When Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic torch at opening ceremonies for Tokyo 2020, thousands of Haitians swelled with pride. And when she lost unexpectedly in the tennis competition, many in the country shared her pain. For Haitians, Osaka, whose father is Haitian-American, is yet another high-profile member of a vibrant Haitian diaspora that could play an important role in addressing Haiti’s chronic political problems.
The yet-unsolved assassination of President Jovenel Moise has put Haiti’s volatile politics and grinding poverty into the spotlight. A month after Moise’s death, a new prime minister has introduced a new cabinet and the U.S. has dispatched security experts to help the Haitian government secure vital infrastructure, though the White House insists there is still no plan to send troops.
The debate about what to do in the aftermath has yet to invoke an important resource: the more than 2 million Haitians living abroad. That’s not surprising. The Haitians in the diaspora evoke mixed feelings in Haiti: pride in successes like Osaka’s and disdain because they left the country. For a number of years, “Diaspo” has been a derogatory term, evoking the image of an arrogant Americanized Haitian who came home to flaunt his or her success.
But as Haiti has sunk into despair, the diaspora could be a lifeline. Haitians living abroad are not tainted by the corruption that pervades the political class in Haiti, and have achieved success in more meritocratic societies. The diaspora has acquired expertise, cultural and political clout, and experience living in democratic countries. As America struggles to respond to Haiti’s crisis, policymakers in Washington and diaspora members themselves should think about how to tap this resource. In particular, the diaspora can use their influence in Washington—as well as Ottawa and Paris—to bring international attention to the work of a commission of progressive reformers in Haiti. By shining a light on Haitian solutions to Haitian problems, the community can help break Haiti’s vicious cycle of disorder, hope and disappointment.
Haitians have been migrating in large numbers to the U.S. and Canada since Francois Duvalier seized power in the late 1950s. A second, larger wave fled when his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier succeeded his father in 1971. Haitian communities abroad, now in their second and third generations, have produced notable examples of upward mobility and achievement. Haitian-Americans are corporate executives, college presidents and deans, writers and playwrights, elected officials, actors and professional athletes, doctors and nurses, technicians and caregivers. Prominent Haitian-Americans include former Nintendo of North America President and CEO Reginald Fils-Aimé, Xavier University of Louisiana President Reynold Verette, novelist and MacArthur “genius” Edwidge Danticat, reality-show producer Mona Scott-Young (“Love and Hip Hop”), musician Wyclef Jean, University of Miami medical school dean Henri Ford, former Republican congresswoman Mia Love, essayist Roxanne Gay and NFL linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul.
It’s not just in the U.S. Michaëlle Jean served as Canada’s governor general from 2005 to 2010 while Dominique Anglade, a former cabinet minister, became head of Canada’s Quebec Liberal Party last year.
Haiti has a highly successful cultural sector that depends on talent both in Haiti and abroad. Haitian literature is highly regarded in the French-speaking world. Haitian authors, including Yanick Lahens and Louis-Philippe Dalembert, have garnered top literary prizes in France and Canada. Dany Laferrière is a member of that élite arbiter of the French language, the Académie Francaise. Haitian art has won critical acclaim and Haitian music has flourished in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.
While the Haitian community has made a name for itself abroad, young people in Haiti itself—galvanized by social media—are making their voices heard in the country’s politics. The civil society movement behind more than two years of massive anti-regime protests in Haiti, formally called the Commission To Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis, reflects this new involvement. The commission sees the installation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry as a ritual shuffle of the same rotten cards and a setup for a sham election. Instead, it wants an interim government with a limited portfolio to reform the judicial system and the police before credible elections can be scheduled.
But the structural reforms that Haitian progressives envision will be a tough sell to the international community. Policy experts talk about “Haiti fatigue” after the failed multibillion-dollar intervention following the 2010 earthquake. The Biden administration has signaled a lack of interest in nation-building projects. Haiti will have to make a compelling case that this time it’s different.
