REVIEW: Article

On US and Haiti Relations: The Ties that Bind

Haiti is the last country I will serve as a United States diplomat abroad and it was one of the first places I served early in my career. My perspec­tives on US and Haitian relations have ripened over decades of observation and years of first-hand experience.

The question I have been asked most is: “Why does the US Government care about Haiti? There are only about 11 million Haitians, the majority are poor, and they don’t even speak English.” And then the same people answer their own question: “Oh, I know, the United States doesn’t want 40,000 boat people landing on its shores—better to keep them in Haiti!”

Inextricable Links

Well, no, that is not the main reason why the United States cares about Haiti. We care because Haiti and Haitians are part of American culture, American history, and the American dream. We have many ties: ties that bind us together from the past, through today, and onto tomorrow. 

There are 1.5 million Haitians living in the United States. Most are Haitian-Americans, and serve as doctors, lawyers, policemen, school teachers, artists, musicians, and soldiers. They contribute to a better America. They also contribute to a better Haiti, sending $2 billion back to Haiti every year. 

Our shared ideas of freedom, liberty, and rights go way back in time, and Haitians and Americans share a deep understanding of the word “independence.” Haiti fought hard for her freedom and became the world’s first free black nation in 1804. During our War of Independence, over 500 Haitians fought with us at the Battle of Savannah, Georgia, and more fought in the American Civil War to end slavery. President Grant appointed Ebenezer Bassett as Ambassador to Haiti in 1869, our first black diplomat. He served in the country for eight years to promote peace and rule of law (and took stands not always popular with Washington to do so). 

Frederick Douglass also served as Ambassador to Haiti (June 1889 to July 1891). He told 1,500 wealthy Chicagoans on January 2, 1893: “In just vindication of Haiti, I can speak of her, not only words of admiration, but words of gratitude as well. She has grandly served the cause of universal human liberty. We should not forget that the freedom…that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons of Haiti, 90 years ago.”

It is said of ancient civilizations and great nations, that each had its special mission in the world and that each taught the world some important lesson. The American Republic gave the world an example of government by the people, of the people, and for the people. While little Haiti, anchored in the Caribbean Sea on one-third of a small island, taught the world the danger of slavery and the value of liberty.

The Earthquake and a New Era

Of course over the centuries our relationship has changed, strained, and strengthened, based now, more than ever, on partnership, mutual respect, and common values. Nowhere was this more evident than after the earthquake of 2010. Americans dug deep into their pockets to help the Haitian people. They gave from their hearts, and many went to help with their hands.

The earthquake plunged Haiti into a literal abyss—280,000 people dead in less than five minutes, 1.2 million homeless, 260,000 seriously injured or maimed, ten million cubic feet of rubble. 280,000 corpses—it is hard to imagine.

Port-au-Prince was in total chaos: no running water, no electricity, no government ministries, thousands of civil servants killed, no airport, no port, no way—except by foot—to get from one place to another. Almost every single person at the United States Embassy lost a relative—one of my employees lost four children. It is inconceivable. 

Yet today, the tents are gone, the injured revived, and the rubble removed. The dead are still mourned, but the Haitian people do not sit and weep. Haitians work hard to make their own country better.

Seventy percent of the people who moved out of tents (and 95 percent of the tent dwellers are gone) were either helped by friends and relatives financially or they actually moved in with them; those injured, long after the international volunteers left the country, were stitched, sewn, bandaged, and cared for by mostly Haitian doctors and nurses. The huge piles of rubble were mostly removed by Haitians themselves—wheel barrow by wheel barrow. 

The after-earthquake revival—of the nation and of the Haitian spirit—is nothing short of a miracle. If you want something to admire and to celebrate—let it be the fortitude of the Haitian people. President Michel Martelly, elected in 2011, led that effort, keeping up the Haitian spirit by speaking with gusto, singing and dancing, and demonstrating an immense pride in the country. He deserves credit for lighting up crowds over and over again, for his spirit, leadership, and guidance. Many believe that President Martelly and I as Ambassador have been too close. For the record, we have had some humdinger fights—and I’ve won a couple of them!

Much Done, Much to Do

Let me make it clear: Haiti is far from perfect and there is much that should and can be better. There is corruption and a dysfunctional judicial system. Too many people go hungry and too many don’t have jobs. Basic public services as well as health care, schooling, and housing must be significantly upgraded. Haitians, and their friends, know this—we must all take action to help Haiti steadily improve. So, to the naysayers, I say come and help. It is easy to find fault. It is more rewarding and challenging to help Haiti reach her full potential and to help Haitians achieve their own aspirations. And take note, there has been some significant progress.

