Once again, Haiti, a country with deep historical ties to the United States, is in the news. Once again, a negative narrative permeates the public dialogue and Haitian people are compelled to defend our humanity. Once again, the circumstances require us to wage a battle on two fronts: tackling the physical rebuilding of our nation so that future generations can prosper, while simultaneously combating prejudice and stigma that risk being, over time, institutionalized in the American consciousness.
Over the Christmas weekend, Haiti found itself the subject in a public spat between two major American institutions, the White House and The New York Times, over some comments the president allegedly made regarding Haitians and the AIDS epidemic.
While the controversy, fortunately, has receded from the headlines, it brought back painful memories for Haitians of a sad chapter in the United States’ public health policy. In the 1980s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued official warnings that simply being Haitian made a person more likely to contract HIV. The C.D.C. eventually — and rightly — dropped the unsubstantiated claim.
The reports of the president’s supposed comments — and the ensuing discussion of them — fit into a broader, troubling continuation of a narrative that is far too common in the United States, one that stigmatizes Haiti and Haitians as nothing more than the sum of natural disasters and instability, a country rampant with death and disease. In many American eyes, Haiti is in perpetual need of charity. This attitude provokes “compassion fatigue” — or worse yet, disdain.
It is long past time for such thinking to end. Influential American news outlets and political leaders should lead the way by resisting the reflexive tendency to paint Haiti and its people, whether living at home or abroad, with broad-brushed narratives that lack historical context and oversimplify complex socio-economic realities.
Haiti has been a vibrant, steadfast hemispheric partner since its birth. Hundreds of Haitian soldiers fought in the Siege of Savannah alongside American troops to battle British imperialists in the Revolutionary War. Sparked by this nation’s commitment to independence and freedom, Haiti soon followed with its own revolution, throwing off the shackles of slavery and colonialism. Thus, Haiti and the United States represent two of the oldest republics in the hemisphere, bound by dignity and a pursuit of freedom for our peoples.
The Haitian-American population has made significant contributions to American culture and the United States’ economy. Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian man, founded the city of Chicago in the 18th century. W.E.B. Du Bois, a leader in the American civil rights movement and a man of Haitian heritage, played a key role in creating the intellectual framework for equality for African-Americans.
Today, Haitian-Americans serve in the United States armed forces, and they represent their communities in state houses and on City Councils around the country. They are prominent scientists and engineers; they are taxi drivers, doctors, nurses and professional athletes. They are public-school teachers and university professors.
As Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, I have witnessed firsthand the Haitian people’s dignity, perseverance and resourcefulness. I have seen my people’s commitment to rebuilding communities and restoring homes after hurricanes. I have seen how young entrepreneurs in Haiti are now making exquisite chocolates to export to the United States. I have seen how engineering students in Haiti are now using technology to work remotely with Haitian-American engineers on disaster prevention.
These are examples of the countless positive initiatives underway in Haiti, with the support of the diaspora. Yet these attributes seem to be chronically lost in wider conversations about the Haitian people.
The recent controversy over President Trump’s alleged remarks have resurrected painful memories for Haitians. But it is a reminder of the urgent need to change the way our country is discussed in the United States. The narrative about Haiti should reflect our government’s development priorities.
We want our country to create wealth and prosperity for its citizens, not be viewed just as a recipient of humanitarian aid. Rather than American businesses donating excess inventory to our country, we are hoping they will invest in our country. Rather than students spending a week of spring break doing volunteer work, we want them to study abroad for a semester at one of our universities. Rather than writing a check to a charitable organization like the Red Cross, take a vacation on our beaches.
Given our two countries’ long intertwined history, it is time to we get to know each other on a level of mutual respect and understanding.
Paul Altidor is Haiti’s ambassador to the United States.