Advocates: Why Haiti Must Not Be Forgotten

The news out of Haiti always seems dire. Presidential coups, back-to-back hurricanes a year ago and high crime rates are just some of the hardships the impoverished nation must endure — all before being recently hit with a massive earthquake. Host Michel Martin talks with Nicole Lee, executive director of TransAfrica Forum, and native Haitian Joel Dreyfuss, managing editor of online magazine theRoot.com. They discuss why this is not the time to ignore Haiti and why support from the U-S is so vital..

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

More now from Nicole Lee. She's the executive director of the TransAfrica Forum. That's an organization that advocates for global justice for nations of the African Diaspora. And for more thoughts about Haiti and its place in our consciousness, we're also going to turn to Joel Dreyfuss. He's a native of Haiti. He's the managing editor of the online publication TheRoot.com, and he's been writing quite a bit, as you might imagine, about the situation in Haiti. I welcome you both. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. NICOLE LEE (Executive Director, TransAfrica Forum): Thank you.

MARTIN: Joel, we haven't forgotten you, and I want to say, of course, our condolences and our thoughts are with the people of Haiti at this time. It's an awful, awful tragedy.

Mr. JOEL DREYFUSS (Managing editor, theroot.com): Thank you. Thank you.

MARTIN: But Nicole, I want to ask you to pick up where Eduardo Gamarra left off. We've talked about Haiti's economic and political and rather complex relationship with the United States. TransAfrica's issued a press release talking about steps moving forward. If you could just tell us, what are some of the steps that you think are most appropriate going forward?

Ms. LEE: Sure. And thank you so much for having me on. One of the things I first want to say is absolutely my condolences to the people of Haiti. Even though I am not a native of Haiti, I've married into a Haitian family. And so I've seen over the last several hours just the angst. And, you know, a lot of that angst does come from repeated abuse of Haiti by the international community. So, TransAfrica has called for several things.

One is that it's extremely important that we suspend deportations here in the U.S. And I am happy to report, frankly, that administration immediately did suspend deportations of Haitian refugees, Haitian citizens that are in the United States and who are deemed deportable.

That is one step, but the other step is we need temporary protected status for Haitians that are here in the United States.

MARTIN: What does that status confer?

Ms. LEE: Sure. I mean, one of things that that allows is for people literally to come out of hiding. We know that there are undocumented Haitians here in the U.S. because every week, they are deported back to the United States. Some of them have sought asylum and have been denied their asylum claims. Some of them have married American citizens, but have not been allowed to stay in the U.S. What we've seen anecdotally, literally, for over 25 years is that Haitians are actually treated differently in the system than people of other nationalities.

So it's extremely important than when there is a time of chaos in a country, that the United States grant that country - not just the person, but the country - some sort of relief. And what we have in our system right now is something called temporary protected status. We have provided countries with, frankly, much less worse situations - and I hate to rank oppression - but much less worse situations, this thing called temporary protected status.

And yet we've had hurricane after hurricane, disaster after disaster in Haiti, and Haiti has never received temporary protected status.

MARTIN: Do you think that's going to happen?

Ms. LEE: I hope it is. And we have been pushing for quite a long time - due to the four hurricanes that hit Haiti only several months ago - for a temporary protected status. If not now, then we can certainly say for sure that Haiti is treated differently here in the U.S. So we hope that it is.

MARTIN: Joel, let's bring you into the conversation. You wrote a piece for The Root titled �Saving Haiti,� and in it you say: Haiti is a country with a glorious past, a brutal present and a bleak future. It's also a country sharply divided along class and cultural lines. You'll hear over and over again in the coming days that it is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. What you will not hear is that it is also a country rich in culture, world class art and music that is celebrated all over the French-speaking world. Why do you feel it's important to emphasize this at a time like this?

Mr. DREYFUSS: Because I think that, unfortunately, the attention that gets turned to Haiti by the international community is always in time of disaster. And the short hand is, you know - I once wrote an essay called, you know, �The Six Words,� you know, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. And those kinds of labels obscure everything else.

I mean, it's not that we deny that Haiti is terribly poor, needs a tremendous amount of help, but you also hear comments. I saw comments on our own Web site, I've seen comments by people like Pat Robertson and Pat - and, you know the leaders of the Republican - the unofficial leaders of the Republican Party. And it's as if it's like there's nothing redeeming about Haiti. And yet, you know, we have a history in this - in this universe of countries that are terribly poor, but that are still celebrated for their art, their music.

Ireland, I think, is an example of a country that through most of its history was one of the poorest countries in Europe, but nobody would ever say there was nothing else about Ireland. You talked about the music, the poetry, the art.

Haiti has produced poets, writers, musicians, people who have left Haiti and been incredibly successful. We have a huge Diaspora. I think in any solution for Haiti, we've got to find a way to tap the talent that has left the country.

MARTIN: And for those who are not aware, what Joel is referring to is that Pat Robertson made some comments that Haiti, in part, has brought this on for theological - brought this on itself, essentially, for making a pact with the devil. And I'm not quite sure theologically what he's talking about, but this has caused, of course, a tremendous uproar at a time like this when people are suffering so greatly.

You talked a little bit in your piece, too, about - can I use this expression? - a little bit of survivor's guilt. I mean, your family left, your parents left over...

