Getting the world’s most impoverished nation on its feet

| January 4, 2013 | 0 Comments

Frantz Liautaud is Haiti’s first ambassador to Canada in five years. The son of a diplomat, he comes to diplomacy from the world of business. Prior to his appointment as ambassador, he was president of the Haitian-Canadian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The former property developer — has a civil engineering degree from the School of Public Works in Paris and also studied at the University of California in Los Angeles. He feels his business background should provide a big hint about why Haitian President Michel Martelly (“Sweet Micky”) nominated him to head up the Canadian mission. He spoke with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell.

Diplomat magazine: You’re the first ambassador from Haiti in a long time. Why the large gap?
Frantz Liautaud: Every Haitian, and certainly a lot of the diplomatic people here, are asking why. The former president — President [René] Préval — never nominated any ambassadors anywhere. So if you were ambassador, you stayed there. He would have recalled one or two, which he did when he came back into power in 2006. He recalled the person who was my predecessor, Mr. [Robert] Tippenhauer. So when I came and presented my credentials, I was replacing Mr. Tippenhauer, who left Ottawa five years ago.

DM: So Mr. Préval had a policy of not appointing ambassadors?
FL: Well, yeah. By our constitution, the president nominates the ambassador, but it has to be ratified by a special commission in the Senate, which interviews candidates. Very often, this is a matter of negotiation between the executive and the legislative branch of government. Mr. Préval didn’t want to subject himself to that kind of wheeling and dealing, so it was status quo.
He wouldn’t handle his foreign policy through the ambassadors accredited in each country. He communicated with foreign countries through their representative in Haiti. It’s unconventional. The idea of having a diplomatic relationship is that I send a representative and you send one.

DM: Are you a political appointee?
FL: You could say that because I’m not a career diplomat, but the notion of a political appointee isn’t very well known in Haiti. I was the president of the Haitian-Canadian Chamber of Commerce and President Martelly and his prime minister [Laurent Lamothe], wanted to focus their diplomacy on trade and commercial exchanges, investing into Haiti. And they were looking for people who had the ability to promote that kind of idea.
I’m not as young as I look, probably — I’m 71 years old. My father was a diplomat, he was the first ambassador of Haiti in Washington. He passed away when I was very young, but my mother remarried and her second husband was also a diplomat. I got used to the diplomatic circles. As a teenager, I was in Spain with my stepfather when he was posted there and besides my professional career, I was very much involved with sports in Haiti. I was a member of the Olympic committee and president of the tennis federation and I’ve been involved in regional sports organizations.

Haiti’s presidential palace partly collapsed in the January 2010 earthquake.

Haiti’s presidential palace partly collapsed in the January 2010 earthquake.

DM: How important is Canada to Haiti?
FL: It’s probably the most important country to Haiti and has been for a long time. Diplomatic relations with Canada are almost 50 years old, but since the turn of the century, Canada has really stepped up its involvement and right now, I would say Canada is probably the second biggest supplier of support to the Haitian government. [In 2010/11, Canada sent $252.94 million in development aid to Haiti. The U.S. provided $380.3 million in development aid in 2011 and $357.2 million in 2012.]
For a number of years, Afghanistan and Haiti were the two major countries receiving Canadian aid and with the drop of Afghanistan, we became the first country for Canada. So it’s important for Canada and therefore very important for us, too.