This is where Haitians abroad come in, if they can organize into a coherent force. The diaspora has helped move the needle on political issues related to Haiti in the past. On April 20, 1990, 100,000 Haitian-Americans marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest an FDA ban on blood donations by sub-Saharan Africans and Haitians because of fears about HIV. The size of the protest shocked the New York political establishment and launched a wave of political activism among Haitians in New York. Eventually, the FDA ban was withdrawn. More recently, Haitian-Americans have teamed up with the Congressional Black Caucus and other supporters of Haiti to press the U.S. government on immigration issues, such as temporary protected status.
Today, the diaspora can serve as a voice for reform in the corridors of power in Washington, Ottawa and Paris, and counter the lobbyists hired by influential Haitians who want to maintain the status quo. The House Haiti Caucus, formed a few months before Moise’s assassination, has urged the Biden administration to pay attention to the grassroots movement. In Canada, more than 20 human rights, labor and Haitian diaspora organizations recently sent a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to support the views of the commission on prioritizing reform before elections.
Patrick Gaspard, the new head of the influential left-leaning think tank, the Center for American Progress, is Haitian-American. To capitalize on existing momentum and help mobilize the diaspora, he could organize a think tank dedicated to Haiti or a conference where Haitians living in Haiti can make the case to policymakers for a new approach. One important topic could be building more transparent and tamper-proof systems for management of government finances to help regain the Haitian public’s trust. The group could also expand on an initiative launched by lawyers based in France to teach mediation to members of the Haitian judiciary—a much-needed skill in a winner-take-all political culture.
Financially, Haitians overseas already play a crucial role keeping their home country afloat. According to the World Bank, Haitians living abroad sent $3.3 billion a year in remittances (cash transfers) in 2019, nearly 25 percent of the country’s GDP. The money from Haitian communities in the U.S., Canada, France, Brazil and elsewhere feeds, clothes, shelters and educates relatives left behind. The diaspora can build on this role by targeting investments to sectors that need foreign capital such as renewable energy and food production, areas the oligarchs are not likely to embrace.
The Haitian government has the potential to play spoiler to the diaspora’s efforts. For years, politicians in Haiti have paid lip service to engaging the diaspora’s expertise and capital, but have done little to make it happen. For a long time, Haiti did not recognize dual citizenship, barring Haitians who have taken citizenship abroad from running for high office or voting in elections. By contrast, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, can vote in Dominican elections, playing a role in setting their native country’s political agenda.
Haitians abroad hesitate to invest their talent and money for the same reasons the country has trouble attracting other investors: corruption. The late President Moise and his predecessor Michel Martelly repeatedly declared that “Haiti is open for business” and urged Haitians abroad to pool their resources to help develop their country of origin. But neither president was able to move the needle on Haiti’s poor reputation as a place to invest. In 2019, Transparency International ranked Haiti 170th of the 180 countries it rates for public-sector corruption.
Meanwhile, the United States—whose interventions have done more harm than good, even when well-intentioned—is similarly failing to capitalize on this influential group. American policy toward Haiti has consistently favored stability over reform, though that “stability” is increasingly elusive. Moise’s moves to undermine democracy and consolidate power before his death drew mild rebuke from Washington. When U.S. officials visited Haiti several days after the assassination, they failed to meet with the commission, one member told me. Many diaspora organizations in New York, Miami and Boston are similarly frustrated that they don’t get adequate face time with policymakers. Listening to ideas from the Haitian community—both in Haiti and abroad—on how to rebuild their country would be a novelty after years of intervention by “friendly” governments and NGOs.
“The Commission has always considered the diaspora as a key stakeholder,” Monique Clesca, a member of the Commission and a former United Nations employee, told me, adding that the group has consulted key members of the Haitian community abroad about its plans.
To be clear, Haitian-Americans should approach the task with humility, making sure above all to listen to the people with the most direct stake in Haiti’s future—the people of Haiti. Diaspora Haitians can play a role in spurring necessary reforms without ending up as yet another outside group professing to know what’s best for Haiti. They have had the valuable experience of living in a democracy. They bring expertise in dozens of disciplines and management skills that are sorely needed in a Haiti weakened by decades of brain drain. And they have a track record of success that can be applied to a country that badly needs a new narrative.