Mr. DREYFUSS: Like a lot of people, my family left. We left early. We left in the 1950s, and my father went to work in Africa, which many Haitian professionals did at that time because, one, they couldn't work in the United States because of segregation. And so professionals like my father - he was an engineer and an educator - we lived in West Africa for a number of years. There was a huge community of Haitians.

There were Haitians in Europe. And then when race discrimination declined in the United States, that was the time when Haitians began to come here to work, because until that time, of course, we couldn't get professional jobs any more than African-Americans could.

MARTIN: And Nicole, I'm going to ask you this question. I think one of the issues and - that Joel alluded to, that there have been some - there's been some - well, there's been a tremendous outpouring of sympathy, I think, for the Haitian people. The tremendous visibility of the media has covered this disaster closely.

I think - I'm sure you're gratified by that. But there's also been an attention to the misgovernance that has plagued Haiti throughout a lot of its history. And the question I think some would ask is: Why is it in the U.S. interest to relax immigration standards at a time like this? Is it solely a humanitarian initiative, or is there a U.S. interest that would be served by being more - by being extremely supportive and proactive?

Ms. LEE: I think many times, when people hear stories like this, they think that it's actually not in the U.S. interest, that Haiti, if you will, is not in the U.S. interest. But we need to understand that Haiti's actually always been directly on the U.S.'s radar. And because of that, unfortunately, some of these governance problems that we're hearing about certainly, they are internal, but they are also - they also have these external factors, and it's important.

And the last guest talked a little bit about it, how the international community has actually really exacerbated some of the internal problems, and many times...

MARTIN: How so?

Ms. LEE: Well, one of the things that we have to look at is the infrastructure. And I've heard people say many times how shocked they are that there's no fire department, there's no ambulances to go and rescue people.

Well, part of that, even in the most recent history, is that the United States and the international community has really attempted to ensure that Haiti keep its public-sector monies low and that they really allow privatization.

We know that charities are all over Haiti. Well, most of the money that actually goes into public works actually does come from international charities in Haiti, and that has really been supported by the international community.

Now we see what happens - I mean, we've seen even with hurricanes what happens, that when the international communities cannot - when the international charities cannot function, they get their people together, and then they leave the country, which makes sense because they're not indigenous. But yet, we have really, as a country and as our policies, that we have really dissuaded the country of Haiti from being able to really have its own internal infrastructure.

MARTIN: Well, in fact, yesterday in President Obama's remarks, he made a point of saying that part of the priority of this government is removing American citizens from the situation, and I think that must have been difficult to hear.

Ms. LEE: Absolutely. And that actually makes sense, in some ways. It does make sense that would be our priority, but we have to think long term when we're talking about a country like Haiti that is an incompleted project. We need to be talking about how, long term, we can provide grants so that the government can provide the infrastructure.

MARTIN: Joel, in your piece, again you wrote: I know that Haitians are hardy people. They survived the unspeakable cruelty of their colonial masters and their colonial opponents. They survived centuries of corrupt rule, and when they gained the opportunity to emigrate to the U.S., Canada and elsewhere, their success showed that the plight of Haiti is not inevitable, that the relentless bad news and bad luck is not something inherent to Haiti and Haitians.

It's a powerful point, but it does raise some other questions. How is that so many people who have emigrated have become such, you know, magnificent achievers, and yet the country continues to suffer so greatly? And...

Mr. DREYFUSS: Well, Haiti is a country that has some very sharp divisions in it and that have never been resolved. And part of the fact that I don't think they've ever been resolved is there's always been an intervention by somebody at the point where the conflict comes to a head. Usually, the excuse is to protect foreigners, you know, the 1915 invasion by the U.S.

But I think the bigger issue is: How do you rebuild this country, and is this an opportunity for Haiti to rethink itself? You know, little things that happen - it's very hard for people in the U.S. to understand how much power and influence the U.S. wields, even when it's not paying much attention.

You know, we like to joke that the main point of U.S. foreign policy in Haiti is to make sure that Haitian bodies don't wash up on the beach in Miami and disrupt the tourist business. You know, there's not a lot of interest in Haiti, but the U.S. exerts so much influence that it has devastating effects.

A few years ago, the U.S. pressured Haiti to reduce tariffs on food imports. What that did was absolutely destroy the agricultural industry in Haiti, and that's one reason Port-Au-Prince now has two million people, because the peasants who were living off the land abandoned the land in vast numbers.

MARTIN: And going forward, what would you like to see happen? We only have about 30 seconds left.

Mr. DREYFUSS: I'd like to see some kind of international commission brought together with a lot of Haitian voices in it, including the Haitians in the Diaspora, because so much of what doesn't work in Haiti is because it's based on other cultural assumptions. It's based on how things work in the U.S. or how things work in Europe, and it's never taking into account what happens with -how Haiti itself works.

MARTIN: Joel Dreyfuss is a native of Haiti. He is managing editor of TheRoot.com. It's an online publication. We'll have a link to the piece that he wrote so you can read it for yourself. It's called "Saving Haiti." He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Nicole Lee, the executive director of the TransAfrica Forum, an organization that advocates for global justice for nations of the African Diaspora. She was here with us, also. I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Mr. DREYFUSS: Thank you.

Ms. LEE: Thank you.

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