines passengers leaving for the Big Apple but with the LAN airline transporting Haitian migrants to Chile. It looked like a well organized conspiracy orchestrated by several entities, the airline, the traffickers, and different governments all working in tandem for a human tragedy occurring with the open knowledge of everyone concerned. Some 300 young Haitian men and women were vying to find a seat on a plane that seats only 150.

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Jean H Charles LLB, MSW, JD, is a regular contributor to the opinion section of Caribbean News Now.  He can be reached at jeanhcharles@aol.com
Upon further inquiry, I was told the same scene has been repeated every day for months at the airport. A year ago the destination was Brazil for Haitian migrants trying to reach California. President Donald Trump put a stop to this human trek by closing the borders to those migrants at Tijuana, Mexico.

Some ten years ago in an essay on the Dominica experience, I alerted officials of the human trafficking observed in the Nature Island. Hundreds of Haitian women were trying to reach Martinique via Dominica with the complicity of all parties involved.

The Dominica government took notice and warned those Haitian people they were welcome in Dominica, not as victims of traffickers but as true citizens. The Dominica experience has since been one of the most satisfying for the Haitian migrants, they have contributed to revitalizing the economy of Dominica and they have saved LIAT from bankruptcy due to their frequent visits to Haiti.

In the beginning

Haitian migration might have started even before Haiti became an independent nation. It has its genesis in the days when the Haitian Revolution between 1789 in 1803 could have gone either way, for the French colonists led by Rochambeau and his ferocious dogs set upon the freedom fighters or for the Haitians led by Toussaint Louverture and later Jean Jacques Dessalines.

Several property owners fled with their slaves, first to Cuba and then to New Orleans, Louisiana, building the first Creole enclave on the American continent with the savor and the spice that characterizes the Caribbean joie de vivre.

Even before that event there was a huge fire in French Cape (later Cape Haitian) in 1793 that caused some 10,000 French settlers and free blacks to migrate to New Orleans, Charleston, Savannah, Baltimore and Philadelphia, transforming forever the texture of these cities in religion, music, cuisine and architecture.

The Haitians encountered the hostility of the segregationists who opposed the newcomers with their emancipator and dangerous doctrines proffered “by insolents, insubordinate and ungovernable Negroes”. Yet their influence was decisive in helping to win over Civil War. Louisiana, albeit today a regressive state in terms of social mobility, was woven with the influence of the Haitian migration, in religion (Catholic and voodoo) and in politics, with equal access to public accommodation before the rest of the United States.

To conclude with this first migratory episode, Haitians left the United States in general, the Louisiana Purchase territory in particular (acquired by the United States through the bravura of the Haitian founding fathers) in much better shape than it was before. One should note the singular signature of some of the Haitian migrants of that era, in particular: Jean Baptiste le Sable who built the city of Chicago. Pierre Toussaint, a hairdresser, who might become the first black man elevated to sainthood in the United States following the steps of St Augustine in Christendom via Africa.

The second wave of migrants to Cuba

Around 1915 and later the second wave of migration occurred from Haiti, especially to Cuba. It was due to the expropriation by the Haitian government of land owned by the peasants for the benefit of the great American companies such as the Standard Fruit and the Dauphin plantation. Some 10,000 workers left to man the sugar plantations also owned by the Americans in Cuba. They faced discrimination and ostracism due to their language (Creole) their religion (voodoo) and their lack of education.

But soon, as today in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the Haitians earned a reputation “as the most efficient and most exploitable segment of the labor force”. Yet the vicious circle of opening and closing the gate for the sugar industry caused, as in the Dominican Republic today, the forced repatriation of some 40,000 Haitian migrants by the year 1936.

Before Fidel and Raul Castro, the presence of the Haitian migrants in Cuba had been a silent and suspicious one, created by the plain racism of the Cuban people who preferred to see themselves closer to European/Spanish ancestry than African. Communist Cuba did not attract too many Haitian immigrants yet the integration of those who remained in Cuba through the years has been almost total, with Cuba offering today a class of some 200 students every year completing their medical degrees for the benefit of Haiti.

