Time to stop prostituting Haitians
Tribune Staff Reporter
Haitians have been migrating to the Bahamas for centuries. For race-based reasons, it was a problem in the early 19th century. While the racial legacy formed itself in the post-colonial psyche of African and non-African Bahamians, the modern problem is driven by other issues, like erratic fear, selfish politics and lackluster leadership.
One day, hopefully, Bahamians will wake up and realise, as sure as a man cannot cheat death, no number of raids, repatriations or immigration policies will solve the problems we presently have.
The political directorate know this, but they have chosen Haitians for their most favoured political prostitutes: to use and abuse to stoke fears and hoodwink the masses.
The reality is, neither the Department of Immigration, the Defence Force nor the entire might of the state have the power to ease the plight of all people in despair.
For centuries, migration has been the answer to populations seeking a better life, according to Leonard Archer, former CARICOM Ambassador. This is the story of Europe, Asia, Africa, everywhere in the world. When people experience scarcity, drought, famine, hardship, or persecution in one area, they move to another.
"If you interview the Haitian people who are coming, a number of them have been deported two, three, four times. People are desperate. The reality is desperate people will always move and we can't afford to put a wall around the country," said Mr Archer.
"We have been deporting people to Haiti since the 1970s. Has it helped? Has it worked?" he asked. People should know: we have no ally in the Haitian government or the Haitian people where the immigration problem is concerned. In a country of 10 million, the hundreds of people who migrate to the Bahamas, whether legally or illegally, is not a problem on the minds of most.
Plus, Haiti, like Jamaica, relies on remittances from its Diaspora population. When countries realised that the side effect of the brain drain was a supply of cold hard cash from the Diaspora, suddenly the migration of nationals did not seem so bad. On the contrary, migration was encouraged and remittances became a primary source of foreign exchange.
In the Bahamas, we are banging our heads against the wall with our hysteria over the illegals. All the banging is just giving us a headache.
We desperately need a new approach to the so-called immigration problem and we need a new vision of Haiti.
We should never forget: when the African world needed a sign that its certain fate would not be decided by the interests of slave masters and colonial rulers, it was a group of disparate Africans on the island of Hispanola, with the backing of their ancestors and the divine spirits, who rose to the occasion. Empowered by a collective will, they planted the seed in the African consciousness that we are more than they say we are; we deserve more than what they want for us.
Two hundred years later, Haiti that gave us hope, appears to face a hopeless fate. All we see of its people is what seems to be their worst. The eyes of the world take an interest only when the story line is one of strife and scandal; when the images fit the narrative of poor, desolate, pagan and black. And in the minds of most Bahamians and many Haitians, the light that is Haiti has faded.
Experience tells us that in our darkest hours it often takes a light, whether shone by an external source or a spark in our own spirits, to help us overcome. In an Avatarish way that light speaks to us and says: 'I see you'.
In an African way that light says, ubuntu, 'I am what I am because of who we all are'. In the language of psychotherapy, the light says, 'tap into the greatness that lies within and live it'. And from our queen mothers it says, 'I love you'.
Africans across the globe need to care enough to be more informed. Bahamians need to rise above the malcontent, so our people and the entire world knows, Haiti is more and Haiti deserves more.
It is more than what the international media depicts. It is more than the actions of its political directorate. It is more than the folly that befalls it, and it is more than what our eyes see. In this season of great frustration, Haiti needs neither our disdain or pity, nor our charity; it needs our great expectations, and with our collective consciousness, we will call out its greatness. Haiti has much work to do, but I wonder if we will start to play our part from where we stand. Certainly, in the history of our relationship with Haiti, the Bahamas has missed countless opportunities. That is largely because of our singular focus on immigration.
If we date the start of diplomatic relations to 1971, when the Bahamas signed the first of three bilateral treaties, then we can claim the 40-year prize of missed opportunities in building a meaningful relationship.
With newly acquired rights of self governance, and a dispatch from the UK's Foreign Common Law Office giving it limited authority to conduct external affairs, the Bahamian government negotiated its first bilateral agreement in 1971. Haiti was the foreign partner.
