Last week Haiti saw violent street clashes between police and protesters calling for the ouster of President Jovenel Moïse. Moïse is accused of embezzling a million dollars in public funds earmarked for building new roads in rural Haiti – a case that’s part of a $2 billion embezzlement scandal rocking the western hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Moïse denies the charge. Still, the alleged larceny hits Haiti where it hurts most: its ruined agriculture industry.
Haiti was once considered a bread basket of the Caribbean. Today it imports 80 percent of its rice, a situation brought on by recent disasters like hurricanes – but also, say critics, by past U.S. administrations, which promoted subsidized food importation into Haiti as aid but instead helped cripple domestic cultivation.
Either way, Haiti is at crisis level on the U.N. food security index. But as the current political unrest suggests, Haitians certainly don’t believe their government will fix the disaster.
So a growing number of Haitian expats here in South Florida say it’s time for them to help fix it.
Among them is Yvans Morisseau, a community advocacy liaison for Miami-Dade County who also runs a company called Horizon Vert, or Green Horizon, one of the emerging Haitian expat firms that import food from Haiti. At a spacious warehouse in Miami Gardens recently, Morisseau directed the unloading of crates full of sweet Haitian mangoes called Madame Francique (or sometimes Francisque).
“You ever had a Madame Francisque?” Morisseau says grinning. “You taste one, you’ll never eat another type of mango.”
Morisseau’s forklift – driven by his business partner and fellow expat Maly Sebastien Paul, also heaves boxes of Haitian basmati rice and okra leaves, Haitian butter and sorghum.
“We just moved to this warehouse,” says Morisseau. “This is like three times larger than the one we had before.”
Since it started a few years ago, Horizon Vert has grown from selling cardboard cases of Haitian products to distributing truck trailers of it for stores in Florida and the Northeast. But Morisseau says it’s doing something more important.
“We said, ‘Why don’t we do business directly with local farmers in Haiti instead of getting involved with the government?’” Morisseau points out. “So in Haiti we had to hire about 150 people to purchase the products, to clean it, to sort it, package it. And the farmers themselves benefit because we pay them cash.”
It might seem strange to think you can help Haiti’s alarming food scarcity by shipping food out of Haiti. But agronomists like Ferry Pierre-Charles of the nonprofit Lambi Fund in Washington D.C., which aids development in Haiti, say it makes sense.
“The hard currency Haitian farmers earn from exports,” Pierre-Charles notes, “helps them grow more” rice, mangoes, plantains, beans, cacao and other Haitian staples for Haitians.
Haitian expat and former Haitian Agriculture Ministry logistic director Molton Michel agrees.
“[Haitian] farmers need modern equipment to grow volumes, not just to export but also to fulfill the demand at the local level,” says Michel, who runs Agro Solutions, based in Plantation, which also imports food from Haiti.
To help ease Haiti’s food crisis, says Michel, Haitian expats need to share not only remittances but the business and technical knowledge they’ve acquired abroad.
“We left Haiti, we go to the United States, Canada, France, wherever we are, and we see how a proper country and corporation-organizations are [run],” says Michel. “We must be the ones contributing that to this country.”
Michel in fact spoke to me from Haiti, where he’s working with farmers near his rural hometown of Arcahaie to develop crops for export. Many of those farmers agree it’s a critical complement to the international aid they receive, which they complain too often gets lost in Haiti’s bureaucracy – and corruption.
“To export to America will help us have more resources to have more materials, like ways to bring water to the land, so we can have enough to sell here in our own country for a change,” says Wismick Pierre, a fruit farmer in Arcahaie who wants to sell his own Francique mangoes to the U.S. He spoke to me from his pickup truck in his fields – which he says suffer from lack of irrigation.
But everyone agrees that while this sounds good in theory, Haiti’s chaotic reality makes it daunting in practice. The government is so weak right now that much of rural Haiti is overrun by armed criminal gangs.
“If every mile you drive you’re scared about some guy pointing a gun at you – it’s not getting better it’s getting worse,” says Soeurette Michel, a Haitian-American attorney in Miami who encourages expats to invest and get more involved in Haiti.
Despite the risks, though, Michel (no relation to Molton Michel) says Haiti’s crisis is precisely why they have to step up.
“People are still dying [in Haiti] because they don’t have enough food,” she says. “We need to do more.”
In Haiti that means grow more. More food.