Boston’s Haitian and Haitian-American activists fight for justice across borders and generations
Rodline Louijeune still tears up when she talks about the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010. She had visited Port-au-Prince just a few months before to see her uncle. While she was born and raised in Boston, her parents grew up in Haiti. This was Louijeune’s first visit in years, and her uncle made a special effort to show her the island’s beauty.
It was the last time she saw her uncle alive. He was among the estimated 200,000 Haitians who died in the magnitude seven quake, which devastated much of the country. When Louijeune returned that May to take care of her uncle’s final affairs, she saw a country struggling to recover.
Growing up, Louijeune’s father would take her and her sisters to rallies and pay them a dollar to read the newspaper. Her uncle’s death reinforced that connection, Louijeune says. She decided to take an internship at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) last summer and traveled there with a delegation that observed the situation faced by migrants forced out of the Dominican Republic.
Now a student at Boston College Law School, Louijeune is still active in advocating for Haiti and hopes to practice international human rights law.
“Whereas right after the earthquake I was still in a state of numbness … this summer showed me how I could contribute in a real and meaningful way,” Louijeune says. “Which is why I’m involved in this activism now.”
In Boston and other cities across the country, activists like Louijeune plan service trips, organize delegations, and lobby on behalf of Haiti. That isn’t just a way to spend a gap year or pad a résumé, they say. By breaking down borders, Boston’s Haitian-American activists are challenging ideas about immigration and assimilation, proving that being fully Haitian and fully American isn’t a contradiction.
“That really gets to the importance of community engagement without borders,” Louijeune says. “I can use the resources that I have acquired in the United States and use them as advocacy tools for people who lack these resources in Haiti, Tunisia, or Sri Lanka. As a first-generation American, I can use my privilege to write human rights reports, walk the halls of Congress, [and] travel freely to Haiti and elsewhere in pursuit of justice and resources for the disadvantaged populations among us.”
The Greater Boston area is home to some 64,000 people with Haitian ancestry, according to the US Census Bureau. The agency also reports nearly 42,500 Haitian immigrants in Greater Boston — around 5 percent of the area’s total immigrant population. That makes Boston the third most-popular destination for Haitian immigrants in the United States, behind Miami and New York, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Marie St. Fleur’s parents moved to Boston in 1969 to escape the brutal regime of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who ruled Haiti from 1957 to his death in 1971. Her father avoided Haitian politics because of his experiences under Duvalier, but St. Fleur remembers watching the Watergate hearings with him on television and discussing current events. After graduating from UMass Amherst and Boston College Law School, St. Fleur went on to become the first Haitian-American elected to a state office in the US.
Similar to Louijeune, St. Fleur grew increasingly involved in Haiti activism after her father’s death in 2007. Shortly after, she visited Haiti for the first time. It was eye-opening, she says, because the gap between rich and poor was so much greater, and basic government services like sanitation and electricity were either unreliable or nonexistent.
St. Fleur continues: “It left me feeling that because of what he [my father] did for me, I have all of this amazing opportunity. While I know that I was raised to give back — that’s what I do — I could stretch myself more. That’s why I got involved with Haiti. It’s a passion of mine here, it’s a passion over there.”
And involved she is. After her visit to Haiti, St. Fleur founded the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, which advocates on behalf of the island — especially for more transparency and accountability in US foreign aid. After the 2010 earthquake, her group put together a platform for donors and mobilized resources that were sitting unused in Port-au-Prince. And she has taken delegations of elected officials down to Haiti to see the problems first-hand, creating what she calls “new ambassadors.”
While St. Fleur’s family largely cut their ties to Haiti when they moved to the US, she says many of the Haitian families she knew were more involved. That often took the form of visits home, remittances, and participating in cultural activities. The nature of that relationship is now changing, St. Fleur says, with more and more young Haitian-Americans involved in service and activism for Haiti — in the US and on the island.
“[What’s] changing is, Haiti has been so dependent on remittances. Now you’re coming to an end of the generation that will provide that,” St. Fleur says. “It’s good that that new generation is seeing themselves there to be supportive in a systemic way, versus this individual way. That’s what I think the hopefulness is.”
This was an election year in Haiti, with parliamentary elections on Aug 9 and preliminary presidential elections on Oct 25. Haitian citizens living in the US have the right to vote, but there is not yet a system for them to cast votes outside of Haiti. In 2012, the Haitian Parliament also amended the constitution to allow the children of expats to apply for dual citizenship. However, dual citizens face the same obstacles to voting abroad as expats.
The expense of traveling isn’t the only reason some expats avoid traveling back to Haiti for elections, according to local activist Kermshlise Picard. This year’s elections were marred by violence, and a coalition of opposition candidates put forth charges of voter fraud in the presidential election. (A runoff election between the two leading candidates, Jovenel Moïse and Jude Célestin, is scheduled for Dec 27.)
“The Haitian diaspora members who are interested in the elections mostly just talk about them and listen to Haitian radio, direct from Haiti, to keep up with them … From my experience, the ones who are still Haitian have too many things to worry about here to take the risk of going down to Haiti and voting in the elections,” Picard explains.
Advocates hope that Haitian expats and dual citizens will be able to vote from abroad by next year’s elections, but that promise is already long overdue. In the meantime, activists like Louijeune and St. Fleur continue to press for change from politicians and NGOs.
The US occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934 to protect American business interests, and the US government has intervened in Haitian politics several times since. While the efforts were ostensibly aimed at promoting human rights and democracy, many argue those interventions have had the opposite effect. Haiti is still heavily reliant on US foreign aid, for example — between 2010 and 2014 alone, the US provided Haiti with $3.1 billion in recovery and development funds, according to USAID.
There are many problems with US foreign aid to Haiti, according to St. Fleur, from poor planning and misuse to outright corruption by outside stakeholders. But she says it also presents a huge opportunity to bring about real change for the island. The US has been a powerful influence on Haiti, for better or for worse. That’s an influence St. Fleur says Haitian-Americans can leverage.
“Our greatest influence is, I think, here. We are the closest neighbor. We are a superpower. We are the superpower,” St. Fleur explains. “And if we can’t make that little half of an island work, I’m not certain how we can go around making most other things work in the world.”