When Miami-based Carnival Corp. announced its interest in transforming this former pirate’s lair into a tourism mecca nearly five months ago, it wasn’t the first time this remote island’s white sandy beaches had been dangled before investors.
But Carnival’s plans are now in jeopardy.
The company only recently learned that the island is entangled in a 99-year lease agreement with a Texas businessman that was born out of Beatlemania and survived multiple Haitian coups and political transitions.
“We have a problem and we have an opportunity,” said Frantz Brossard, senior adviser to Grey Pierson, a Texas lawyer who owns the lease. “We don’t want to see Carnival pull out of this deal. But the ball is now in the court of the Haitian government.”
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Carnival officials say Haitian officials did not disclose that this barrier island off Haiti’s northwest coast has a long-term lease agreement with Pierson when they signed a letter of intent in July to develop a $70 million destination cruise port along the island’s unspoiled Pointe-Ouest beach, which Condé Nast Traveler has called one of the 10 nicest beaches in the Caribbean.
“We’re not necessarily surprised as this sometimes happens in some proposed developments with prior landowners or leaseholders making claims about rights and or ownership,” said David Candib, vice president of development and operations for Carnival. “That being said, we have not yet raised it with government, nor have they raised it directly to us at this point.”
Pierson has spent decades trying to enforce the agreement, which was originally given to his father Don by former dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in exchange for developing Île de la Tortue into an economic hub with hotels, an international airport and jobs, and administered by a freeport authority.
“The Haitian government delegated all authority to issue commercial licenses on Tortuga to the freeport authority, and this agreement remains in effect,” he said. “Knowing that Carnival Corporation ... has an excellent staff of attorneys, I am confident that they will recognize that Carnival will be placed at serious risk if it elects to proceed without a license.”
Haiti Tourism Minister Stéphanie Balmir-Villedrouin told the Miami Herald on Thursday that the Carnival deal is still on and the company’s lawyers will soon be in contact with Pierson.
“They are going to get a solution among them,” she said, adding that there are no plans to put the project on hold. “Carnival doesn’t have the concession on the whole island. They have a piece of the island and this $70 million will create jobs.”
Pierson’s lease is not the only one.
For the past 23 years, Hotel Mont Joli SA, in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien, also has been leasing Pointe-Ouest.
“My father had realized years ago that with fuel prices rising, cruise ships would need closer destinations in the Caribbean. He spent his life on this project,” Mont Joli owner Nicolas Bussenius said. “Maybe he was ahead of his time. He had little interest from cruise lines or the governments at the time.”
As interest in Haiti as a tourism destination renewed two years ago, Bussenius began re-promoting Pointe-Ouest’s white sand and turquoise and green ocean. In March, he invited Carnival to hear his pitch.
“They where not interested,” he said. Four months later, it was announced that Tortuga would become home to the seventh Carnival-owned port in the Caribbean.
Pierson says his saga has gone on for far too long.
Earlier this year, he hosted a visit from three Haitian government representatives who traveled to Texas to learn about the claim. They were given documents, including a copy of Le Moniteur, the official government record dated April 5, 1971 detailing the contract. There has been no response since, Pierson said.
“Seems like every time they get a new president or whatever, someone finds out about this project and decides that this is going to be their salvation and I get an urgent call ‘to come help us,’ ” he said.
“There was a time when to brief Haitian officials, I would come to Haiti. Then I said, ‘No. I won’t come anymore. I will come to Florida.’ Then I would agree to come to the airport. Now if they want [to see me], they have to come to my office,” he added. “No longer am I willing to go to Haiti or even Miami. Or even the airport. It broke my father. It broke his heart and it killed him. ”
How a Texan came to lease a piece of Haiti is both a story about the country’s desperate plight to lure foreign investments and an egomaniac dictator who took a liking to a creative businessman who made a fortune bringing the Beatles to fans inside Britain by defying the government.
One day in the 1960s, Pierson learned from a newspaper article that the Beatles were not being heard in their own country. He knew nothing about broadcasting, international waters or ships. But he gathered a group of friends and flew to Miami where he invested in a former World War II Navy minesweeper, installed a large antenna, hired some deejays and sailed the boat across the Atlantic, anchoring it just outside Britain’s territorial waters.
Radio London was born. The offshore commercial radio station, or pirate radio, featuring Beatles music became an overnight sensation — and the basis for the 2009 comedy Pirate Radio, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But in 1967, the British government outlawed advertising on offshore commercial radio stations. The move ended Pierson’s pirate radio venture. Thinking the ship was more valuable if he could sell it intact, he mailed packages to foreign embassies in Washington, including the Haitian Embassy. Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Haiti’s brutal President-for-Life, wanted the ship.
