The last time Paul Altidor graced our cover, back in September 2012, Haiti was digging out from one of the worst earthquakes in modern history, Barack Obama was in the White House — and reality TV star Donald Trump had just begun spreading the lie that Obama was born in Kenya, not Hawaii, and was therefore ineligible to hold the highest office in the land.
Fast-forward to 2018. Altidor is still Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, his country is still recovering from that 2010 earthquake, and Trump — who surprised almost everyone by becoming president — hasn’t toned down his rhetoric. In fact, he seems to be doing everything he can to destroy the already-fraught relationship between the Western Hemisphere’s wealthiest nation and its poorest.
In December, The New York Times, citing two unnamed sources, reported that Trump had fumed in a June 2017 Oval Office meeting that Haitian immigrants arriving in the United States “all have AIDS.”
Then on Jan. 11, the day after Haiti marked the eighth anniversary of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince, killing up to 300,000 people, Trump let loose again. As lawmakers were discussing preserving Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for people from Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and African countries as part of a bipartisan immigration deal, the 45th president blurted out: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?”
But his comments — which the White House did not initially dispute — didn’t end there. “Why do we need more Haitians?” Trump demanded, according to Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), who was present. “Take them out.”
The “shithole” comment infuriated Altidor, who, as the U.S. representative of over 10 million Haitians, condemned it publicly and immediately. His government also summoned Robin Diallo, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, to explain Trump’s words — but no public apology was forthcoming.
“It seems everybody stayed quiet or distanced themselves,” Altidor told us in a lengthy interview in early February. “If you notice, even other people who were at the meeting, including [Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen], at her hearing on Capitol Hill, did not recall what was said. Our sense is that folks are afraid to express what they witnessed. They are fearful of the consequences if they were to actually acknowledge what was said.”
The incendiary comment, which received worldwide condemnation, still upsets Altidor more than a month later.
“This is a conversation between the president and a number of lawmakers. You wouldn’t think that, in the highest office of the land, this is the direction such a conversation would take,” he told The Diplomat. “This is in line with a pattern — even though the White House denies it — where the president has made other statements containing clichés and stereotypes. I think he’s trying to appeal to his base, using the fact that Haiti has many immigrants here under TPS.”
He added: “I’m not one to use the word ‘racism,’ but the president certainly seems to be targeting the Haitian community.”
Unlike Altidor, former Haitian Ambassador Raymond Joseph has no problem using the “r” word.
“Trump’s comments just show that he’s really a racist. He said he wants people from Norway here,” noted Joseph, a veteran statesman who was Haiti’s envoy in Washington when the 2010 quake ripped apart Port-au-Prince, toppling thousands of buildings including the National Palace. “When he was campaigning and needed the Haitian vote, he went to Little Haiti in Miami and told them, ‘I will be your biggest champion.’ Then he turns around and does this.”
Far more disturbing than the “shithole” remark, though, was the Trump administration’s November 2017 decision to end TPS for about 59,000 Haitians living and working across the United States, along with nearly 200,000 immigrants from El Salvador and 2,500 Nicaraguans (tens of thousands of Hondurans are still awaiting a decision). So the bottom line is this: After eight years of being shielded from deportation following the quake and the economic chaos that ensued, TPS will terminate for Haitians on July 22, 2019. After that date, warned DHS Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke, Haitians who stay in the country illegally will be subject to deportation (also see “TPS Ends for Haiti, Nicaragua; El Salvador, Honduras Still in Question” in the January 2018 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“Unconscionable,” tweeted Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), following the DHS announcement. And departing Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) told the Miami Herald that most of her fellow Republicans in Congress couldn’t care less. “There’s just no interest for immigration reform generally, and I don’t think there’s much appetite to help [Haitians and Salvadorans]. It hurts to say it, but it’s the political reality.”
‘Irrational and Discriminatory’
Altidor, 45, said the latest barrage of insults coming from the Oval Office is part of a “long history of Haiti being stigmatized” when it comes to the immigration debate.
“Going back to the 1980s and ’90s, Haiti has been an easy target,” he told us. “I made the point of forcefully condemning and expressing our anger at what was said. Too often in the past, we Haitians would have remained silent. This time, we stand together as a community.”