DM: As your background is business, is it one of the priorities of your tenure in Canada?
FL: As I explained, that’s the new Haitian government’s priority. Haiti needs to put Haitians to work so that it can jumpstart its economy. Through the past 20 years of political traumas and embargoes and what have you, Haitian capital has been depleted totally. So we’re not able to raise from within what it takes to jumpstart the economy.
Now that we’ve had elections, there’s some kind of political stability. There’s no economic development anywhere in the world if you don’t have political stability. But that’s not enough. You need the capital to do it. We know that Haiti offers opportunities in many areas. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, Haiti was one of the five biggest tourist destinations in the Caribbean, next to Cuba and Puerto Rico. People barely knew about Jamaica and Dominican Republic back then. In 1954, Port-au-Prince was celebrating its 250th anniversary and at the same time, it was the 150th anniversary of our independence. In the Bay of Port-au-Prince, there would be five or six cruise ships. Then, we had the Duvalier regime, that started in ’57 and Haiti was wiped off the tourist map [because of the political situation.]
Haiti was back on the map in the early ’80s with Canadian tourism from Quebec because of the language association. Then we had the HIV problem — they linked it to Haiti. They later retracted it, but it was too late. In 1986, they overthrew the dictatorship, but Haiti, ever since, has gone into a long period of political instability. Tourism shied away.
But the beaches are there and we have the historical aspect. We were the first black independent country in the whole world and there’s all the history tied up with that. It’s the second place that Christopher Columbus landed. Then you have the whole French colonization aspect of our history, our war of independence in 1903. Then the Americans occupied Haiti for 15 or 16 years. There’s a bad and good side to that.

Haiti’s new president, Michel Martelly, is focussed on attracting investment to his country.

Haiti’s new president, Michel Martelly, is focussed on attracting investment to his country.

People will be overwhelmed by the power of history in Haiti. Tourism has been a priority and now we have a minister of tourism. Her name is Stephanie Villedrouin and she’s super dynamic. She was in Montreal recently and I saw her talking to the biggest tour operator in the city. Within one hour, she had the president of the company convinced that in 2013, they will include Haiti on their tourist destination list.

DM: What about trade?
FL: In the horror of the January 2012 earthquake, the capital city, Port-au-Prince, was 80-per-cent destroyed. So you have huge opportunities for rebuilding. Infrastructure is still very important. To develop tourism, you have to continue the work that was done by the previous president.
With the mining industry, there are a lot of talks, a lot of prospecting and exploration has gone on in the northern part of Haiti and we have just about reached the point where we should go into mining in copper, gold and so on. What is needed to get to that step is to modernize the legislation in Haiti and we’re in the process of doing that, and to make sure that the proper protocol of agreement is reached between these companies and the state so that we take lessons from what was done well elsewhere.

Haitians wait for water and supplies being delivered by helicopters as part of relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake

Haitians wait for water and supplies being delivered by helicopters as part of relief efforts in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake

DM: What about agriculture?
FL: If you want to have tourism, you have to develop agriculture. Haiti is a country of mountains. [Traditionally], we produced sugar cane and coffee and that was it. We still export a little bit of coffee; sugar cane has more or less disappeared. Modernized agriculture to feed a strong tourist industry would give a lot of opportunities to people. I know Canada is working very closely with the IICA (Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture). They are very much involved in developing agriculture in Haiti. Less than a year ago, there was a sizable fund allocated to promote agriculture entrepreneurs.

DM: Citizens of your country continue to endure extreme poverty. What does President Martelly intend to do about that?
FL: Last October/November, we were declared the most impoverished country in the world. [The average per capita annual income, according to the CIA World Factbook is $1,200. The unemployment rate is an estimated 40 percent [though more than 66 percent of the working population is either unemployed or underemployed.] You’re dealing with a high-density (population of 9.8 million), a low level of education, plus the rate of unemployment. These are priorities for President Martelly. That’s why I’m here. I want to attract investors.

DM: He appointed you quickly after the election, didn’t he?
FL: I was among the first four ambassadors he appointed. I think it was important to get someone here because he felt it was unjust that you didn’t have an ambassador for so long.

Michaëlle Jean, special envoy to Haiti for UNESCO, visits Haiti in 2011.

Michaëlle Jean, special envoy to Haiti for UNESCO, visits Haiti in 2011.