“The idea was to have the ship go around the world beaming, ‘We love Papa Doc,’ ” Pierson said. “But they didn’t have any money. They were broke.”
Arthur Bonhomme, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States at the time, took a liking to Pierson and soon approached him about helping the government.
Pierson suggested picking a discreet territory, preferably an island, and creating a company — Dupont Caribbean, Inc.— to operate its commercial activities. A board of directors was formed with the Haitian government and investors owning equal shares.
“Through the company, we would raise money and use that money for marketing and we would then sell licenses, which would be our de-facto taxes. Fifty percent of the profits we get would go back into the coffers of the Haitian government,” Pierson said.
“Using entirely foreign money, we would create jobs, create huge investments at no cost whatsoever to the government,” he added. “You just delegate certain licensing rights to this entity, which is an entity created by the Haitian government and you get half the money. Financially you have no risk. That is what he came up with.”
The deal took four years to become a reality, and less than a month after it was publicized, Duvalier died of a heart attack.
His death unleashed a four decades-long debate over its legality, and a battle by the Piersons to get Haiti to live up to the contract, starting with the administration of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.
Duvalier appointed his father’s strongman, Luckner Cambronne, to the board and soon Cambronne was trying to shake down Pierson before the project could proceed, Grey Pierson said. Considered the most feared man in Haiti, Cambronne, who died in Miami in 2006, flew to Texas and demanded a payout of $1 million, Pierson and those familiar with the encounter said.
The elder Pierson refused, and soon managed to secure more than $400 million in commitments from private investors. One of them was Gulf Oil Corporation, which had agreed to invest $300 million to bring electricity, water, sewage, roads and an international airport to the island.
Proud of his investment coup, Pierson made the announcement in Port-au-Prince. Within days, his son said, “unscrupulous, unpatriotic Haitian politicians” were taking steps to oust him and Dupont Caribbean, and to seize the project for themselves by way of court action.
“The allegations in the court case where they canceled it because we didn’t make payments,” he said, noting the checks had been endorsed by Haiti’s finance minister at the time, who later said they weren’t recognized in the courts. “All the contractual obligations were made, including building an air strip.
“That is when I lost my dad,” Pierson said. “My dad physically died in 1996, but he really died in 1972. That was his dream. He really thought that he could help those people and make himself a fortune at the same time. It crushed him. He never recovered.”
Grey Pierson picked up where his father left off, launching a persistent effort with the U.S. State Department to get Haiti to uphold the contract.
In 1986, State finally responded in a letter saying that Haiti’s courts lacked jurisdiction in the matter and had no legal authority to cancel the contract. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Less than a month after the U.S. government agreed to help Pierson, Haiti was hit by yet another political crisis: Baby Doc was being jetted into exile.
“The Haitian government has been in a mess ever since,” Pierson said. “Since then, I have been contacted on numerous occasions by various Haitian governments.”
In 1997, then-President René Préval, who a year earlier had famously stripped down into oversized swimming trunks for the Condé Nast Traveler magazine cover marketing Pointe-Ouest beach, sent a four person delegation to Texas to meet with Pierson.
“I went all out for them,” said Pierson, who held the meeting in the offices of then-Texas governor and future U.S. President George W. Bush.
He assembled, he said, some of the true power hitters of Texas.
“I don’t claim personally to have a whole bunch of money but I am very fortunate to have a bunch of friends,” Pierson said. “They left, and I never even got so much as a ‘Thank You’ note.”
Former Haitian government official Leslie Voltaire, who was part of the delegation, said the meeting with Pierson wasn’t impressive.
“I didn’t see a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “I was convinced he had the network for money, but I wasn’t sure there was that will to do it. I thought he was looking for a deal. When we went to Texas, he said ‘If somebody wants to do the project, they have to pay me $400 million.’ ”
Voltaire said while Pierson spoke of putting in a Six Flags and other projects, “it was only ideas of projects. We never saw models or plans like that.”
Pierson disputes that, saying there were and remains plans to transform the island and Pointe-Ouest, where on a recent day several young men hawk their fresh catch while fishermen on a wooden sail boat collected bags of sand.
“The Haitian people have been cheated of years of opportunity and hope and money,” said Pierson, adding that had it not been for corrupt Haitian officials who declared his father persona non grata, forcing him to abandon the project, life would be different on this destitute island.
He said his father’s investment easily exceeds $700,000, while he has wasted “quite a bit of money and time.”
And while he refuses to say how much he’s willing to settle the dispute for, he is willing to renegotiate a new agreement, he said.
“This decades-long claim can realistically be resolved only in a way that directly addresses the difficulties of the past… and provides significant future benefits for all parties — not just me and my family, and not the Haitian government du-jour — but the people of Haiti,” Pierson said.