Interview with Colette Lespinasse on Haiti

Jan 26, 2011

Colette Lespinasse discusses pre-existing governance and human rights issues in disaster-stricken Haiti. She addresses the recent earthquake and cholera outbreak, as well as her work with migrants on the Haitian-Dominican border.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Welcome to Global Ethics Forum. I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy, here with Colette Lespinasse, to talk about her work on human rights in Haiti.

Lespinasse has been an advocate of social issues since the 1980s, when she hosted a radio show critical of the dictator Duvalier. Today her organization, Group of Support to Returnees and Refugees [Groupe d'Appui aux Repartiés et Réfugiés], works to bring services to the Haitian diaspora, particularly to Haitians in the Dominican Republic. In the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, Lespinasse has spoken out for the human right of a home for victims.

Colette Lespinasse, welcome to Global Ethics Forum.

COLETTE LESPINASSE: Thank you, Julia, for having me here.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: It's a pleasure.

Let's start with the latest news from Haiti, which is very sad—the earthquake and the recent cholera outbreak. What's your assessment of Haiti's recovery from these disasters?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: You didn't mention hurricane Tomas. It's another one.

We have gone from disaster to disaster since the beginning of 2010. It's very hard for people to recover, because it goes from problems to other problems. At the same time, we don't have strong leadership from the Haitian government, which should take the needs of the population and bring solutions to them. Until now, we have the support of some international organizations and some national organizations, but there is a big gap in coordination. That's why it's very difficult for the people to recover from these problems.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Soon after the earthquake, a lot of the nongovernmental community here in the States was saying, "There's a silver lining, because this is a chance to make Haiti an example of a place where we can build a recovery and show how coordination can happen."

What do you think got in the way of accomplishing that?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: First of all, it's the leadership. Even though you have the support of many international organizations, you need first to have Haitian leadership and involve the Haitian population, government, and organizations.

One of the problems is that many international organizations come and work by themselves. They don't try to better understand the culture, the practice, and the organizations of the country. At the same time, the Haitian state had many difficulties that became worse after the earthquake. They didn't really take this opportunity to make all the organizations work together.

An international organization can bring support, but it cannot replace the state. You need the state to organize the society and the country. This is the problem in Haiti now.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: There is a movement within development to look for more bottom-up approaches rather than the top-down approaches. You have just been describing international organizations coming in to Haiti and dictating how the money will be spent. It seems that in Haiti it's very difficult to have those bottom-up approaches because there isn't a state overseeing a grassroots movement.

Do you think it's really at the state level that this needs to happen, or can NGOs within Haiti become more empowered to be serving the population well? Where does it have to come from?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: It has to come from different levels, but the organizations and the states have to change strategies. We have a situation in Haiti, that since the country's beginning, it has been built on exclusion. We always had people that have been excluded from all spaces of decisions—for example, women, peasants, and those working in agriculture.

When organizations come to the country, they have to try to understand this structure and the story that is behind it. It's not that civil society is not organized. You have very well-organized people in different areas—for example, those who are working in agriculture and women. You have young people. You have people with disabilities. But the big problem is how to have their voices go to the spaces where decisions are made.

Most of the time when the international organizations come, they just work on the same basis that was in place in the country, so they never get really in touch with the real population. We saw that after the earthquake they came becuase it was an emergency. That we can understand, because after the earthquake we needed to bring care to people. We had to bring them water and food. But you can't do that forever.

The organizations come with everything. They come with their personnel and don't even talk with the Haitian organizations. That's why it was very difficult for many of them to reach the people. If they took just a little moment to talk with us, we could have helped—instead of doing it like that, don't do it like that—because we know the people. We know the culture. We know where they are. We know what they think.

The participation of the Haitian population has to be part of the strategy of rebuilding. When they prepared this international conference in New York, they didn't even talk to the Haitian population. We were trying to have a meeting with the government so that it could present us with the plan that they were going to discuss. At the end, we got that, but the government didn't show up. They just sent some people that didn't have any possibility of making any decision. It was very clear that they had already made their document and they wouldn't go back on that.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So it wasn't a dialogue.

COLETTE LESPINASSE: Exactly. It wasn't a dialogue.

If people want to really help Haiti, Haitian organizations in different areas should be part of the discussions; the women should be part of discussions that are taking place.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Let's talk a little bit about your particular organization and your work on the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. First, let's have a little bit of background, just in case people don't know about the relationship between the two nations.

What has been the historical relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: It's a history that is a bit difficult because the Dominican Republic is the only country in the region that took its independence, not from a European colony, but from Haiti. It is a country that is close to it; we share a small island. What we call patriotism in the Dominican Republic was based against Haitianism.

I don't know if you understand that. It's something that happens in other countries. For example, I know, as we took our independence from France, that Americans had some kind of feeling about it.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Resentment, almost.

