PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti’s new president is reaching out to the 2 million Haitians emigrants whose earnings abroad have long helped keep the struggling country afloat even while they have been shut out of local politics.
Recently inaugurated Michel Martelly, who lived abroad himself, has vowed to overturn Haiti’s long-standing ban on dual citizenship and to build a better relationship with an overseas community that contributes 25 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product with remittances sent to relatives back home.
The Haitian diaspora, mostly in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, has been shut out of the political scene. Residency requirements ban those abroad from owning land or running for office, a clause that kept Grammy Award-winning singer Wyclef Jean from fulfilling his dream of running for president of Haiti.
Many Haitians maintain that Martelly can act on his campaign promises because he understands them: He was a widely traveled musician who speaks fluent English and seems as comfortable in the Miami suburbs as he does in the crumbling and chaotic streets of Port-au-Prince.
“He knows our sentiment and, more importantly, he knows the value the diaspora can bring to Haiti,” said Francois Guillaume, executive director of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce of Florida.
It’s early yet. Martelly has only been in office since May 14 and the new president has yet to install a government that will face the challenges of rebuilding a country left in ruins by last year’s earthquake, curbing a cholera outbreak, and stemming widespread unemployment.
During the campaign, he courted Haitian emigrants on the U.S. East Coast, urging them to tell relatives back home to vote for him. He also promised to bring dual nationality, a status that would give Haitians overseas more say in politics.
Once elected, he invited members of the diaspora to attend his inauguration, created a new ministry for diaspora affairs and nominated Daniel-Gerard Rouzier, a businessman educated at Dartmouth and Georgetown universities to serve as his prime minister. He plans to meet with Haitian investors in Miami and New York later this month.
“I know that President Martelly is committed to making the diaspora a full-fledged partner in Haiti’s development,” said Rouzier, whose approval is pending in parliament. “We have a bunch of lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs in North America and in Europe that we want to welcome back to the country.”
But some emigrants are worried by several other early actions from the president’s office. Martelly vetoed a constitutional amendment that would have granted more rights to the diaspora. He said he backs the idea, but complained that the text lawmakers approved was different from what was later published in the official gazette.
“This was one blow for the diaspora,” said Bapthol Joseph, who runs a youth center for Haitian teens in a working-class suburb north of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “But it’s not his fault.”
Martelly also is imposing new fees on tax wire transfers and international phone calls in hopes of generating more than $182 million to put more than 1 million children in school.
Rouzier, too, alarmed some abroad by proposing to eliminate the ministry for diaspora affairs, folding its duties into the foreign ministry to save money. More than 100 Haitians from Mexico City to New York signed a letter last week in protest.
“The sign that we have received so far from the new administration sends bad vibes,” Jean-Robert Lafortune, president of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition in Miami, said by telephone. “We believe some of his policies may damage the relationships between Haiti and the diaspora.”
Some emigrants may send less money home if fees rise, but Arsene Isaac, a 54-year-old soccer coach in Miami's Little Haiti neighborhood, said he’ll try to keep sending $150 a month to his family.
“It’s not really a problem as long as the money goes where (Martelly) says it’s going to go,” Isaac said.
Tens of thousands of Haitian professionals fled the country under the 29-year regime of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier. Some, including Wyclef Jean, have returned with political aspirations, but have been rebuffed. Texas millionaire Dumarsais Simeus was barred from running for the presidency in 2006.
Martelly hopes to bring such talent home, starting with his own diaspora liaison, Bernice Fidelia.
She left Haiti when Jean-Claude Duvalier was in power to go to college in New York. Now she’s returned, leaving her three children at their home in an affluent Miami suburb.
She’s organizing a “Diaspora Appreciation Day” that Martelly will host on university campuses in Miami and New York, with the aim of encouraging emigrants to invest in Haiti and to ensure their college-age children get involved.
“We want the diaspora to understand the door is open, come home,” Fidelia said. “We want your business, we want your time, your ideas.”
Associated Press writer Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.