Touting the importance of the country’s diaspora, Haitian President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe brought their traveling government town hall to Haiti’s 11th department Saturday, 700 miles north of the Caribbean island to a high school auditorium.
Hundreds of Haitian Americans, from activists to professionals to minimum wage workers, filed into the 900-seat auditorium — with hundreds more in an overflow area in the cafeteria — for the hours-long dialogue.
The gathering was as much about receiving feedback from Haitians in South Florida, whose concerns ranged from justice and security issues to daunting customs taxes, as it was about the government touting its success.
“We have a slogan in the country, ‘We have kidnapped, kidnapping,’ ” Haiti Police Chief Godson Orelus said, addressing one of the major concerns for Haitians.
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But the applause soon turned to loud sighs as the crowd listened to a tearful girl named Anastasia ask officials, was it normal for someone to spend 12 months in jail without ever seeing a judge?
The young girl was referring to her mother, Wiline Absolu. The woman, according to an aunt, was arrested after police found a gun in her purse that she said had been planted by her boyfriend. Taking to the stage, the aunt later told of being given the run-around by lawyers who asked for as much as $15,000 to get the woman out of the Petionville jail.
Surprised by the amount, Lamothe demanded to know the lawyer’s name. He later promised that the matter would be addressed before the meeting was over.
The tale, along with others about issues with customs, is the reason why Lamothe said he wanted to bring key government ministers and directors to South Florida. He said a commission will be set to follow up with the issues raised both during the town hall and in private meetings with South Florida Haitian community activists.
“This gives us an opportunity to hear directly from the people … a very important constituency in Haitian economic affairs, a group that has been abandoned and neglected,” Lamothe said. “It gives them the opportunity to speak to their government in a direct way: cutting the clutter, cutting the red tape and the bureaucracy, having access directly to expose the problems. That’s the goal.”
The gathering brought Haiti’s ministers of commerce, education, justice, tourism, communications and diaspora to South Florida, as well as the head of customs, the Haitian Internal Revenue Service, the police chief and the director of the government’s social food assistance program.
For three hours, they spoke of changes that had been made, programs that were being worked on and then took questions from members of the audience who shared stories of stolen land, overpriced custom duties and other concerns.
“I like the work they are doing, and I am really proud of them,” said Marie Therese Blaise of Miami, who was hoping to have a meeting with Lamothe over a land issue she has in Haiti.
Earlier in the day, Lamothe met with members of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition, who sought his support on lobbying the Obama administration for the Haitian Family Reunification Parole Program. The program would reunite Haitian families who have already been approved for legal status in the United States but linger in Haiti. The group also requested an envoy to work with the Haitian government to push the community’s agenda.
Before today, the town hall, called Gouvènman Lakay Ou, took place in regions around Haiti. But for the ninth edition, Lamothe decided to come north, a move that has been heavily criticized in Haiti, where the country is struggling financially and the government just backed down from plans to increase the price of gas to address a budget deficit.
Both Lamothe and Martelly, who made an unannounced appearance at the start of the dialogue inside the auditorium at North Miami Senior High School, defended the decision.
“Even if we had spent $50,000 to see people who are sending $2 billion to Haiti, we have not spent a lot of money. On the contrary,” Martelly said, directing his comments directly to the crowd. “We know that with you we can do a lot of things in Haiti ... with the power you have, the financial power and the expertise.”
Haiti’s diaspora contributes about $2 billion in remittances that support schooling, healthcare and everyday living. Haitian migrants also contribute to the Martelly government’s free education program through taxes of their phone calls and money transfers to Haiti.
“Today’s meeting with the prime minister was very informative, but we brought some very important points to him. One of them was in education,” said Flore Lindor Latortue, who attended both a luncheon with Lamothe and the town hall. “We commend the government on the issue of implementation of education. We want to see a better approach of higher education that is never mentioned but only primary education. And we want to differentiate free education vis-a-vis public.”
Still, many have been disenchanted with the country and its administration. The executive and parliament remain at loggerheads over long overdue local and legislative elections, and despite progress since the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, there are doubts about the government’s progress in a country where unemployment remains high and poverty vast.
“We are working and we want to succeed,” Martelly said. “It happens that I care. I really do want things to change in Haiti. We have showed it already.”
Speaking of himself in the third person, the former singer-turned-politician touted his success and later gave the crowd an impromptu performance of one of his popular songs, Denye Okazyon.