Notes about a “Shithole” country.

WASHINGTON — Once again, Haiti, a country with deep historical ties to the United States, is in the news. Once again, a negative narrative permeates the public dialogue and Haitian people are compelled to defend our humanity. Once again, the circumstances require us to wage a battle on two fronts: tackling the physical rebuilding of our nation so that future generations can prosper, while simultaneously combating prejudice and stigma that risk being, over time, institutionalized in the American consciousness.

Over the Christmas weekend, Haiti found itself the subject in a public spat between two major American institutions, the White House and The New York Times, over some comments the president allegedly made regarding Haitians and the AIDS epidemic.

While the controversy, fortunately, has receded from the headlines, it brought back painful memories for Haitians of a sad chapter in the United States’ public health policy. In the 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued official warnings that simply being Haitian made a person more likely to contract HIV. The C.D.C. eventually — and rightly — dropped the unsubstantiated claim.

The reports of the president’s supposed comments — and the ensuing discussion of them — fit into a broader, troubling continuation of a narrative that is far too common in the United States, one that stigmatizes Haiti and Haitians as nothing more than the sum of natural disasters and instability, a country rampant with death and disease. In many American eyes, Haiti is in perpetual need of charity. This attitude provokes “compassion fatigue” — or worse yet, disdain.

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It is long past time for such thinking to end. Influential American news outlets and political leaders should lead the way by resisting the reflexive tendency to paint Haiti and its people, whether living at home or abroad, with broad-brushed narratives that lack historical context and oversimplify complex socio-economic realities.

Haiti has been a vibrant, steadfast hemispheric partner since its birth. Hundreds of Haitian soldiers fought in the Siege of Savannah alongside American troops to battle British imperialists in the Revolutionary War. Sparked by this nation’s commitment to independence and freedom, Haiti soon followed with its own revolution, throwing off the shackles of slavery and colonialism. Thus, Haiti and the United States represent two of the oldest republics in the hemisphere, bound by dignity and a pursuit of freedom for our peoples.

The Haitian-American population has made significant contributions to American culture and the United States’ economy. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian man, founded the city of Chicago in the 18th century. W.E.B. Du Bois, a leader in the American civil rights movement and a man of Haitian heritage, played a key role in creating the intellectual framework for equality for African-Americans.

Today, Haitian-Americans serve in the United States armed forces, and they represent their communities in state houses and on City Councils around the country. They are prominent scientists and engineers; they are taxi drivers, doctors, nurses and professional athletes. They are public-school teachers and university professors.

As Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, I have witnessed firsthand the Haitian people’s dignity, perseverance and resourcefulness. I have seen my people’s commitment to rebuilding communities and restoring homes after hurricanes. I have seen how young entrepreneurs in Haiti are now making exquisite chocolates to export to the United States. I have seen how engineering students in Haiti are now using technology to work remotely with Haitian-American engineers on disaster prevention.

These are examples of the countless positive initiatives underway in Haiti, with the support of the diaspora. Yet these attributes seem to be chronically lost in wider conversations about the Haitian people.

The recent controversy over President Trump’s alleged remarks have resurrected painful memories for Haitians. But it is a reminder of the urgent need to change the way our country is discussed in the United States. The narrative about Haiti should reflect our government’s development priorities.

We want our country to create wealth and prosperity for its citizens, not be viewed just as a recipient of humanitarian aid. Rather than American businesses donating excess inventory to our country, we are hoping they will invest in our country. Rather than students spending a week of spring break doing volunteer work, we want them to study abroad for a semester at one of our universities. Rather than writing a check to a charitable organization like the Red Cross, take a vacation on our beaches.

Given our two countries’ long intertwined history, it is time to we get to know each other on a level of mutual respect and understanding.

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These pictures are mine, taken just a few weeks ago. Do you have a story about Haiti? Do you need to vent some political rage about this situation? Drop a line.

 

comments welcome.

Caribbean dreamin’

It’s been damn cold here in Michigan. As friends have not hesitated to remind me, I seem to have missed the really cold days, but I’m rather frigid none the less.

As the semester is underway and the rhyme and flow of the “grind” has set in, I’ve been thinking of Haiti yet again. I’ve been thinking of the island nation on a few different levels.

The first of which is downright adversity. Our last full day on the island was dedicated to a roadtrip to the sea. We tried to go the day before, yet couldn’t find a car. After overcoming this obstacle through much time, hard currency and angst, we then could find no fuel.

What?

That’s right. Port Au Prince was seized by a petrol crises. When was the last time you couldn’t go somewhere because when pulling into your local gas station a 12 gauge wielding team of guards informed you “no gasoline”?

Makes for a frustrated road trip. But this is a common occurrence for Haiti, especially in the capital. The solution? Dollars and time. Our fixer cobbled together a gallon here, a gallon there. We were set for early nothing the next day. To the sea we will go!

A mere hour outside the city is akin to visiting another planet. This is what I had imagined when thinking of a quick week run immediately before the semester. You know, coconuts n shit. Sandy beaches. Drinks with wee umbrellas.

Taking a day to lounge along the Côte des Arcadins is majestic. Slow, easy and not butchered by gaudy resorts. This day on the sea allowed me to begin to wrap my mind around Haiti. I had gone from the context of adversity to one of calm beauty. I did drink out of a damn coconut and floated for a while. These memories are extra potent when confronting sub zero Michigan temps. My final layer/level to Haiti that comes to mind is sheer tenacity. The savage beauty of the landscape as well as the people. I think back to the Ghetto Biennale, and Andre Eugene, the resident artist and curator. I think of seeing the kids of the art collective assemble amazing pieces, and having literally nothing. Living in a tent city.