That agreement envisaged a broad range of relationships, including commercial trade and technical co-operation, education exchanges and cultural linkages - understandably so, because for two decades prior, Haitian labour had been growing in importance in the Bahamas. From the 1950s, Bahamians were working to establish modern commercial farming and Haitians provided a source of cheap agricultural labour from then. Mr Archer said Haitian farm workers employed in Marsh Harbour, Abaco, in the late 1950s, were not "perceived as a threat".
Owens-Illinois, an American company operating in Abaco, was known to recruit Haitian labour in the late 1960s, recalls Joshua Sears, director general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Owens-Illinois originally had a timber cutting license to operate in the Bahamas, but when cutting rights were transferred from Abaco to Andros, the company switched its operations and opened a 20,000 acre sugar cane estate in Marsh Harbour. Suffice to say, the population of Abaco and the available supply of Bahamian labour at the time would have given rise to a demand for Haitian workers.
Unfortunately, whatever promise the 1971 agreement may have embodied was short lived because it was "never really actualised", according to Mr Sears.
This is evidenced in the subsequent agreements - 1985 and 1995 - for which immigration was the central issue.
To this day, the almost singular focus of our foreign interest in Haiti is immigration. Dr Eugene Newry, former Bahamas ambassador to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, said in the modern world, countries establish diplomatic ties to look after economic interests. He said the Bahamas is the anomaly. Its interest in Haiti is solely to keep the Haitians out. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Agriculture might disagree, pointing to regional security initiatives and mediation efforts in Haiti in which the Bahamas has played central roles, or recent exploratory projects. But as valid as those efforts are, anyone would be hard pressed to contradict Dr Newry's overall assessment.
What makes our efforts so laughable is that given our efforts over 60 plus years, the solution to the immigration problem remains elusive.
This is so, notwithstanding the notoriously draconian efforts of the much loved Progressive Liberal Party Minister of Immigration Lofters Roker, whose administration was said to raid schools, churches and even hospitals to round up "illegals".
History has shown us we are inextricably linked to Haiti. Today is no different. Waves of immigrants are seen any time public confidence in Haiti wanes, during economic crises, at the mere threat of political instability, and at times of natural disaster, to which Haiti is no stranger. So unless the Bahamas has control over Haitian politics, the Haitian economy, and acts of God, things will not be looking up anytime soon.
Short of Haiti being restored as the light of the world, and probably even after, migration will be a Haitian reality, and the Bahamas, less than 200 miles off the coast, will suffer the consequences.
All is not lost, for there is a solution to the problem. It requires less money, less resources and fewer headaches, but it is infinitely more difficult than anything we have ever tried before.
A new approach to the Haitian problem is not incongruent with a clear understanding of the Bahamas' national interests. Illegal immigration strains national resources; Bahamian sovereignty is a national imperative, as is the security of our people. These are the interests that motivate Bahamians to call on the government time and time again to crack down on the immigration problem.
But in the interest of national development, and to play our part in history, someone needs to start being honest with our people and stop paying the pimps to prostitute the Haitians. There is a better way. The Bahamas has unexplored and underdeveloped interests in Haiti.
Let's look at our economic interests and the question of labour, because if we are honest, we would acknowledge that Bahamian and Haitian interests are aligned in many ways.
Economic migrants flock to the Bahamas year after year, not political refugees. That means Haitian people look to the Bahamas like we look to the United States - as a land of opportunity. For Haitians, there is a lucrative labour market in the Bahamas and their skills are in high demand. If there was no reason for optimism and they did not find employment in the Bahamas, they would not come.
Yes, unemployment in the Bahamas is high. The government has a responsibility to create jobs and to stimulate the economy, and the private sector has an interest in creating jobs where there are lucrative business opportunities.
Most Haitian labourers are employed by the private sector. For better or worse, Bahamian businesses are empowered by the law to employ foreign labour. Just look at the financial and tourism sectors, although they are not necessarily models to emulate.
