My mother’s side of the family came from Miragoâne, the coastal southern city whose economy was bauxite. We have a range of hues across the skin color spectrum — from my uncle Lionel Duval, who could pass for white, if he wanted, to my dark mocha. We were close-knit, with Lionel being the patriarch and the family’s counselor.
My mom always spoke reverently of my uncle because he pushed her to excel. He was very proud of me too.
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When I became a professional, he would swoon or call for a chat after seeing me on television or reading one of my stories. That’s just the way he was. He embraced his family’s diversity of skin color.
Strangely, this is not common in Haiti, and I never realized truly how special he was until the events that unfolded in Haiti last week. Our family’s multi-color bond was the exception, not the rule in Haiti.
The torture and assassination of president Jovenel Moïse by unknown assailants laid bare the reality in Haiti in ways that we can no longer hide. Contrary to popular belief, Haiti is not a Black country. It is a modern-day Apartheid state where a small minority of White people lord over the mass of the population who are Black.
To try to explain this any other way is intellectual malfeasance. Haiti is presented either as an example of Black rule or, in White supremacist circles, of Black people’s inability to govern. I get asked the question in polite company: “Why is Haiti ungovernable?”
The answer is that it is by design. It is set up that way. Haiti is ruled not by the Black faces who are elected. It is governed by a small cabal of oligarch families who migrated to Haiti.
They are known as BAM BAM, phonetically in Creole “Gimme, Gimme.” The acronym stands for the Brandt Acra, Madsen, Bigio, Apaid Mevs families.
A primer on Haiti’s wealthiest
These families control 90% of Haiti’s wealth and give a veneer that Haiti is a Black-run country when in fact they control virtually every business and entity in Haiti. They allow the political class to exist to protect their narrow personal interests.
Except for the Arab Haitians, they are reclusive billionaires who hold honorary diplomatic titles to their country of origin. That means they pay no taxes because, after all, they are diplomats. In the rare cases when they have to pay their fair share, they bribe government officials to look the other way.
They own private ports with little oversight from the government. We wonder how arms and ammunition are plentiful in a country whose arms and ammunition for its police force are strictly limited. These people have had their knees on the necks of the Haitian masses for more than a century.
I’m not fomenting racial animus. These are facts.
Below these oligarchs are the traditional light-skinned Haitians of French ancestry, whose role is to carry on the racial caste system in Haiti. The “mulaterie” are on a lower rung that controls the arts, entertainment, small businesses and everything else. A dark-skinned Haitian can own a bodega, but not a supermarket.
Where does the diaspora fit?
The diaspora has no place in this system. I know of no one who has returned to Haiti and has been successful. These families, mulaterie and politicians take pleasure in squeezing investors dry and ripping every dollar out of our pocket.
A good friend of mine returned to Haiti to open a small boutique hotel in his hometown of Jacmel. He told me how disappointed he was by that move. Nothing functions and his hotel has sat largely vacant. If he depended on the hotel for his livelihood, he would have gone hungry. Fortunately, he lives off his pension and the hotel has become a sort of hobby, not business.
Then there is the case of Franck Ciné, a former executive at the now-defunct communication giant MCI. Ciné returned to Haiti and then went on to launch Haitel, investing $85 million. When he launched the telecommunications company in 2000, it was the largest private investment in Haiti’s history.
Soon enough, Ciné was arrested on dubious accusations and jailed. The government seized his assets and he returned to New York, an angry and bitter person, as anyone would be. The oligarchs would not accept this dark-skinned successful Haitian because it could set a bad precedent. He had to be eliminated.
A brother’s plea: Take an honest look in the mirror
Over the years of reporting and writing about Haiti, I have skirted this issue because it can be seen as fomenting class or color divisions. But I can no longer avoid this topic because it is cancer that’s staring at us, a life-threatening disease we want to avoid treating, thinking that it will cure itself. It won’t.
I know that Moïse was a deeply-flawed messenger and made a Faustian bargain to become president. I believe, however, that at some point he had this revelation and was willing to take on the oligarchs, knowing it would not end well for him. Moïse wanted to upend the system and make Haiti a more equitable place for the wretched masses, who have been desperately trying to leave Haiti, even if they must face withering prejudice and maltreatment abroad.
I have no doubt that my writing will change these oligarchs’ hearts nor prompt them to spread their wealth anytime soon. They see themselves as one step below God and are immune to criticism. They are soulless.
This plea is really to my light-skinned brothers and sisters. Haiti needs the same awakening that’s happening in the United States. This is your Black Lives Matter moment. You should question your privilege, the Haitian system that allows you social standing by the virtue of your skin tone.
Are you smarter, better educated than everybody else? You certainly haven’t proven that outside of Haiti. In fact, you know that you’re not superior. That’s why most of you can’t succeed outside of Haiti, where competition is fierce. Look into the mirror, peer into your soul and ask yourself if this is the Haiti that you want.
You know you’re not cut out for the New York, Miami or Montreal rat race. But you must admit this new version of Haiti doesn’t work for you, no matter your station in society.
- You can’t enjoy your beach house because the gangs have made going there unsafe.
- You must drive in the middle of the night to get to the airport because by dawn, the gangs rule the streets.
- You can’t drive to Jacmel because Martissant is a no-man’s land.
- You charter a plane, it crashes killing 6 people on board because the planes are not safe.
- Even Doctors Without Borders, which works in the world’s dangerous places, has decamped from their Martissant headquarters.
To my middle-class dark-skinned compatriots, you focus too much on the international community being at the root cause of our problems. The International Monetary Fund and the host of alphabet-soup organizations do similar things in other countries and the results, though not necessarily good, are not as dire as they are in Haiti.
Frame the argument differently. Peel the onion and you’ll get there. You’ve been asking incessantly about the provenance of the PetroCaribe money when it’s in front of you. If you look at the government’s contracts with Sogener, a generator reseller, they charged the government more than 30% higher than what Dominican companies charge the Dominican Republic.
You’ve watched your quality of life deteriorate consistently over the last 3 decades. Your children have no opportunity, but you don’t have the money to send them to North America to study. Be smart and reach deep down in your empty well to find some water, it’s there.
Our enlightenment is overdue
System Band, my favorite Konpa band, has a song that captures this situation so aptly. It’s called “Yon sel mwen menm” or “I’m alone.” It muses over a very optimistic Haiti, where a pitit soyet has found education and a better life overall despite the trials and tribulations of life in Haiti. It calls for Haitians to rasanble, or come together, with their conch shells and bamboo to liberate themselves.
But perhaps the line that ties everything together is this:
Zot toujou di: Si yo bay yo limyè, ya vin vole tèm.” In English, this means: “Others always say: If they get electricity, they’ll come steal my land.”
Moïse died fighting to get the country electricity 24/7.
Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia, and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999 he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language weekly publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.
Photo credit: Gregory Brandt, photographed at home in Haiti for the French M Magazine.