The Haitian president’s divisive remarks
Tensions rise as Haitians told to form voting bloc
By Brent Dean
Guardian Associate Editor
Nassau, The Bahamas
The presence of tens of thousands of Haitians in The Bahamas has for a long time been a point of frustration to the ‘new natives’ who call this chain of islands home. There was no policy announced, or agreed to, stating that our gates would be opened to all the poor and frustrated of Haiti. Yet many have come, and many continue to come, to these shores from the poorest country in the hemisphere.
The ‘accepted’ flow of people from Haiti to The Bahamas since the republic emerged in 1804 began to become more of a problem to Bahamians in the latter part of the 20th century, coinciding with increased instability in Haiti and larger migrant flows.
Successive administrations have maintained the policy of repatriation. Yet the shantytowns remain.
The Haitian presence goes beyond shantytowns, however. Haitians have increasingly migrated to established communities in New Providence such as Fox Hill and Bain Town. And in doing so the Haitian who decades ago was a ‘just’ a yardman, or ‘just’ a housekeeper, or ‘just’ a farm laborer in the minds of Bahamians has become a more prominent part of The Bahamas.
Young Haitians proudly celebrate Haitian Flag Day; Haitian ads in Creole play over the airwaves; Haitian business people have establishments in ‘Bahamian’ cultural areas such as Arawak Cay. Haitian pride in being Haitian in The Bahamas is rising.
Many Bahamians have watched the expansion of the Haitian presence these last few decades and are concerned about being displaced. Haiti has a population of nearly 10 million and The Bahamas has only 350,000. This fear of displacement is married to an anger. Many ask, “Who invited all these people here?”
The uneasiness many Bahamians feel towards growing Haitian influence in their country is at the heart of the controversy surrounding the comments of Haitian President Michel Martelly last week. Many feel they did not consent to these new neighbors ‘moving in’ and fear their involvement in the political process.
What the leader said to his people
There is an unwritten rule in diplomacy: When you go to a foreign country, stay out of its politics.
Martelly, an entertainer known as “Sweet Micky”, broke that rule during his short visit to The Bahamas.
“I told them to organize themselves and identify in the upcoming elections who is on their side. That way they can become a force. By being [unified] in the elections they might have people taking care of them… this is the democratic way,” Martelly told reporters Wednesday.
He was repeating statements he made in Haitian Creole as he spoke to thousands of Haitians and Haitian-Bahamians at a meeting on Tuesday night in eastern New Providence.
Martelly, inappropriately, went further. He lamented the plight of ‘stateless’ people who have to wait until their 18th birthdays to apply for Bahamian citizenship even though they were born in this country.
“This could be considered as a crime, but that’s not the issue to talk about crime here; the issue is to stand by them and find the right solution,” said the Haitian president. “Be responsible, be humans and see how to better assist these Haitians.”
Martelly’s business is Haiti, not The Bahamas. Those who can vote here are Bahamians and they do not need advice from foreigners regarding how they should vote.
When foreign leaders interfere in the elections of sovereign countries, they insult the country being interfered with and its people. They can also spread division.
The reaction of the political leaders
Bahamian politicians have been nearly united in their criticism of Martelly’s intervention in Bahamian politics.
Democratic National Alliance (DNA) Leader Branville McCartney said the president’s remarks were a “direct attack on Bahamian democracy and all Bahamians – those of foreign descent or otherwise – who uphold the ideals of the nation and their right to vote for whichever political party they see fit”.
The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) chairman was also offended.
“I thought it was an insult to the Bahamian people that a foreigner would come here and instruct Bahamian citizens to vote one way or the other,” said Bradley Roberts.
His rival in the governing party, speaking personally, said he was shocked by the political remarks.
“Non-Bahamians cannot dictate what goes on in The Bahamas, whether they visit or live here,” said Free National Movement (FNM) Chairman Carl Bethel, who also cautiously stressed that this comment did not refer to Martelly.
But, of course it did. Bethel and all FNMs have to speak carefully on the Haitian issue because the leader of their party has taken a more moderate, discursive approach on immigration than the PLP and DNA.
Perry Christie, the PLP’s leader, criticized Martelly at his party’s candidates launch on Friday night.
“I wouldn’t go into someone else’s country and tell the people there how to vote and I don’t want anyone from any other country coming here and telling me or my people how to vote either. So let’s be clear about that,” he said.
Ingraham, however, on Saturday in Andros said Martelly was perfectly entitled to encourage his former citizens to form a voting bloc.
“So insofar as the persons who are citizens of The Bahamas who were formerly Haitian nationals, we certainly look forward to receiving the votes of the majority of the Bahamians whether they were born in The Bahamas, naturalized in The Bahamas or otherwise,” he said.
“And we certainly would enjoy receiving the majority of the votes of persons who were naturalized of Haitian parentage and/or who have been living in The Bahamas for a long time.”
Ingraham has always maintained that his governments follow the laws of The Bahamas when it comes to immigration. However, while McCartney is almost hostile towards Haitians when he discusses immigration issues, and Christie takes a nationalistic approach in his rhetoric, the prime minister at times is empathic.
Many remember the simple but profound remark Ingraham made at a FNM rally in March 2011 at Fort Charlotte, when he sent a shout out to his “Haitian brothers and sisters”.
Ingraham does not engage in the type of demagoguery McCartney does when it comes to Haitians. By taking a more subdued, rhetorical approach to the issue of Haitian integration in The Bahamas, Ingraham is connecting his party to a new set of voters who will play a more prominent role in our politics.
The danger of ethnic politics
There are tens of thousands of Haitians residing in The Bahamas. Some live here illegally, some have legal status and some have become citizens.
As more and more Haitians are naturalized, their influence at elections, and their role in frontline politics, will increase.
Eventually more Bahamians with French names who are of Haitian descent such as Stephen Dillet, the first black person elected to the House of Assembly in The Bahamas, will be candidates and politicians.
If we all want to build a great nation then we as people from many different cultural communities must work together. If we form different ethnic voting blocs based on narrow cultural or racial interests, our politics will become more divisive and confrontational – possibly even violent.
This was the greatest tragedy of Martelly’s remarks. Rather than speaking to unity, those few words on voting and politics spoke to division.
Martelly woke up some of the worst nationalistic passions in The Bahamas. We as people from various backgrounds must work to ensure that passions cool. When countries divide along ethnic lines fueled by hatred and rivalry, peace and prosperity become illusive
Feb 13, 2012