‘Haïti Chérie’

Pooja Bhatia

The world has never been safe for Haitians, but since the 1960s many parts of it have been safer than Haiti. François Duvalier launched the first wave of sloops and midnight flights, and though the motives of migrants have shifted, their numbers remain substantial. Exile is intrinsic to the modern Haitian condition. Most college-educated Haitians live outside Haiti; almost a third of GDP is remitted by Haitians abroad. And throughout the Americas, the rich depend on precarious Haitian labour. Haitians drive Ubers in Boston, roll out tortillas in Tijuana, hang drywall in Chile, give sponge baths to the elderly in Florida, wash luxury linen in Montreal hotels and maintain expensive lawns in Nassau.

In the Bahamas, there are more immigrants from Haiti than from all other countries combined. They make up perhaps 10 per cent of the population, which totals 400,000, but it’s hard to know for sure. Among their ranks are thousands of people born in the Bahamas to undocumented parents, who are effectively stateless: the Bahamas does not grant birthright citizenship. Merely to appear Haitian is to risk detention and deportation. A 2014 policy requires non-citizens to carry passports. According to rights groups, the police use the policy to harass and extort money from Haitian immigrants afraid of being deported. Round-ups and raids are frequent. Last year, the courts halted a government plan to raze Haitian shanty towns. Hurricane Dorian has accomplished what the government could not.

In the Abaco Islands, Haitian settlements like The Mudd and Pigeon Peas are gone. Unknown numbers are dead (the official toll is 50); unknown numbers are missing (the official toll is 1300). In Nassau, more than 2000 people, most of them Haitian, are crowding into makeshift shelters. The government has suspended deportations, but on Friday, the immigration minister suggested that undocumented Haitians could be deported if they stepped foot outside their shelters. The government has issued an order blocking new construction in the Abacos. This leaves open the question of where the newly homeless might go.

Not to the United States, of course. To no one’s surprise, President Trump refused to extend Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Bahaman hurricane survivors. Even now, the US government is doing its best to send back some 46,000 Haitians who won TPS in the after the 2010 earthquake. Federal courts have so far blocked the government’s attempts, but Trump, who has been vocal in his contempt for Haitians, is unlikely to give up. Never mind that Haitians have done much of the work at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Never mind that his policies have exacerbated climate change, the brunt of which is borne by the migrants he scorns.

A 2014 agreement between the Bahamas and Haiti provides for the swift repatriation of undocumented Haitian migrants. But Haiti is not equipped to receive them. ‘Peyi a fini,’ a normally optimistic friend wrote to me the other day: ‘The country is finished.’ Since the summer of 2018, the situation in Haiti has been so cho – combustible, combusting – that people can barely think, let alone get to work. In the capital, there are demonstrations practically every week, with protesters burning tyres and the police firing tear gas. Many people are scared to leave their houses, even if they agree with the protesters’ aims: to oust the corrupt president, Jovenel Moïse, and to force the government to deal with the sky-high cost of living. The Haitian gourde has lost almost a third of its value over the past year. Petrol prices are high and shortages are frequent – in a nation whose leaders siphoned off billions of dollars from the Venezuelan PetroCaribe aid deal.

Othello Bayard’s song ‘Haïti Chérie’ is an unofficial and much loved anthem:

Haïti Chérie, the best country of all –
I had to leave you to understand your value,
I had to give you up before I could appreciate you,
To feel truly everything you were for me.

It’s the ode of an exile, but a certain kind of exile – a person who was forced to flee but could afford to return. After Dorian, I suspect that many former residents of The Mudd and Pigeon Peas simply cannot afford to return to Haiti, to enjoy the soft breezes and sandy beaches that the song extols. For them, it is preferable – and perhaps safer – to be despised, shaken down and forced to live in The Mudd, or whatever comes to replace it, than to return a country that is too broken to provide any prospects for them or their loved ones.