DM: What will he do to tackle this poverty?
FL: Attract investment. Lack of education is a problem for any impoverished country and education was the first priority of President Martelly. When he was running for president, he said he knew of half a million Haitians who had never set foot in a classroom. His first decision was to develop a program to get these kids off the street and into a classroom.
This program now has more than a million young kids in it. That doesn’t mean it will solve all the problems. Getting them in the classroom is one thing. Giving them quality education is something else. A lot of effort’s being expended to try to revamp the education system from the bottom to the top. There is a protocol that was signed between six Haitian universities and six Canadian universities. They’ve agreed to work together to revise the structure of higher education. This is a good step as well.
President Martelly and the government team understand that you have to attract people back into Haiti. You have to attract the diaspora back. They left for economic and political reasons. I feel that part of my mandate is to make sure the relationship between the embassy and the Haitian nationals living in Canada is as good as it can be. It wasn’t in the past because during the hard time of the dictatorship, people were leaving because of political reasons. Even after 1986, that attitude lingered on for a very long time. Habits are difficult to set in, but very difficult to set out. But so far, my experience getting in touch with Haitians here has been a very good one. They like the fact that I’m coming to them.

DM: Can you tell Canadians what happens to the aid money we send there?
FL: First, I don’t know one Haitian who didn’t recognize the actions of Canada for Haiti have always been well intentioned — and usually in areas that were very much needed, such as education. The problem, not just with Canada, is at the time that Haiti needed most the solidarity of the international countries, the decision was made that because the state was weak, because the structures of the state were non-existent, they bypassed the government structures and most of the aid was channelled through NGOs with no co-ordination, one with the other. Canada always tried to at least get the blessing of a ministry or some element of government, but the work is not conceived so that you can make sure what you started is finished. This is an adjustment that needs to be made. I know President Martelly is driving that idea. It’s a matter of trust and trust is not very easy to come by when you have a past history that gives reason to be skeptical. But the past is the past.

DM: Can you talk about Michaëlle Jean’s connection to Haiti?
FL: Let me tell you about my own experience. She became governor general at the same time as President Préval was elected. They had the same five-year term [by coincidence.] On one of her first trips abroad, she came to Haiti in May 2006 for the inauguration of President Préval. I was president of the Haitian-Canadian chamber of commerce and I organized breakfast in one of the big hotels in Haiti. There were about 500 people in attendance. I introduced her and after her speech, of the 500 people in attendance, there wasn’t one dry face in that hall. When she finished, the prime minister stood up and said “I really have nothing to say.” He sat down and was applauded for 10 minutes. He was well known as someone who, when he started talking, he would never stop!
That was her first trip and I think she made one or two more.

DM: What did she talk about that was so moving?
FL: She talked about her relationship with Haiti, how we have to break with bad habits of the past, how Haitians have to get together. Things that everyone says, but no one says it the way she did. She really has a way of talking to people. I made a few missions to Canada while I was president of the chamber and on one or two occasions, I had the honour to see her at Rideau Hall.
She has a way to communicate her passion for Haiti that no one has. She was a very good ambassador for Canada as governor general. When I was nominated for this job, I met a businessman who was in Nigeria when she visited. Even the local officials talked about how incredible she was. He said no one ever mobilized so many people. No matter where she went, you find people who are fans.

DM: One more question: How is the rebuilding going in Port-au-Prince?
FL: When I left Port-au-Prince on March 22, 2012, we still had more than a million people in tents. I went back on a business mission organized by EDC [Economic Development Canada] and DFAIT [Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade] and I was there to receive the mission. There were about 18 business people exploring possibilities. And when I landed back in Port-au-Prince, I saw a difference, in the good sense.
Things are moving. When you are [there all the time], you don’t see it, but things are moving. In early January 2012, [former CIDA minister Bev] Oda came for the anniversary of the earthquake. Before she left, she signed a protocol in which Canada allocated $20 million to solve the tent problems around the palace. The plan was, that over 12 months, we should be able to solve the problem.
In July, almost all the tents were cleaned — certainly around the palace — and it was almost six months ahead of schedule. Why? It was one program that was channelled through the government to the executive. We can make better use of our Canadian dollars by working through proper protocol with the government.

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