The third wave of migrants to the Dominican Republic

I have painted the story of the Haitian migration to the Dominican Republic in several previous essays, Suffice to say, it has been complicated since the Dominican government, strengthened by its highest court of law, in 2013 decided to strip some 210,000 of Haitians born in or who have lived for decades in the Dominican Republic of their Dominican citizenship. The jus soli in application in the land for centuries has been revoked, especially for the Haitians.

The anti-Haitian sentiment in the Dominican Republic has its origin in the darkest times. Jean Pierre Boyer, the third president of Haiti who ruled over the entire island of Hispaniola around 1820, mistreated Haiti and the Dominican Republic so badly that the scars have not healed since. In addition, while the Dominican Republic looked towards Europe, in particular Spain, Haiti is geared towards Africa and its cultural values for its way of life.

Playing the devil’s advocate, I have said in several essays on the Dominican Republic that Haiti, forced to absorb one million Dominican citizens on its territory, would have been a much worse, inhospitable host. In fact, it is the inhospitable status of Haiti that causes so many of its own citizens, in particular in the rural areas, to migrate to the Dominican Republic as cane cutters, laborers and construction workers.

The earthquake of 2010 opened the eyes of the Dominican Republic to Haiti as a possible consumer market for its products. It is providing all the essential goods, from construction material to all types of foodstuffs, including the ubiquitous plantain and wood charcoal. Will the Dominican Republic accept the fact it is in its interest to help Haiti build its own nation? Will Haiti eat its pride and accept to heal its wounds and transform its own nation into one that will become hospitable to its citizens? The answer is still in the air.

The fourth wave of migrants to the United States and the rest of the Caribbean

Around 1957, a cataclysm of almost biblical proportions happened upon Haiti. Francois Duvalier, elected with the slogan of change for the better, plunged the country for the next three decades into frenzy so malefic for the nation that around two or three million Haitians may have left the country, for Africa first, later the United States, France and Canada.

It was the era of nation building in Africa; the United Nations recruited the best of the best of the Haitian professionals to help the new regimes in Africa freshly out of colonialism to achieve statehood. Haitian teachers, lawyers, doctors were helping the Congo and other nations in West Africa to develop sane institutions and adequate infrastructure. Was it too good to be true or a flaw in the recruitment process that this transfer of skills and knowledge did not last long?

Haiti was still under a ferocious dictator and, instead of coming back home, around 1970 those migrants went to New York and to Quebec where they have contributed to the revitalization. The dictatorial regimes and the many natural cataclysms falling upon the country occasioned the rural exodus in rickety boats towards Florida around 1980. It is has been continuous and unabated in spite of the US maritime enforcement forcing some migrants to look towards The Bahamas and the other islands of the Caribbean for solace and sun while Haiti is sinking into hell under successive regimes of faux democracy. It has recently been reconstituted into the exodus by air via Brazil or Chile towards California.

Back to Chile

The Chilean government, under pressure from Chilean civil society and the legislature, has started the process of putting the brakes on the free for all for Haitian migrants to enter into the country. Yet the booming Chilean economy needs fresh oil to keep the engine running in perfect condition. The aging Chilean population should also search for new blood to continue the process of nation building. This scenario is well understood by President Michelle Bachelet, but not yet by the larger population.

While the Haitian government and Haitian society has not understood very well the concept of harnessing the capacity of its youthful population to create wealth, it falls on any smart nation to profit of this resource, to the advantage of the host country.

In conclusion

As Jean the Baptist I shall continue to preach in the desert that salvation will come for Haiti and for its departing migrants when the Haitian government will accept to apply the five principles of nation building, to wit: the sentiment of appurtenance for and amongst all, the building of sane institutions and excellent infrastructure so its population will cease to be nomads at home and abroad, the affirmative action for those who have been left behind, the search for and the application of the nation’s divine mission and last but not least the teaching to the youth the principle that the building of the nation is a continuous creation.

Hopefully my book: For the Country, for the Nation: A Society’s Vision to Render Haiti Rich, Powerful and Independent, edited by the State University of Haiti, will propel a critical mass of citizens to turn the tables and force the government to enshrine these five principles in its proposed new constitution and its national budget. The migrant saga will then become a nightmare of the past and Haiti will be busy changing the world for the better as its emancipator mission was dictated by the divine Creator and accepted by its ancestors!
 
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