Joseph, who said he was “flabbergasted” by Trump’s “foul-smelling” insults, recalled the last time Haitians gathered en masse to protest official discrimination from Washington: April 20, 1990. That was the date when more than 75,000 Haitians marched across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge to shame the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which had classified Haitians along with homosexuals, hemophiliacs and heroin addicts as being responsible for the AIDS epidemic and had forbidden them from donating blood.
Eventually, the FDA backed down and withdrew Haitians from the list of risk factors behind the virus that causes AIDS.
On April 20 — exactly 28 years later — Haitian-American activists plan another protest rally in Brooklyn. This one is being organized by Theodore Fayette, producer of the Haiti Premiere Classe TV show.
“It will be very difficult for these people to reorganize their lives in Haiti,” Fayette said of the 59,000 Haitians set to lose their protected status in less than 17 months. “We hope they’ll take the opportunity to legalize themselves before that date, [such as] finding employers to apply for them. They’re frightened and looking for alternatives.”
Meanwhile, Haitians and their friends are taking their battle to court. A January lawsuit filed by the NAACP is asking a federal judge in Baltimore, Md., to nullify the Trump administration’s end of TPS protections for Haitians, arguing that the decision is “irrational and discriminatory,” and influenced by Trump’s “public hostility toward immigrants of color.”
But the administration counters that Temporary Protection Status was meant to be just that — temporary — and not a program that allowed recipients to repeatedly extend their stays for decades on end. It also says conditions on the ground in countries like Haiti have improved enough for immigrants to return.
Many Haitians, including Altidor, dispute that argument, pointing out that Haiti is still recovering from a massive cholera epidemic and damage from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The back-to-back disasters have only compounded the economic misery in Haiti, where 2.5 million people still need humanitarian assistance and nearly 60 percent of Haitians live below the national poverty line of $2.41 a day.
“The challenges that warranted TPS in the first place continue because of subsequent natural disasters, including three major hurricanes and a cholera outbreak. For a long time, Haiti has had to face those challenges on its own,” Altidor said. “We understand that the administration — rather than looking at the actual conditions — was trying to make a political statement by ending TPS. This decision was not based on reality.”
He added: “There are specific reasons under the law why TPS was granted to a country like Haiti. Most of these folks do not constitute a national security threat to the United States. Those who are here are contributing to the U.S. economy, they send millions of dollars every year to Haiti and they’re not a burden to the Haitian economy. We’re not going to turn our backs on them, but why go to that? TPS could have been extended for another 18 months.”
No less than 40 congressional leaders including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) publicly expressed support for keeping TPS in place for Haitians — all to no avail.
“There could have been a more structured process in place, rather than an abrupt end to a program that has been in existence for so long,” the ambassador said. “Many of the TPS recipients have children who are U.S. citizens. Families are going to be torn apart.”
Nearly 1 million Haitian passport holders live in the United States; including second-generation Haitians brings the size of the community to nearly 2 million. Most Haitians live in the New York and Miami metro areas, with sizeable communities in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and even Salt Lake City, Utah.
Haitians living abroad sent back $2.78 billion in remittances last year to their homeland, according to a Jan. 24 report issued by the Inter-American Dialogue. About half that amount came from Haitians living in the United States. In fact, remittances comprise 33.6 percent of Haiti’s GDP — by far a higher percentage than for any other country in the Western Hemisphere (also see sidebar).
Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank, said he doubts many of the Haitians living here under protected status will ever return to the country of their birth if forced to leave the United States.
“They’re even less likely to go back than the Salvadorans,” Shifter told us. “Conditions in Haiti are not favorable, so the practical consequence is that they’ll stay here and live in the shadows — and be in sort of limbo because they’ll lose their protective status.”
Shifter added that Trump’s comments and the loss of TPS will cause “a lot of damage” to U.S.-Haitian bilateral ties.
“It’s not irreparable, but it certainly sets back the relationship considerably, and it’s going to make any kind of future cooperation based on trust much more difficult,” he predicted. “This was a way of talking we’ve never heard before from a president.”