In fact, the employment of foreign labour in these sectors is not scrutinised nearly enough. While Bahamians have their eyes on Haitians, predominantly white foreigners in finance and tourism are holding a virtual monopoly on well paying jobs that would otherwise give Bahamians an opportunity to create wealth and better the nation. Foreigners in these sectors gain employment on a so-called temporary basis, with a provision to train Bahamians, but in most cases they never leave and they don't truly empower Bahamians. They find it easy to get naturalised, and permanently secure the senior job ranks for Bahamians like themselves. This system proves that Bahamians do not have an entitlement to employment although many believe they do. Perhaps we should, because this is our country. But perhaps not, because we live in a global village. That argument is another debate altogether.
For now, clear eyes would see, Haitian labour is not the antithesis to Bahamian unemployment. That is our own problem. Haitians are simply the most favoured scapegoat. It is like a scorned wife blaming a prostitute for her husband's infidelity.
If we were to round up every Bahamian who has at one point engaged in the practice of employing Haitian nationals, they would probably outnumber the Haitians themselves.
If Bahamians were genuine about wanting to exorcise Haitian people, that would require draconian measures like strict penalties for Bahamians hiring undocumented workers. The sacrifice would be a culture where people would spy on neighbours and employees would spy on their employers.
Let us stop kidding ourselves. Most of the nationalist outcry is just rhetoric. It does not reflect the desires of the private sector, the practice of our people, and it does not reflect our true economic interests. The government can vouch for that. The trade in foreign labour in the Bahamas is a lucrative business. The government's coffers are kept fat by the millions paid annually for work permits.
Sixty years ago, pioneers in the agriculture sector knew we could not thrive without foreign labour. There was a reason why. The Bahamas has 326,000 acres of arable land. According to Dr Newry, it would require two workers per acre to fully exploit this resource commercially. That translates to every single Bahamian in the country needing to take an interest in agriculture, supplemented by an abnormally high birthrate, and steroid aided child development.
Our opposition to Haitian labour is simply coming from our hurt pride. The notion that we might need Haitian labour is not an indictment on Bahamian labour. It is just a reality. People who accept this do not fear or scorn the idea of an organised temporary worker programme like the South Florida work scheme Bahamians participated in during the 1950s.
For people like Mr Archer, who does not agree with talk about the massive farming potential of the Bahamas because of our "poor soil quality" and questionable water supply, there are economic interests for the Bahamas in Haiti itself. "Let us be practical. If there is going to be a farming industry in the Bahamas it has to be driven by private capital and private enterprise. If the government has to engineer it then it will be a make-work scheme rather than an agriculture scheme. The reason we don't have a farming industry is those persons who tried it didn't succeed. We don't have the natural kind of conditions for a successful farming industry," said Mr Archer.
There are many who would disagree, pointing to success stories of the past and present, like the famous story of Edison Key. But a fair question would be, what about longevity?
Mr Archer does not deny some success. After all, the seaside mango farm of the Maillis family is evidence of such. But he argues, if the farming potential were really so abundant, the private sector would have already found a way to exploit it fully. So here is another notion to consider. Haitian mangos sell for 99 cents or less in New York City. The same mango costs $2.50 - $3 locally, according to Mr Archer. His point: Bahamians could invest in Haiti, as farming there is a lucrative business proposition. It would have consumer benefits at home and produce employment benefits for the distribution and marketing of farmed goods. Again, it is our hurt pride that makes us scorn the idea. Many Bahamians would surely say, we need to invest in our people. We have done enough for Haiti.
"You have to make up your mind what you want. If by investing in Haiti you would create the conditions where they wouldn't need to come, surely that is a useful solution. There are people who just want the problem to disappear. Unfortunately problems do not just disappear," said Mr Archer. He agrees that a work programme is one way, but it is not enough, he said.
"We have to ensure there is economic growth in Haiti. When (Jean-Bertrand) Aristide became president a number of Haitians left the Bahamas and went back to Haiti because they thought things would get better.
"The source of the problem is Haiti itself not Haitians in the Bahamas," said Mr Archer.
February 03, 2011