Haitians in the diaspora think that only their increased involvement in the country’s politics will produce progress, but they don’t have the right to vote in the country’s Oct. 25 election, and few expect that to change anytime soon.
On Oct. 1, President Michel Martelly of Haiti was due to address New York’s Haitian diaspora at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College. Martelly was in the city for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, and by 6 p.m. several hundred Haitians crowded into the school’s auditorium.
But first, a band played. Then a dance group performed. And after that a different dance group performed.
Then there was a drawing. Five free trips from New York to Port au Prince were given away. “I haven’t been home in seven years!” cried the happy first winner.
A video touting the accomplishments of Martelly’s administration came next. Then, after three hours, there was bad news: the president wouldn’t make it to Brooklyn that night. He was “held up in a high-level meeting,” Guetary Roche, cultural attaché at the Haitian consulate, explained via text later that night.
The crowd mostly just sighed. “I knew it. Of course,” one attendee said loud enough for everyone around to hear. People laughed, then went home, picking up T-shirts in the signature pink of Martelly’s party on their way out. No one seemed even a little surprised that the president had failed to show.
Even Haitians in Haiti are used to being mistreated by their leaders, ranging from the dictatorship of the Duvaliers to the corruption and general indifference of more recent leaders. But the diaspora’s political influence is even weaker than those who live on the island. Diaspora Haitians are not allowed to run for office or even to vote, as long as they live outside Haiti. and dual citizenship is strictly prohibited.
“Haitians in the diaspora are seen as competition” to existing politicians, said Jocelyn McCalla, a Haitian-American political consultant and the former director of the National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. “Thus, they have not made any moves to modify the constitution,” even though it “condemns Haiti to remaining a backwards nation.”
Max Joseph, a columnist for the Haitian Times who writes about the country’s politics, agrees. Haitians are “suspicious” of those who have left the country, he said, and do not want to see them involved in politics.
Joseph traces the distrust back to professional Haitians who fled under the Duvaliers and “always planned to go back.” Eventually, in the 1980s, some of them did, thinking, “If we can make it here, in a country with structure, whereas back home it’s organized chaos, we should be able to go back there and reproduce it.” But their arrival produced a “standoff” between the diaspora and Haiti. “They want to go back with full participation, and that didn’t sit well” with Haitians, said Joseph.
Haiti’s attitude is a contrast with many democracies, which do allow nonresidents to vote. Haiti’s neighbor, the Dominican Republic, allows full participation in politics for the diaspora, as do Germany, Thailand, the United States and others. But Haiti is not alone: just this summer, Canada barred expats from voting. Absentee voting is also prohibited or limited in India, the Philippines and Ireland.
Despite the suspicion and the law, many in the American diaspora hope to play a bigger role in the Oct. 25 election, and in Haiti’s future.
On Oct. 4 there was a debate with some of the Haitian presidential candidates in Miami, following debates in Washington, D.C., and Newark in September. (More than 50 people are running for the post.) Haitians living abroad can fundraise, and organizers said the debates were an opportunity for candidates to listen to the interests of Haitians living in America.
“We can’t vote, but we want to hear what it is they’re saying,” said Firmin Backer, the president of the Haitian Renewal Alliance, a nonprofit organization that organized a town hall-style debate in D.C. on the 15. The town hall, he said, was a way “we can participate, we can voice our ideas to our candidates.”
Backer said they used two polls and advice from the Miami Herald, which covers Haiti closely, to choose which candidates to invite. Twelve of the 55 people running were invited, all of them among the top 15 in one of the two polls, and five of the 12 ended up attending. One participant, Moise Jean Charles, is currently polling second.
The debate, conducted mostly in English, focused largely on economic development, although due to the weakness of the Haitian state a big portion of that discussion was about enforcing rule of law.
Backer declared the debate a success and said diaspora interest in Haitian politics is “a lot more today than previously.”
“A lot of us are just tired of the situation in Haiti,” said Backer. “If we do not participate we’ll have the same type of leadership again and again.”
During the debate in D.C., the moderator asked candidates to raise their hands if they would support extending the right to vote to nonresidents, and all five did. A nice gesture, perhaps, but McCalla noted that “They have no weight.” Even President Martelly, who was seen during his 2010 campaign as a candidate of the diaspora (he’s accused by many Haitians of holding an American passport), did not make time for them while in New York.
Still, says Backer, these five candidates are on the record now as supporting political rights for Haitians in the diaspora. “That’s why we asked them to raise their hands, so they’ve made a promise.”
UPDATE: This article was revised Oct. 18, 2015, to eliminate a reference to Martelly’s status as president. He is not running for re-election.