Yves Savain, Little Haiti pioneer, dies

Yves Savain (pointing) stopping asking rice farmers in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley about their challenges. Savain was on a road trip with son Jagger Harvey in June 2015, driving from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien.
Yves Savain (pointing) stopping asking rice farmers in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley about their challenges. Savain was on a road trip with son Jagger Harvey in June 2015, driving from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haitien. Courtesy of Jagger Harvey

Long before ground broke on Miami’s Little Haiti Cultural Center a decade ago, Yves Savain dreamed about a center along Northeast Second Avenue that included offices and an exhibition gallery that would attract tourists. A smaller-scale Coconut Grove, he described it in a Miami Herald interview, but with a distinct Caribbean flavor.

The year was 1983 and Savain was the executive director of the Haitian Task Force. A city of Miami community agency, the task force had just launched a national design contest for the Caribbean Marketplace, a venue Savain hoped would be the catalyst for his vision.

Three decades later when the city reopened the newly revamped gingerbread-style building fashioned after Port-au-Prince’s Iron Market and now anchoring the Little Haiti Cultural Center, Savain fired off an email to friends and associates.

“The fanfare is well-deserved,” he wrote in July 2014.

Etched in the email was his and wife Genevieve Auguste’s connection to the Marketplace. It was a little known fact to many who had come to know Savain as the vision behind the design competition to rebuild Port-au-Prince’s quake-ravaged Cathedral, and as the executive director of Haiti’s CTMO-HOPE. The government agency oversees U.S. trade preferences, another passion of the sociology major.

“Yves was a dreamer and always tried to translate those dreams into reality for a better Haiti,” Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski said about Savain, who died on March 3 of heart failure in a Baltimore, Md., hospital. He was 65.

“He understood how American government worked,” Wenksi noted about his friend of nearly four decades, and fellow ally in the Haitian immigration struggle. “He understood how American culture worked. He understood Haiti. He was a great bridge builder, and Haiti needs people who can bridge its reality to the rest of the world.”

In the early ‘80s, Savain served as the head of the task force. It’s primary mission was to bring economic development to Little Haiti, the neighborhood where many were settling. But Savain’s mission and activism quickly went beyond that. With Haitians and later Cubans, arriving by the boatloads, he led efforts to train the wave of Creole-speaking immigrants for jobs in the service industry and help them fight the stigmatization of an AIDS epidemic that making them outcasts.

“This was the era of the different treatment between Cubans and Haitians,” recalled Auguste, who worked with Savain at the task force before relocating with him to the Washington-D.C. area and marrying him. They celebrated 30 years last year, she said.

“People are his passion,” she said. “Yves always saw the potential in people and inspired them to live up to that potential and not do just the minimum.”

Among the causes, he took on, the rights of children of undocumented immigrants to get a public education and ending the federal government’s blood ban for Haitians.

“The news linking Haitians to AIDS reached Idaho,” Savain told the Herald in 1985 after Haitians were dropped as a group with a high risk of contracting AIDS. “It’s not something that’s going to be undone with a few newspaper articles.”

But Savain, whose father Roger Savain was a well-known Broward County Schools bilingual education specialist who died in 2012 at the age of 88, continued his fight of just not promoting Haitians in a positive light but also Haiti.

Joel Dreyfuss, the Haitian-American journalist, editor, writer and Savain’s good friend, said he would often say that Haiti needed jobs.

“That is why he was so focused on the garment manufacturing industry,” Dreyfuss said. Dreyfuss, who is Auguste’s cousin, said he first met Savain after he invited him to a conference in Trinidad and Tobago. Savain at the time was working on Caribbean programs for the Phelps Stokes Fund.

“He was a real intellectual,” Dreyfuss said. “He was fascinated by ideas; he loved ideas, lived ideas and breathed ideas. But he became more pragmatic over time on what to do about Haiti.”

Among his frustrations, the slow pace of the U.S.-backed Caracol Industrial Park in northern Haiti in employing Haitians.

“He just felt the country needed an economic lift,” Dreyfuss said about Savain, who criticized the project in a May 2015 Herald article.

Savain also believed Haiti needed a new Cathedral after the Cathédrale Notre Dame de l’Assomption was devastated in the earthquake. As competition coordinator and consultant to the Archdiocese of Port-au-Prince, Savain teamed up with the University of Miami School of Architecture and organized a competition. Some 250 architects around the world collaborated to submit 134 plans for the reconstruction.

“He was proactive,” Haiti’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Chibly Langlois said. “He had a lot of good ideas. He wanted to help the church, promote activities that would help.”

Jagger Harvey, one of Savain’s three sons, said his dad opened his eyes to a whole new way of looking at things.

“Life to him was a continuous study of diversity and beauty of the world,” said Harvey, a scientist and director of international agriculture at Kansas State University. In June, the two decided to take a road trip, driving from Port-au-Prince, where Savain lived, to Cap-Haïtien in the north. Along the way, Savain spotted rice farmers in Haiti’s Artibonite Valley.

He stepped out of the car and started asking poignant and focused questions about their biggest challenges, Harvey said.

“I got to know a whole new side of him. It was amazing to hear what he had been doing and to get out with him in the countryside of Haiti,” he said. “ I will certainly hear him on a daily basis nagging me to ask all of the tough question, continuing learning and adopting and challenging people to push the limit to what we can do.”

In addition to his wife and Harvey, Savain is survived by sons Travis Harvey and Gregory Savain.

Savain’s life will be celebrated in a memorial Mass at 10 a.m. Monday at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de l’Assomption in Port-au-Prince by his friend, Port-au-Prince Archbishop Guire Poulard. Wenski will also celebrate a Mass in his honor in Miami at a later date.