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Conference addresses misconceptions, proposes new narrative for Haiti

With an aim to generate recommendations to shift U.S. policy toward Haiti, scholars, community leaders, and advocates of the beleaguered nation convened for a virtual conference organized by University of Miami centers and institutes and other partners.

A girl rides on the back of a truck to avoid getting wet on a flooded street in the Cite du Soleil district in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 2. Photo: The Associated Press

Louis Herns Marcelin, professor and director of the University of Miami’s Global Health Studies program, highlighted that the conference held on Thursday sought both to remedy the immediate crisis and also to generate actionable items to present to government officials and agencies in the United States to help stabilize the situation in Haiti. 

“Our work today is to question the role of the U.S. and international policy in feeding these crises and to recommend strategy pillars—with Haitians at the core, Haitians taking a hand in determining their own destiny, and by engaging the diaspora,” said Marcelin, also the chancellor of the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED). 

“The point is to provide a pathway for U.S. policymakers in order for them to see exactly how they can build on what we and civil society organizations in Haiti are suggesting—and not for the good of Haitians alone, but also for the sake of safeguarding U.S. national security interests,” he added. 

Lillian Manzor, associate professor of modern languages and literatures, and INURED coordinator Toni Cela, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Anthropology, joined Marcelin as principal organizers for the event, which was hosted by the University’s Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas (UMIA), Global Health Studies Program, and the Center for Global Black Studies.

Felicia Knaul, UMIA director and professor at the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, noted the University’s continued critical interest in Haiti and that the recent crisis at the U.S./Mexico border, where some 15,000 Haitian migrants amassed following a secondary migration from South America, was symptomatic of “an ongoing and very complex crisis in Haiti.” 

“The drivers of migration—poverty, inequality, and a nation that is repeatedly struck by natural disasters—are at the heart of this,” Knaul added. “Regional institutions and the U.S. and other national governments need to step up and do a much better job to address these drivers, and to invest in the development that is required to change the poverty that is the story of this nation.”

In his welcoming remarks, Leonidas Bachas, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the conference would serve to correct misconceptions regarding Haiti and help reimagine a new narrative for the country. 

“The Haitian crisis on our borders is an opportunity for us in higher education institutions to rethink how to address the root causes of mass migration and xenophobia,” Bachas suggested.

Marie Guerda Nicolas, professor at the School of Education and Human Development, moderated the first panel which explored the migration prompts and patterns—dating to the 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 250,000 Haitians and a cholera outbreak that same year—that resulted in the recent crisis at the U.S./Mexico border. 

Marlene Bastien, executive director of Family Action Network Movement, travelled to the border with members of her organization only to find that the Haitians were to be removed the next day. 

“Some of the challenges these Haitians had gone through were surviving a nine to 11 country odyssey, when they were subjected to all kinds of abuses in efforts to reach the border in Mexico,” she said. “These included violence and sexual abuse, and many had been robbed.” 

At the border itself, the migrants lacked assistance of any kind, and Bastien said those who were allowed to cross the border found that there was no system to help them resettle in the U.S. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which ordinarily would manage the situation, had been scuttled by the previous U.S. administration. 

Rep. Marie Paule Woodson, a Florida Democrat who represents District 101, called the conditions on the border “horrific.” 

According to Woodson, 2,000 Haitians were deported to Haiti, 12,000 were admitted into the U.S., and 5,000 are being considered for admission into the U.S. and are being held at detention centers. She said the Haitians who were deported received $100, but no other help. And many had no place to live and criticized the Biden administration for having no plan to help them. 

Carolyn Rosa-Avila of the Zoom to the Border Coalition, said there was a great need for more lawyers and interpreters who spoke Creole to help the migrants fill out forms and other documents. 

Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, a professor in the School of Law and director of the school’s Human Rights Clinic, focused her comments on human rights framework. She said that from a right-to-life perspective, a person has the human right to security of personal welfare as well as freedom from cruel, inhumane, and unusual punishment.

“We know that the right to life is deeply at risk for people being returned to Haiti,” she said. “This is especially true for vulnerable populations such as members of the LGBTQ community and people with health issues who may not have access to their medicines and people who do not have families.”

Participants in the conference, “U.S. Policy Towards Haiti and Its Links to Past and Present Migratory Flows,” lamented the fact that there were no U.S. officials on the panel, yet moderator Marcelin pressed panelists to identify pillars that could serve as actionable items for the Biden administration to redirect policy.  

Johnny McCalla, of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees, said that the U.S.’s containment policy toward Haiti, which he traced to the Cold War in the 1960s and support for the Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier dictatorial regime, offers the clue of why U.S. policy toward the Caribbean nation resists change. 

Robert E. Maguire, of George Washington University, noted that despite Haiti’s proximity, the U.S. continues to formulate failed policy, in large part because it mistakenly followed the same “interlocutors” whose self-interests and schemes have contributed to the current disastrous situation. 

“The proximity of Haiti does not bring understanding and knowledge,” Maguire said. “There’s a great deal of misperception and ignorance that fuels racism, discrimination, and fear—and that casts a large shadow over policy in Haiti.” 

Both Brian Concannon, of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Amy Wilentz, a former journalist who has written extensively about Haiti and who participated on a media panel later in the day, noted that racism remains at the core of the contempt that has led to misguided policy toward Haiti. 

“The thing to remember is that policy toward Haiti goes to the heart of the biggest problems in the U.S.—slavery and race,” Wilentz said. “In Haiti, the U.S.’s hand is on everything, and you can see the undercurrent of racism on every issue.” 

“The battle for the soul of U.S. policy toward Haiti must be waged in Washington, D.C.,” said McCalla, noting the influence of large lobbying firms that promote the agendas of clients who benefit from their position in Haitian society. 

“Everyone who cares about Haiti should ally together to have a stronger voice in Washington and in Port-au-Prince and to be at the forefront of policy making,” he urged. 

Panelists noted that in recent weeks and months, prompted by the resignation of ambassador Daniel Foote and the resulting congressional briefings, U.S. officials have been meeting with civil society groups in Haiti. 

“These are encouraging and hopeful signs, let’s hope they continue,” Maguire said. 

“By generating proposals that are actionable at this conference today, we can start taking control of the situation,” Marcelin said. “Together with efforts in Haitian civil society to forge an accord, we have an excellent opportunity for Haitians and friends of Haiti to have their say and to address the crisis.”