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This month, Haiti buried what one would consider its only successful president. But his ideas are alive and could lead the country to a better future.
What is the definition of successful here, you might ask?
Well, meaning he was the only president that ended his term(s) without death, exile, or years of huge demonstrations from the masses demanding his exit.
Préval was no saint when it came to politics, but he seemed to have managed to get out of the political fire unscathed, untouched by the international community’s self-interests in domination, and other forces in Haiti.
He sometimes allowed external political pressures to influence his policy decisions while he was president. We know some of those decisions were not in the best interest of the country. In fact, the country is paying for some of them today—mainly the choices to privatize some of Haiti’s national resources.
It is often said that how you start in life is not as important as how you end. The end of the story is what matters most, since that’s what most people remember.
These two statements might be quite relevant to the late Haitian President, René Préval.
Préval always maintained that the country’s stability will come from empowering the farmers to increase food production at the national level while putting money in their pockets.
When you read about Préval’s political genesis in Haiti, you realize that he was initially on the right track.
Call it a time of clarity—the remarkable work he left us in his father’s native village, Marmelade, Haiti, is worthy of documentation.
But let’s review how he started.
In a speech that Préval gave in 1998, recorded by Robert Corbett in his “Strong Word” article, Préval warned the world, “The real problem is the distribution of wealth in this country, meaning Haiti, where 1% of the people control 50% of the country’s wealth… Haiti may be the poorest, but there are a lot of other countries which are just like us,” Préval said. “Big countries have sucked out our wealth for centuries and centuries.”
I am not sure how you view Préval’s legacy, but his final work in Marmelade seemed to embody how he envisioned Haiti. He had a keen ability to quickly identify the country’s problems at intellectual, cultural, social and practical levels.
I saw that several years ago, and it led me to write a piece about him and Jude Célestin for Haitian Times, “From René Préval to Jude Célestin: Could Their Stance Against the International Community Be the Start of Haiti’s Political Freedom?”
Of course, we know how the story ended, because there are still a few actors struggling to keep control of Haiti. I believe their time is coming to an end. You can’t keep a population enslaved for too long without reaping the consequences. The time bomb is ticking in Haiti unless things radically change.
Préval understood the economic punishment that Haiti has suffered and is still suffering from France to Canada and to the United Nations’ current occupation of Haiti. He “condemned France for making Haiti pay 150 million francs—a colossal sum in the nineteenth century—in reparations after the colony won its independence in 1804.”
And France was not the only country he had the courage to confront during his political career. Préval understood the big picture, and some of his “allies” were not always pleased with him. “We have spent much more of our history working as slaves for foreigners and sending our wealth overseas than working to build up Haiti,” he once said.
Préval’s words were directed towards the West. We know one of the strategies that the West imposes on “weaker” countries is to create violence and instability in countries like Haiti, to force citizens to migrate to the United States, Canada, or France to help build their economies.
The other reason to facilitate instability is an effort to steal land or whatever resources that seem to catch their fancy.
Although I must say, in the last few years, immigrants are beginning to realize that they are not welcome in these countries, and for many it is better to stay home to do nation-building.
Provide direct investment for the farmers, and you lower the country’s aid dependence.
Haiti’s long-term wealth will come from investing in the farmers. Préval knew that aid was the enemy of Haiti. “Each time they come with a little $1 million, $2 million or $3 million, they say they are helping us… but they are just giving back what they already stole from us,” asserted Préval.
After hearing these words, it’s fair to conceive that his Marmelade project was his way of giving back to the Haitian people what foreigners have stolen from Haiti.
Let me introduce you to René Préval’s agricultural co-op project in Haiti, Marmelade. The project is remarkable because of its emphasis on the farmers. You can see the documentary video here. The video is in Haitian Creole with English subtitles.
Marmelade is a commune in the Artibonite part of the country. The land is extremely rich, and according to Préval, well-irrigated and quite valuable. Préval was working with a group of co-op farmers, empowering them to focus on crops that will yield tremendous profits.
The man knew what he was talking about, since he’d studied agronomy. Préval started transforming the town of Marmelade with his agricultural business initiative.
And he strongly encouraged Haitians and, I would add, Haitian diaspora investors to work with the farmers to expand the project nationally. The four most important crops to focus on, according to Préval, are: coffee, bamboo, grapefruit, and oranges.
Because of their ability to create multiple products. For instance, bamboo is used in food and also makes beautiful furniture and gorgeous fabrics.
The growth of bamboo surprised me the most when I watched the video. I had no idea that Haiti grew bamboo. It made sense to Préval, since he understood the water crisis and Haiti’s fragile climate.
He knew bamboo could serve to preserve water while protecting the environment. In fact, right before he died, he purchased a big equipment to increase crop production in Marmalade.
Préval made the connection between the country’s environment to its political stability.
Corbett wrote, “… Préval charged that colonists and neo-colonists had caused most of Haiti’s ecological damage. Referring to two of Haiti’s off-shore islands, he shared that ‘before the [1915-1934] U.S. occupation, La Gonave and La Tortue were once beautiful lands, as was the Forest of Pines,’ a wooded area around Kenscoff.” For those of you who follow only the mainstream media, the narrative is false when it comes to blaming Haitians for all their ills.
Préval gave us a view of the damage that one U.S. company did in the area of Kenscoff by reminding Haitians, “… but they gave the whole forest to an American company which cut down the trees without planting new ones,” Préval said. “We must be very careful not to blame the peasants for deforestation. No, it was the colonists, the occupiers, and the dictators who cut down the trees.”
It is not surprising that the Corbett article never made it to the mainstream media. I think when it comes to the media, the only Haitians who can truly serve Haiti’s best interests are those who are not owned by corporations. It took some research to discover that side of Préval.
Préval’s ability to speak truth to Haiti’s local elite.
In spite of his relationship with the local elite, he was able to articulate the country’s malaise. He accused the elite of “hoarding land, of not paying taxes, and of not investing in Haiti… The country has resources, and there are a lot of people with money,” Préval said. “There are people who eat in Port-au-Prince and then drink water in Miami. Today, they have to answer to the people.”
He believed that Haiti needed what he called “a social dialogue and a reshuffling of the cards.”
Préval may have passed, but he left us with something valuable—his work.
The question is, will the Haitian diaspora miss this opportunity to invest directly in the Marmelade farmers?
Préval understood that Haiti was and is still a wealthy country. He also identified the people who are blocking the productive engine of the country.
But collectively, there are more Haitians now who can use their resources, skills, talents, and money to get around those blocks. “The people who have the wealth of the country in their hands must open their hands… “If they don’t open their hands, the State will force them to open their hands. That is how to have reconciliation. You can’t hold everything in your hands and ask someone to reconcile with you,” argued Préval.
One of the country’s hopes is for Haitians who still believe in Haiti’s potential to empower the farmers directly through the Marmelade project.
Imagine investing in growing bamboo in Haiti and branding Marmelade as the bamboo center. And imagine Haitians investing in these four crops, to the point where Haiti starts trading, let’s say, bamboo with China.
That kind of direct investment alone can help transform Haiti’s economic engine.
Your turn! Did you know about the Marmelade project? What do you think? What would you suggest in terms of bringing this project to the national level? Tell me in the comments section below.
About the author: Daniella Bien-Aime is the founder of the Bien-Aime Post, a digital media platform that focuses on business, leadership, education, and social media within the context of Haiti and its diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @dbienaime.