Huge Challenges Ahead
Even though Trump never apologized for his hurtful comments, “a lot of people in the U.S. government, including a person from the White House, have said that what the president said does not reflect the view of the U.S. government or what we believe as Americans,” Altidor told us. “We take comfort in the hundreds and thousands of emails and calls from Americans who expressed anger at what the president said, and also to apologize on behalf of their government. We have binders full of emails that we printed out.”
In a strange irony, he said “the country-to-country relationship between Haiti and the United States has grown stronger” in the wake of Trump’s invective.
“All of a sudden, more Americans are trying to visit Haiti. They want to see this ‘shithole country.’ We’ve seen overwhelming support,” he said. “A lot of people are reaching out to the embassy, which is what we’ve been trying to do from the beginning.”
In January, Haiti assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the 15-member Caribbean Community (Caricom). On Feb. 26 and 27, it will host Caricom’s annual heads of government meeting for the first time ever. And on May 2, Altidor — who was born in the Caribbean port city of Jérémie — will mark his sixth anniversary as Haiti’s ambassador to the United States.
Under Altidor’s leadership, the Embassy of Haiti fronting Massachusetts Avenue has become one of the most visited in Washington. The $4 million renovation project included a dramatic facelift of the stately mansion, which was constructed in 1907, acquired by China and then Taiwan before being sold to Haiti in 1979.
“Under my tenure, we’ve been pushing so many different events here. We have art exhibits, trivia nights, pop-up shows, business roundtables and lecture series,” he said. “Recently I brought a Haitian chef to the Smithsonian, and hundreds of people showed up for a demonstration of Haitian cuisine. We have cooking classes at the embassy. We’ve been on this crusade, trying to educate the American public to Haiti in its entirety — not just Haiti the poor country, but also showing them the richness of Haiti.”
Last year, the embassy also sponsored “Haiti Week in DC” in partnership with Busboys and Poets. It receives frequent visits from high school students and congressional leaders.
In the same vein, Altidor has been pushing tourism hard.
“One of the ways we hope to reboot our economy is to have people come for leisure travel rather than for charitable purposes,” he said. “We want to make it less cumbersome for them to come than for missionary travelers. We’re trying to shift the paradigm and encourage people to go to Haiti to explore.”
Yet Haiti is still wracked by poverty, crime, corruption and political infighting. Even outside forces with good intentions have piled on to the country’s woes. Despite the October 2017 departure of the widely discredited United Nations peacekeeping force, MINUSTAH, after a 13-year presence, a cholera epidemic blamed on U.N. troops continues to sicken people throughout the Maryland-size country. About 10,000 Haitians have died and nearly 1 million have fallen ill from the disease since 2010, when it was introduced to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal. And a $400 million voluntary trust fund set up by the United Nations to battle cholera has barely been funded and largely dried up.
Besides bringing cholera to Haiti, MINUSTAH was also involved in various sex scandals; at least 134 peacekeepers were involved in the sexual exploitation of nine children from 2004 to 2007. Likewise, Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in early February accused British charity Oxfam of sexual misconduct, alleging that Oxfam is only “the visible part of the iceberg” and that Doctors Without Borders should be investigated as well.
Crime and violence levels, meanwhile, remain high, and the political situation is unstable. Even though Moïse, a 48-year-old banana exporter, was sworn in Feb. 7, 2017, as president — and the handpicked successor to former President Michel Martelly — the transfer of power took place only after a long-delayed electoral process that included allegations of money laundering.
Haiti’s perennial political upheaval and economic mismanagement, coupled with worldwide donor fatigue and Trump’s TPS decision, have made it that much harder to recover from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. Eight years after the worst tragedy in Haitian history, thousands of people in and around Port-au-Prince are still living in temporary shelters, despite the billions of dollars that poured in after the disaster.
Altidor acknowledges Haiti’s huge obstacles but says his country is doing the best it can.
“We’re moving forward and keeping our heads up. Haiti still faces challenges, but it’s also taking a new turn,” he told us. “We have a new administration on the ground and we’re determined to make our economy less dependent on foreign assistance and charity. For that to happen, we’re creating incentives for investors to come and discover the potential Haiti offers.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.