COLETTE LESPINASSE: Exactly. This is the start.

The second one is that after independence—it wasn't the Dominican Republic at that time; it was the Spanish part of the island—the Haitians had a strategy to occupy the whole island in order to prevent the French from going back, because most of them went to the Spanish part.

When the Dominicans took their independence from Haiti, they felt that they were closer to Spain than to Haiti. Haiti had declared that it was a black country, and all people who are living in Haiti are black. In the meantime, when the Domincans took their independence, they decided that they were closest to Spain, and they don't have anything to do with the African—

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: This is the Dominicans.

Exactly. So we have this cultural struggle. It's a very mixed Dominican population. They feel they don't have African roots, which is black Haitian.

The third problem is when the Haitians started to go to the Dominican Republic to work at the beginning of the 20th century.

The 1900s.

COLETTE LESPINASSE: Exactly. We started to have a Haitian population, with their descendants, on the other side of the island. The Dominicans considered that another movement by Haitians to occupy them. So they discriminate against the Haitians who are living in the Dominican Republic and their descendants. That's why they never let those people have Dominican nationality. They cannot hold some positions in the country, in this political situation. And you have a conflict. They consider the migrants as invaders, not as economic agents that are looking for a better life.

These are the problems, and that's why we have these kinds of difficulty.

During those 20, 30 years, many organizations in Haiti and the Dominican Republic tried to work in order to have people come together to better understand the history, because politicians are using this history to keep people apart. We are trying to bring them together. But we have to do this in a just manner.

My organization works so that Dominicans can understand why the Haitian migrants go there. It's the same as why they come to the United States.

There are many Dominicans that are migrants. We try to work with Dominican migrant organizations. We try to work with Dominicans who are working on human rights and migrant rights, and to have the society better understand what has happened and to build a better relationship between both countries.

It's not easy, because you have some areas where politicians use migration issues to have people be apart.

After the earthquake, some people started thinking differently about these relationships. The Dominicans say, "We are living on the same island and we are exposed to the same risks. We have many things together. It's time to look for another way."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: That's interesting. So you have seen more openness to collaboration since the earthquake?


JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What are some of the challenges that Haitian migrants face when they go to the Dominican Republic to work?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: One of the big challenges is racial discrimination, not only against Haitian migrants, but against Dominicans that are black. That means a migrant won't have access to some services and to justice because he's black and Haitian.

Another challenge is that most Haitian migrants don't have their legal documents, because they went to the Dominican Republic based on some agreements that the countries had together at the time, or afterwards through smuggling networks.

If you don't have documents, you will have many problems. For example, you don't have freedom of movement, because there are checks in different places. That means some people cannot go to another place to look for another job if they are not lucky with the job they have. It's a big problem.

Some people—for example, women that are pregnant or that have children—it's very difficult for them to go to a health center, because they cannot move. Even if you go to the center, if you don't have your papers, they won't take care of you.

There are many human rights problems.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: When Haitian migrants in the Dominican Republic confront these problems, do they try to return to Haiti—for medical services, for example—or is too hard to cross the border and they remain in the Dominican Republic?

Because of the political and economic situation in Haiti, most of them stay in the Dominican Republic. But in a very bad situation, they will try to work in places where they cannot get a good wage. Sometimes they will face repatriation.

I work with a group and what happens many times is that when they come back to Haiti, it is because of what are called redadas [raids]. That means the army or the police will come and pick Haitians up and bring them to the border. Sometimes they go to places where Haitians are working, because there are some companies that use those workers because the economic system needs them. They can go to a plantation. They can go to a construction site. They can arrest many people and just bring them to the border. Sometimes they do that on payday, after they share the money, and the workers lose the money.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: They share the money with the employer?

Exactly. The military and some companies are very corrupt, so there are threats against the workers. We also have smuggling networks, because some people have to go back to see their families. All the networks across the border rely on people who don't have documents, but who want to move anyway, and so they get paid to let them pass.

Last week we had an accident where one person died and there were many injured. They were people that were trying to go to the Dominican Republic without documents. We have many cases of accidents and people that get fired.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: So your role is when this redada happens and they are sent back to Haiti, you help provide services for these migrants that are returning. What kinds of services do you try to provide?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: We have some that we call humanitarian assistance. Most of the time migrants arrive at the border in the evening, and they are people who are going very far. If you get to the border and you are going to the south of the country, that means one to two days of traveling. People get lost because they don't know where they are as they don't know the border area.

Even though there is a repatriation agreement, the Dominicans don't respect it. They can bring people whenever they want. They don't inform the Haitian government.

Our work is to welcome those people and help them have a place to spend the night. Sometimes they are very hungry, because they didn't eat. They don't have money. Most of the time they [the army or police] take all they have. These are bad conditions.

