U.S. Haiti special coordinator welcomes diaspora involvement

U.S. Haiti special coordinator Kenneth Merten discusses Haiti’s upcoming elections at a forum Wednesday in Miami.
U.S. Haiti special coordinator Kenneth Merten discusses Haiti’s upcoming elections at a forum Wednesday in Miami. jcharles@miamiherald.com

Less than two weeks before Haiti stages one of its most complicated elections in recent history, the United States diplomat charged with coordinating U.S.-Haiti policy reminded Haitian-Americans on Wednesday that the upcoming elections are a Haitian-driven process.

“Like it or not, we cannot and do not run the process,” Ambassador Kenneth Merten said responding to concerns by Haitian-Americans about what the U.S. government is doing to protect the vote of Haiti’s 5.8 million registered voters scheduled to cast ballots Oct. 25 for president, 144 mayors and 129 legislators.

“There is a limit to what we can do,” Merten said during the conversation at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami about Haiti’s future and the role of its diaspora. “We are friends of Haiti, we are partners of Haiti but we are not Haitians and at the end of the day, the elections process is run by Haitians and is run in Haiti.”

Still, Merten who took over the State Department’s Haiti special coordinator job in August, conceded that a great deal of his time has been spent focusing on the elections.

Repeating U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s message to the Haitian people and government during his visit last week, Merten said, unlike the Aug. 9 legislative elections, “the ones coming up in less than two weeks time need to be better in terms of security; they need to be better in terms of organization for the people who take the time and effort to go show up and vote.”

“I talked to President [Michel] Martelly, the chief of police and told them the police presence on Aug. 9 was too passive,” Merten said, adding that he’s also asked the United Nations Police to have a more visible presence.

Like the U.S., the U.N. has also reiterated that the elections are Haitian-run and has turned over security to the local Haiti National Police. On Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously extended the mandate of its blue-helmet peackeeepers in Haiti until October 2016, with the goal of this being the final year in Haiti.

Merten, who has been involved in Haiti on and off for nearly three decades, including most recently as an ambassador, was among six invitees at a forum sponsored by the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce of Florida and Haitian-Americans for Progress, a local political action committee.

Topics ranged from what the U.S. is doing to help protect the vote to avoid a repeat of the violence and fraud-marred Aug. 9 legislative first round, to the plight of Dominicans of Haitian descent and migrants living in the Dominican Republic to how Haitian Americans can become more involved in their country.

Jeff Lozama, chair of the Haitian American Chamber, called on the State Department to create a path for Haitian-American professionals to be involved in Haiti’s economic future and for them to be part of the conversation when it comes to U.S. government policies impacting Haiti.

“We are not asking for set-asides,” he said. “We just want them to recognize that there are enough professionals in the Haitian diaspora who can be solicited to be part of the projects that are shaping the country.”

The other panelists were: Cassandra Theramene, an international developer for an education cooperation; Ericq Pierre, Haiti’s former representative at the Inter-American Development Bank; Attorney Dotie Joseph, head of the Haitian Lawyers Association; Dr. Jean-Philippe Austin, founder of Haitian American for Progress; and Christian Loubeau, the commercial attache at the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince.

Loubeau acknowledge that 2015 has been a difficult year in Haiti where the domestic currency has depreciated by 10 percent and sales have dropped by more than 30 percent. But the country also has opportunities, he said, especially for the Haitian diaspora willing to take the risk. For example, investments in agribusiness and national production have increased by 15 percent and 60 percent, respectively, Loubeau said.

“Opportunities still exist,” he said. “We need your participation.”

Merten agreed. Calling on the diaspora to better organize itself, he said he was opened to continuing conversations with the community and receiving input on how to improve the U.S. involvement in Haiti. Looking past the elections, Merten said, one of his key goals is to help build civilian institutions, such as the police and judiciary, and the country’s economics.

“We need to focus and help Haitians focus on the need for economic growth and opportunities for Haitians,” Merten said. “This is something we need to press the Haitian government on; to make it easier to do business; to make it easier for foreigners, the diaspora as well to invest and feel secure in Haiti.

“That’s not an easy task but one I am certainly committed to working on as hard as I can,” he added. “We need to address the chronic problem of economic underdevelopment in Haiti. Haiti does not need to be a poor country.”