On Jan. 1, 1804, when Haiti proclaimed its independence from France, it not only became the first free Black republic in the world, it ignited the torch of hope for enslaved and exploited peoples worldwide.
The truth is that Haiti is not a naturally poor country but was the producer of sugar, coffee, cocoa, indigo, tobacco, cotton, fruits and vegetables, and at times a thriving rice and textile producer. However, a now irrefutable fact is that Haiti is indeed poor. On a recent visit to the Caribbean country, I experienced Haiti’s hell as I bore witness to a nation struggling to survive what has been years of political interference, international blockades and natural disasters.
Poverty is everywhere on the streets of Port-au-Prince. It is evident in the infrastructure and social conditions, but even more expressive in the eyes of the people struggling for an everyday existence. Undeniable is the fact that Haiti needs our help as an international community. But despite its destitution, the other thing that was made clear while on the island is that Haiti and its proud people do not need our charity. In fact, in my opinion, mere handouts are counter-intuitive to efforts of helping in Haiti’s restoration. What Haiti needs is opportunity—in particular, business opportunities and partnerships. So instead of only extending handouts of shipping containers packed with food—which, like the cliched expression, only feeds people for a day or two—we should be looking at what it takes to help the nation’s people learn to fish.
For Haiti, empowering its people to be “fishers” is to create business partnerships and opportunities. One area in which this could be formidable is sustainable energy. As a ranking member of the Senate committee on Energy and Telecommunications, I know firsthand about the ripe opportunities that await in the green economy. Finding a way to help Haiti invest in solar, wind, hydroelectricity and other forms of renewable energy is crucial to alleviating its everyday suffering. The fact is that Haiti should become the world’s leader in recycling. This is attainable with the support of business leaders here in the United States, thus creating a win-win for all involved. In particular, I am calling on business leaders—especially those in the energy sector in New York—to step up to the plate in creating partnerships in Haiti.
Solar is currently the fastest-growing industry in the country, adding 143,000 jobs nationwide in the last two years. According to the latest solar jobs census from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry employed more than 5,000 people in New York alone over that period. And without a doubt, we in New York are leading the way in creating a renewable energy future and growing our solar economy. Further, there is evidence of how our dedication to solar and other renewables helped rebuild this city after the major destruction of Superstorm Sandy.
Contextualizing Haiti’s history is imperative to any effort to rebuild this nation distinctly credited as the second in the Americas to gain its independence. The orchestrated “quake” to destroy this once prosperous nation was engineered since 1825, when the French government extorted $150 million in gold francs (worth $21 billion today) from the Haitian people as payment for “lost property.” This set the course for more than 60 years of international embargoes and blockages that essentially destroyed the economy of post-revolutionary Haiti. Renowned Caribbean scholar and expert on Caribbean slavery Sir Hilary Beckles calls it “the most vicious example of national strangulation recorded in modern history.”
But the problem is that we have become so comfortable talking about Haiti in the role of the victim that we forget that this is a nation that gained its independence by overcoming slavery themselves. We seem to have easily forgotten—or maybe it has been buried deep beneath the rubble of the many earthquakes—that the Haitian people have made considerable contributions to the world and the United States. (Remember the Louisiana Purchase?)
Like many other people across the world, I looked on with watered eyes and a weary heart as a 7.0 earthquake essentially destroyed the capital city of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 five years ago. During that time I traveled around the busy corridors of Nostrand Avenue, Flatbush Avenue and Church Avenue in my district and listened to the cries of my many constituents who were directly affected. I felt their pain for a homeland that was buried under rubble, but I also heard their courageous pleas and desire to rebuild their country and restore it to its former glory—not as a rich colony, but as a sovereign nation and “a jewel of the Caribbean.”
I was reminded of this as I walked the streets of Haiti and similarly sat at conference tables with representatives of the international business community. So while the blueprint of a new Haiti is being considered, my appeal to the would-be architects is to put Haitians first. To do less would be nothing short of creating another social seismic event of epic proportions. Our aim should be to provide a flood of opportunities for business development in Haiti. Then, with unmuted joy, its dignified people can uphold their tradition of cooking and eating soup on New Year’s Day as a symbol of celebrating freedom.
Kevin Parker is the state senator representing the 21st District in Brooklyn, which comprises Flatbush, East Flatbush, Midwood, Ditmas Park, Kensington and Park Slope. He represents the largest concentration of Haitian immigrants outside of Haiti. He is also the chairman of the Senate Democratic Task Force on New Americans.