I think about the grit that it takes to create, despite living in actual realized destruction. While I listen to my students bitch about the battery life of their new iPhones wearing their pajamas to class because they can’t be bothered to find actual pants. They “can’t even” as they say.

I think about Haiti. I think about how this place caught me off guard. Destroyed my intestinal tract, proved much more expensive and difficult than originally intended, how it caused friction among friends and could prove absolutley exhausting. But all of that aside, Haiti changed my perspective. I gassed up my private automobile yesterday…without issue. I drive where I want and things around me work for the most part.

You should smile about that.

Our political situation is nutty, with the US president calling Haiti a “Shithole” and promising to deport more Haitians…and this isn’t the post to delve into colonial legacy, but it’s something that deserves far more attention than it currently gets.

I think about Haiti, and I smile. I’m thankful for seeing a vastly different world, and yet again what that human spirit is capable of.

Thank you!

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The End of the World…Caribbean style.

I’ve been back in the states a few days now. Here in west Michigan the traffic is mostly minimal. The winter semester has kicked off and the daily grind is in full effect. The weather has moderated and a sense of relative normalcy has returned.

The transition back from Haiti has been a startling one. I’m thinking back on the shocking week around the Haitian capital and I’ve noticed it resonates daily.

It’s time to talk about Haiti.

There is poor…and then there is Haiti poor. I’m going to come out and say it. I’ve never been anywhere like this. Ever.

I’ve been some places, I’ve seen some shit..but nothing like this. Shocking on multiple levels on a daily basis. I tried to place and contextualize all of this brutal new input…and finally it came down to post apocalyptic imagery, books, movies…Mad Max type shit. Here’s the kicker though…Mad Max set on a Caribbean island with a cool sea breeze.

How’s that for bizarre?

I will tell you this. Most go here from the states with a well intentioned but condescending super white pity. They come down for a week with a Church, bang out a another church, feel like they saved the world. Pat them selves on the back and go home with a bracelet.

When you show up as a “tourist” most Haitians are quite confused. They give you this look essentially saying “the fuck are you doing here?!”…takes a bit getting used to.

KNOW THIS. (Thank me later)

You will accomplish absolutley, positively, nothing in Haiti without a fixer. A local keen to help you and show you how to navigate the insanity in return for your American dollars. Accept this, embrace it and enjoy.

Haiti is a place that slays spontaneity. My usual travel style died a painful awkward death by the second day in country. But once a solid fixer entered the picture, the layers of this turbulent island began to peel back a bit for a wee peek.

This is where I will directly recommend my man Richard. (Jacques Richard Miguel) his story is as rugged and awry as the local landscape. Richard grew up in New York, after his parents immigrated from Haiti in the 1960s. He soon discovered rock n roll, and the party that raged along with it in the 1980s. Richard eventually succumbed to a crack addiction and was arrested stealing from a department store to get his fix. He was deported back to Haiti in 1988. After getting clean Richard had no choice but to adapt to his new yet native home. (He has been clean over 12 years) His observations and insights delivered in New York accented English and rapid fire French are priceless and reveal keen tidbits about modern Haiti. (Please drop me an email or a comment for his contact info.)

Through Richard we were able to discover the gnarled yet throbbing art scene expanding in the capital. The best example of this being the Ghetto Biennale. This “art gallery” literally sits among the tarp/trash city within Port Au Prince and is run as a collective. This is also the coolest fucking gallery I’ve ever visited. No pretension here. Every piece is made 100% from collected garbage. Kids collect the pieces and learn how to craft/create. This is raw, this is real, and completely kick ass.

These aspiring young artists show amazing skill and tenacity. We enjoyed joking and a few candid photos on this afternoon visit.

You come to realize that “garbage” in Haiti includes metal, car parts, glass, body parts, etc. upon realizing the abundance of real skulls I was told “after earthquake, we find everything”. For a very somber moment I let that one sink in while admiring the twisted beauty of these pieces.

Voodoo themes abound and flow through the reality that is life in the capital.

Next up on the agenda is the attempt to roadtrip outside of the capital…sounds easy enough right?

Didn’t I tell you this one was going to get weird? I’m still ripping through thoughts and words back here where things mostly work, and I don’t have memories of an earthquake that claimed near half a million lives.

Want more Haiti?

Drop a comment with your thoughts.

 

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Haitian sunrise

I’m up.

I’m up early…and through some trick of the gods woke up in Haiti.

A few days ago I was in Bangkok, trying to make everything from the last month through South East Asia fit into my carry on bag. (Checked bags are for suckers) After Sri Lanka I had a brief stopover in Bangkok before heading home.

I fucking love Bangkok. Happy endings not even necessary.

The long slog on China Eastern wasn’t as bad as expected. Although the Chinese seem to have an odd orientation toward logistics. If you fly China Eastern, be prepared to wake up to this beauty roughly once an hour.

I made it back to the mitten mostly unmolested.

Well, I was in Michigan for all of two days.

Snow and coneys. America’s high five at its best.

Now back on the road. Landed in the Haitian capital less than 24 hours ago. This is what a serious travel addiction looks like. Sometimes it ain’t pretty. I had thought about doing a year end review post, and I still might, but I will plot it over creole food and a good cold beer.

Haiti comes at you hard. After a few days in Sri Lanka, I felt on the edge of the world a bit, but now I’m over the cliff. The airport is the perfect primer for the aggressive beauty that is this island nation.

Sit down, buckle up, and get ready. We are back on the road, and this ones going to get weird.

You ready?

Cheers.

Comments welcome!