Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Aug 23, 2021
How Haiti—and Brooklyn’s Haitian population—came to be
Jean Eddy Saint Paul, the former director of the Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College, provides the historical context of Haiti today
In the last two months alone, Haiti has seen its president assassinated, a 7.2 earthquake on August 14, followed by a storm that triggered flooding and landslides that hampered early recovery efforts. All this in a small Caribbean island that never fully recovered from the last major disastrous earthquake just over a decade ago.
“Haiti has always had a problem of infrastructure,” says Jean Eddy Saint Paul, the former director of the Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College. “Communication was not easy before the earthquake. But adding to that, recently we have a problem of gangs … If for instance an international Haitians, the diaspora, needs to travel to help in the south of Haiti, no one knows if the gangs who control Martissant will help you.”
The gangs, he says, are more powerful than the state, where there is a political vacuum and crisis of leadership.
But it would be a disservice—not to mention inaccurate—to simply brush it off as an island nation with chronic bad luck and internal governance failures. To say Haiti can’t catch a break would be to let the people and foreign governments off the hook that are responsible for its entrenched infrastructure issues and corruption.
“In Haiti, we don’t manufacture guns. Those guns that are in the hands of those gangsters, they came—let’s say 90 percent of those guns and munitions—they came straight from the United States of America,” says Saint Paul. “The international community under the umbrella of the United States of America has a huge moral responsibility in what’s happening in Haiti.”
Of course, Haiti’s root problems run deeper than guns. Saint Paul is this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast,” where he concisely breaks down 220 years of Haiti’s history from before its independence, and how the international community—primarily the U.S. and France—conspired at every turn to control, thwart or otherwise stymie the autonomy of the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere.
As the death toll of Saturday’s earthquake surpasses 2100, Brooklyn’s Haitian community is rallying. The borough has more than 90,000 Haitian-Americans living in it, making it the third highest concentration of Haitians in the United States.
Saint Paul is not only one of them, he is from the region in the south that was at the epicenter of the recent earthquake. On the podcast, he describes how Brooklyn came to be home to so many Haitian-Americans, through three waves of immigration dating back to the 1960s and ‘70s when the intellectual class fled the Duvalier regimes, up through the so-called boat people of the 1980s and ‘90s.
The community today, which is most populous in Flatbush, struggles with gentrification and economic autonomy, says Saint Paul.
“It’s very diverse, but is also a community that has a lack in terms of economic progress,” he says “We have a bunch of Haitian restaurants, but they don’t own the building where they have their businesses. We have progress professionally, but in terms of community, we need to do better … The process of gentrification has done a lot of harm tot he Haitian community.”
For all of that, plus how you can help Haiti today, listen to the podcast.
Correction: This article has been updated to note that Jean Eddy Saint Paul, the founding director of the Haitian Studies Institute at Brooklyn College, is no longer affiliated with the program. The new interim director is Marie Lili Cerat.
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