In health, infant mortality rates are half of what they were ten years ago. Haitians dying from cholera went from 4,101 in 2010 to 304 in 2014—a reduction of 93 percent. Haiti has world-class doctors, like Dr. William Pape, renowned for work on TB and HIV—some of the most cutting edge research in the world has been done in Haiti. 

In education, five years ago, 62 percent of Haiti’s children were in school; today that figure is 85 percent, meaning 100,000 new students are now in school. Extreme poverty has dropped by almost 25 percent in the last ten years. 

International companies see the potential in Haiti. In telecommunications, Digicel has invested $1.2 billion, and NATCOM has invested $500 million. BRANA has invested tens of millions of dollars in improved infrastructure, and others, like Coca-Cola, plan to do the same. The garment industry is making a roaring comeback. Almost 43,000 people are now earning a steady income from work in the apparel industry, a 12 percent increase from a year ago. For the first time in history, the American Chamber of Commerce of the Western Hemisphere hosted their annual conference in Haiti this year.

Tourism is growing, with 11 percent more visitors since last year. New international hotels like Best Western and the Marriott have opened in the capital, and new American Airlines and Jet Blue air routes connect more Haitian and American cities. 

Current Events

Although there are on-going challenges with neighboring Dominican Republic re­lated to immigration, the two countries also enjoy a positive economic relationship, which is symbol­ized in the CODEVI industrial park. Owned by a Dominican firm and representing the largest private sector employer in Haiti, CODEVI gives 7,000 Haitians a daily, con­sistent wage along the border and is an example of what countries can do when they put aside cultural and historical differences in the name of economic cooperation and development.

As for the latest “crisis” in Haitian-Dominican relations over migration, it’s a chronic issue, but a manageable one. This latest effort by the Dominican Republic to control illegal immigration does not add up to a crisis in humanitarian or political terms. For our part, we watch deportations closely. The Dominican Republic over the last month has conducted 940 official deportations. Dominican deportation protocols pass due process muster.

Encouraged by the United States, international authorities are monitoring for any wrongful deportations, and have found very few. Dominican authorities have promised to develop more protective protocols, and to return any wrongfully deported to their Dominican homes. Most deportees tell international monitors they have a home or friends to go to inside Haiti, and Haitian and international border reception areas so far are absorbing returnee flows. In one area, some conditions for deportees have been worsened by impoverished local Haitians coming to the returnee camps in hopes of getting help meant for deportees. The United States is working with Haitian authorities to develop an effective response that avoids the creation of permanent camps along the border. It’s a complicated situation, but not a crisis.

Elections, Haitian-Style

Haiti holds elections this year. The three round process started on August 9. Elections in Haiti are messy and tumultuous, but they are essential. Haiti needs a democratically elected president, parliament, and mayors. Haiti simply cannot progress as rapidly as she must without an elected democratic government and a greater belief among all Haitians that participation is broadening—that they have a voice. An elected govern­ment is the only way forward, the only way Haiti can have the stability it needs to develop economically. Private businesses are not attracted to transitional governments that do not offer long-term stability. Today, more than ever, Haiti needs its political parties, govern­ment, and voters to put aside their mistrust in order to move their country ahead. 

Haiti is moving forward. For those Haiti watchers who can only see the downside of Haiti, please give suggestions for improvement instead of continually accentuating the negatives. You can get on board with an improved Haiti as she moves forward, or you can continue to sell Haiti as the Western Hemisphere’s basket case. However, every single visitor I ever had to Haiti was amazed at the beauty, the progress, and the energy. This is the Haiti I saw every single day for over three years.

Haiti, Cherie

Through my time in Haiti, both in the mid-1980s and over the last three years, I have laughed with Haitians, cried with them, and fought with them. I have stood against them and for them.

My sons were raised in five or six foreign countries. When they are asked their favorite country they say “Haiti,” without a moment’s hesitation. For them, and for me, Haiti is not defined by corruption, political turmoil, and deep divides. For us, Haiti is mountains beyond mountains, grilled griot over black rice, beaches without end, banana peze ak pikliz, brilliant sunsets, and throbbing music. To us, Haiti is a country jammed full of the most resilient, creative, and warm people on the face of the earth. As so many other Americans, we are thankful for the friendship and the lasting bonds we share.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to the Republic of Haiti, 2012-2015
United States Ambassador to The Gambia, 2010-2012