We find food and clothes to give them, and a place to spend the night. After that, sometimes we have to document some very grave cases in order to bring these for advocacy and denunciation. If they are sick, sometimes we can bring them to a health center and give them support to continue and transportation to go home.

Our main work is advocacy. We take cases and try to discuss them with the government so that they can look for solutions for problems. We have some proposals that we have prepared that we share with the government. We work together with Dominican organizations. For example, both countries have signed what they call an agreement to have a mixed commission that can deal with all of these problems.

We try to bring our advocacy to the inside of this commission so that they can look for solutions for people who have been living in the Dominican Republic for a long time. It is a recruitment issue, because the Dominican Republic still needs these workers and Haiti needs employment for people. So why don't they make an agreement? We are trying on all of those issues at the same time.

We have another program. It's for reinsertion, so that we can help people who come back and want to stay here, so that they can be reintegrated into their communities.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How did you come to this work? How did you decide to work on these issues of repatriation?

In the 1980s, I was part of a group that focused on the relationship between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Some Haitians and Dominicans said, "We share the same island. We don't have good relationships. Let's do something to get to know each other better and to change this."

We started to have a program that we called Exchange and Solidarity between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Every year we have a Haitian group that goes to the Dominican Republic. They have some organizations and friends that welcome them. They spend a month with families and learn Spanish. They learn about the country and the culture. We will do the same with a Dominican group. We started this in 1982. I was one of the first groups that went there.

In 1981, for the first time, the Dominican government made a big deportation. More than 80,000 persons were deported. At that moment, we decided to create GARR in order to work on the migration issue, because it is a big problem. If we don't deal with it, even though you have a lot of efforts to bring people together to have a better relationship, the migration issue is something that always stays between us. We have to work on that, bring more justice, and denounce unjust situations. That's why I started working—

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Almost 30 years now.

COLETTE LESPINASSE: I was part of the board. After that, I came to coordinate the executive office, and the same time I worked to bring people together. We said, if we don't work for justice, we will never have peace. You cannot be my neighbor and have good relations if I know that there is a lot of discrimination and injustice against certain people. There are some Dominicans that share this view too.

At the border, we support different grassroots organizations to make a network of Haitian and Dominican human rights organizations that deals with issues at the border. For example, they make money working together at the marketplace so that they can produce information and reports about what is happening at the border. Whenever we have those kinds of repatriations, they will be the first persons who are living there in the communities that will welcome the people who are being repatriated.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What kind of perspective have you gained in the time that you've been here in New York?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: I'm taking a class on oral history. I would like to use those tools to record some stories from repatriated people and migrants, but also from people who survived the earthquake. We can lose many things if we don't keep the memory of the city and country before and after the earthquake, because many many things have changed. We have lost many places and buildings that have a big story behind them. I'm afraid we will lose all of this.

At the same time, there is a big part of the country that doesn't realize what really happened in the capital, because they didn't have the opportunity to travel and they don't have access to TV. They heard about an earthquake. Some people described a little about what happened on the radio or when they go to their communities, but if you didn't see it with your own eyes, then you don't realize.

I would like to record some stories and have them kept in one place, and go around the country and tell people about the earthquake and make people understand what happened and the need to build up the country differently and to manage the risk. We are living on an island that will face not only earthquakes but also other types of disasters in the future.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How have you maintained your passion for this type of work? I can imagine it's quite frustrating at times to be working on these issues and not see change the way you would like to. How do you keep with it and keep positive?

COLETTE LESPINASSE: It's very difficult to understand. I cannot really work without passion. Even though we don't have big changes at the macro level, you can see some little changes at the micro level. It gives you faith and strength to continue.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Colette Lespinasse, thank you so much for joining me on Global Ethics Forum.

COLETTE LESPINASSE: It was a pleasure for me to be here.

Update, January 20, 2011: Ms. Lespinasse is now back in Haiti and commented from there by email on former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier's unexpected return to Haiti on January 16:

"This return complicated [Haiti's] political situation, which was already very bad. At the same time, it offers us the possibility to address some challenges like impunity, corruption and the need for the country to adopt democratic values based on the respect of human rights."

You may also like

ChatGPT homepage on a computer screen

MAY 15, 2024 Article

Forecasting Scenarios from the Use of AI in Diplomacy

Read through six scenarios and expert commentaries that explore potential impacts of AI on diplomacy.

MAY 15, 2024 Podcast

Beneficial AI: Moving Beyond Risks, with Raja Chatila

In this episode of the "AIEI" podcast, Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen engages with Sorbonne University's Raja Chatila, exploring the integration of robotics, AI, and ethics.

MAY 14, 2024 Article

A Conversation with Carnegie Ethics Fellow Bojan Francuz

This new interview series profiles members of the inaugural Carnegie Ethics Fellows cohort. This discussion features Bojan Francuz, a peace and urbanism expert.

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation