Haiti president recalls top envoy amid ongoing violent protests, calls for resignation

Haiti’s man in Washington, an ambassador with seven years of experience defending his country’s image, has been recalled by his government effective immediately.

At a time when Haiti is facing a deepening economic and political crisis that needs representation before the Trump administration, Paul Altidor received a letter informing him that his services will no longer be needed.

His recall comes as Haiti continues its descent into chaos, marking its seventh consecutive day of protests Wednesday that saw one journalist shot, at least one person injured and opposition lawmakers leading protesters in their demands that the president resign from office.

“We are asking for President Jovenel Moïse to leave,” Sen. Youri Latortue said as he walked the hours-long stretch from the city of Croix-des-Bouquets, along the northeastern edge of the capital, to the Champs de Mars, the public square near downtown Port-au-Prince where the presidential palace sits. “We would never leave the people by themselves, so we are accompanying them in front of the National Palace.”

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Divided into various branches, waves upon waves of protesters converged on the expansive public square waving tree branches. They were met by Haitian police in riot gear who had set up a perimeter protecting the palace grounds. When protesters tried to break through, police fired tear gas and at some point rounds to keep demonstrators away from the palace’s iron gates.

With gang members circulating with exposed rifles inside the protests, a strained Haiti National Police launched its highly specialized SWAT unit to provide backup. Meanwhile, other specialized police units were tasked with controlling looters. On Wednesday, they continued with the pillaging of businesses and the burning of gas stations. Several cars parked at the government-owned Television Nationale D’Haiti were also set ablaze.

In Petionville the scene was equally discouraging, as some residents dared to venture out to restock on groceries after six days of being holed up at home. Supermarket shelves were bare, with basics like drinking water, milk, bread and cooking fuel hard to come by, or available at a stiff price.

“We cannot sustain this much longer,” said Jerry Tardieu, a member of Haiti’s Lower House of Deputies who did not participate in protests but like many has been unable to get around due to the ongoing unrest. “Haitians live on a day-to-day basis. I am getting a lot of pressure from my constituents asking and warning me that they are running out of water, they are running out of food. They are panicking. We might not be very far from some sort of humanitarian crisis. This is real. This is serious.”

Given the state of affairs, many people were perplexed by the president’s decision to sack one of the government’s top envoys at a critical time.

“I can personally say that Altidor did more for Haiti’s image than past ambassadors,” said Dayanne Danier, a New York fashion designer who has hosted three pop-ups events featuring made-in-Haiti products at the Haitian embassy over the years. “He opened the embassy to Haitians of all generations and non-Haitians.”

Indeed, Altidor took Haiti’s diplomatic mission on Embassy Row in Washington from a place where Haitians only went to get passports and resolve document issues, to a welcoming cultural hotspot where visitors can bask in Haitian culture from art to cooking to artistry.

Haiti Ambassador Paul Altidor has been recalled by President Jovenel Moise after seven years and as the country plunges into political and economic chaos. Haiti Embassy in Washington

Altidor, 45, had submitted his resignation to President Jovenel Moïse a year ago. But the president had asked him to stay on, and in recent days Altidor found himself fielding calls from concerned U.S. lawmakers and their staffers about the ongoing violent demonstrations that have rattled Haitians and paralyzed major cities.

Since Thursday, Haitians have been taking to the streets in Port-au-Prince and other cities throughout the impoverished country to protest against skyrocketing prices, double-digit inflation, currency devaluation and corruption. In their anger and frustration, they’ve lashed out at businesses and demanded the resignation of Moïse, who has yet to address the public but insists that his five-year presidential mandate is not up for debate.

Demonstrators drag the body of a fellow protester toward police, as a form of protest after police shot into the crowd where he died, during a demonstration demanding the resignation of President Jovenel Moise near the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019. Protesters are angry about skyrocketing inflation and the government’s failure to prosecute embezzlement from a multi-billion Venezuelan program that sent discounted oil to Haiti. (AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery) Dieu Nalio Chery AP

Altidor received his recall letter on Tuesday. That same day, protesters burned a popular Port-au-Prince street market and looted stores, while 78 prisoners broke out of jail in a small southern town. The European Union mission, concerned about the ongoing unrest, hired a charter olane to fly dependents to the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Meanwhile, the 15-member Caribbean Community, of which Haiti is a member of, appealed to all to engage in constructive dialogue and to respect the nation’s constitution, the rule of law and democratic processes so that issues can be resolved in a peaceful atmosphere. It also called for a cessation of the violence.

It was the sixth day of what’s being dubbed “Operation lock down Haiti,” in which the opposition has vowed to keep the country locked until Moïse resigns. On Wednesday, they reiterated their promise to keep schools, businesses and public transportation shut down across Haiti until Moïse leaves.

“The timing is very strange. He’s embattled down here. Why would he do this?” Georges Sassine, president of the Association of Haitian Industries, said about Moïse in reference to Altidor’s recall. “You don’t change a horse in the middle of crossing a river.”

Adding to those concerns is that the recall comes just days before Haiti Foreign Minister Edmond Bocchit is supposed to meet with Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton.

Bocchit has been seeking support for the Moïse administration in Washington ever since Haiti agreed to break with a longtime ally, Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro, and recognize acting opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president. The discussion topics have included getting U.S. support for the purchase of subsidized rice for Haiti and help with getting Qatar to assist it in buying its $2 billion debt from Venezuela linked to its Petrocaribe discounted oil program, say sources familiar with the discussions.

Bocchit, who last week visited the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the State Department with influential Haitian businessman Andy Apaid, would not comment on the planned Bolton meeting. Apaid, a Moïse supporter, led the civil society movement that forced the ouster of president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004 amid a bloody revolt.

Bocchit said Altidor’s recall “is part of a rotation principle.” Haiti’s ambassadors to the United Nations, Denis Regis, and Mexico, Guy Lamothe, were also recalled but will be given new responsibilities. Former Haiti Defense Minister Herve Denis will be the caretaker in the Washington embassy until the president chooses a new ambassador, Bocchit said. The timing of the decision to recall Altidor, Bocchit said, “is not really an issue.”

A former adviser for the World Bank’s International Financial Corporation and vice president of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Altidor came into the ambassador’s role with no public diplomacy experience during president Michel Martelly’s administration.

Determined to change the narrative of his crisis-plagued country, he opened up the embassy to congressional lawmakers, fellow ambassadors and Haitians. Among those who have visited the mission: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Georgia Democrat Rep. John Lewis and media executive and entrepreneur Cathy Hughes of Radio One.

“We opened the embassy up to the outside public,” Altidor said, noting that instead of going to meet members of Congress on Capitol Hill, they often came to him. And very often those meetings were held not in the top floor office, but in the bottom-floor kitchen where Altidor often invited lawmakers to join him in a meal of Haitian cuisine as they discussed topics relevant to Haiti.

One memorable meeting occurred in September 2017 as the Trump administration weighed whether to extend Temporary Protected Status for Haitians. Between meetings with U.S Department of Homeland Security officials and immigration advocates, Altidor hosted an intimate dinner for about a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers to craft a new strategy he hoped would convince the White House to extend the temporary program that has allowed thousands of Haitians to work and live in the U.S..

The strategy didn’t work, but the dinner accomplished something else.

“We have institutions coming to our doors, people who would not be otherwise interested in Haiti,” said Altidor, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology who also pursued graduate studies in law and economics at the University of Paris.

In January 2018, Altidor was in the U.S. spotlight again when it was reported that Trump referred to Haiti and other African nations as “shithole countries.” He was the first and only Haitian government official to respond to the remark, saying he vehemently condemned it and would use the publicity to continue to introduce a new narrative around Haiti.

That narrative has involved getting Americans to see Haiti as a country that is capable of luring investments, and to see Haitians as hard workers who contribute to the fabric of America.

“I made a point to ensure that the U.S community get a glance of the Haitian package, not just some of the bad things like we are seeing right now,” Altidor said, “but from the the history to the culture. Folks should know about that. And we’ve made significant progress.”

His efforts weren’t always appreciated. Critics accused him of spending too much time on community relations rather than diplomacy while lobbyists and want-to-be lobbyists sometimes went around him. The move often created confusion over who was speaking on behalf of the government.

Even DHS officials once questioned Altidor’s credentials, insisting that he was speaking more on behalf the Haitian diaspora than the government when he pushed for TPS renewal on behalf of Haitians in the United States. Altidor went as far as writing a letter on behalf of the Moïse administration on TPS when Port-au-Prince refused to do so.

Altidor, who points to his embassy’s 24-hour turnaround for Haitian passports among his accomplishments, said he’s proud of the fact that he’s managed to generate conversations around non-political issues he felt needed to be addressed.

“The embassy became a relevant institution in the Haitian conversation in Washington D.C. and beyond,” he said. We accomplished a lot here.”

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.