Strained diplomacy marks closure of Haitian embassy in Kingston

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BY KIMONE THOMPSON Features Editor — Sunday thompsonk@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 15, 2012

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A diplomatic row between Haiti and Jamaica, 161 kilometres away from each other in the Caribbean Sea, could be brewing after Haiti closed its embassy here two weeks ago and withdrew its diplomatic agents.

In a December 2011 letter from Haiti’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs advising its Jamaican counterpart of the March 30 pull out, the Frenchspeaking nation cited “non-reciprocity” as one of two reasons for its decision.

It was referring to the fact that while it has operated an embassy in Jamaica for over 30 years, Jamaica has never established a corresponding mission in Haiti and only operates an honorary consulate, the functions of which are not as broad as an embassy’s. In interviews with the Jamaica Observer, the Jamaican authorities sought to downplay that fact.

At a farewell reception for Haitian Chargé d’Affaires Max Alcé, hosted by the dean of the diplomatic corps in St Andrew last Tuesday night, state minister of foreign affairs Arnaldo Brown told the Sunday Observer he knew nothing of the non-reciprocity claim.

“We have no indication that that is an issue,” he said. Prior to that, when asked by e-mail why Jamaica had not set up an embassy in Haiti, the ministry did not answer directly. “Jamaica believes that the establishment of a mission in Haiti would greatly facilitate the deepening and strengthening of relations between both countries.

However, the fact that Jamaica does not have an embassy in Haiti should not be seen as a lack of commitment on the part of Jamaica to the ties of friendship and co-operation which we share with our sister nation,” the ministry said. The AJ Nicholson-headed ministry, while expressing regret at the Haitian Government’s decision, was equally vague when asked if this could be the start of a row.

“As close geographic neighbours, Haiti and Jamaica share a mutually beneficial relationship. Jamaica has consistently shown its concern for the Haitian people and has played an important role in Caricom and in the wider international community in supporting the aspirations of the Government and people of Haiti for the attainment of stability, peace and prosperity,” the e-mail said.

“With the help of the international community, Haiti has been making progress in its political and economic transition, and Jamaica has demonstrated a strong commitment to continue to assist in Haiti's socioeconomic recovery and growth, whether or not there is a resident mission,” it continued. For his part, Alcé, who began his tour of duty in March 2005, also sought to stress that the two countries enjoy good relations. “I don’t think there is any problem as far as relations are concerned,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“They did not close the embassy because of bad relations.” He, however, gave another example of inequity in the relationship. “Haiti has always opened its doors to Jamaica. You can go to Haiti without a visa, you can get it at the airport, which is different from what Jamaica has done with regard to closing its doors to Haitians. Haitians are not permitted to come to Jamaica as they wish,” he said.

“We (Haiti) fought against that also, but the only thing we can tell is that we signed an agreement with them (Jamaica) that only people holding a diplomatic passport or an official passport can come to Jamaica without a visa,” the outgoing Chargé d’Affaires said.

The two countries formally established diplomatic relations in August, 1981, but historical records show that their friendship predates that, with both sides having significant numbers among the other’s population as far back as the 18th century.

Addressing the embassy’s closure, Alcé said finances were also a consideration in his Government’s decision — especially after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake flattened Port-au-Prince in 2010, killing and injuring over 600,000 and leaving a million people homeless.

But it appears that the lack of reciprocity was the driving force behind the decision.

“The letter said the reason for it (closure) is economical reasons and non-reciprocity... Haiti has always had a mission in Jamaica. Even before Independence we used to have concerts and things like that in Jamaica, but Jamaica never responded. I have fought very hard with Mr (Anthony) Hylton when he was the minister of foreign affairs and I fought very hard with Mr (Kenneth) Baugh. Mr Hylton had had the authorisation of the Parliament to open a mission but it looks like the Ministry of Finance didn’t have the funds,” said Alcé.

Alcé came to Jamaica in 2005 at a time when the two countries were in the throes of a tiff over the hosting of deposed Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Haiti had recalled its ambassador the previous year, after then Prime Minister of Jamaica PJ Patterson allowed Aristide 10 weeks’ asylum in order to reunite with his family. No ambassador has since been appointed.

As Chargé d’Affaires, Alcé’s express mission was to repair the damaged friendship which has been traced back to Maroon Chief Boukman Dutty and the Haitian Revolution. During his tenure, Alcé was instrumental in securing asylum for several of his countrymen who arrived on Jamaica’s eastern shores en masse in 2005, 2007 and 2010. He dreamed of establishing a student exchange programme between Jamaica and Haiti, and of opening a school to teach Haitian Creole and French, but the embassy’s US$1 million budget would not stretch, and it doesn’t appear that Haiti was motivated to increase it.

“I’m sure in my time that more Jamaicans know about Haiti than they did before. We’ve been trying to talk to people on the street, telling them we are Haitians and showing them the flag. We keep the flags alive in the cars for people to ask us who we are because the only thing they know is about Haitians coming here and invading the country; only about poor Haitians.”

On Tuesday, junior minister Brown confirmed that an honorary consul to Haiti had been identified but said the ministry was not ready to make an official announcement.

But it is little consolation for the Haitians who live here. Those to whom the Sunday Observer spoke were sceptical, especially since they have had no official word from the Michel Martelly-led Government, and as far as they know, the appointment of an honorary consul is mere rumour.

Pointing to the “low level of trade exchange and the fact that since 1991 Haiti was removed from the Air Jamaica and the then BWIA routes, the difficulty for Haitians to obtain visas from Jamaica, [and] the failed attempts to have regular direct flights between Kingston and Port-au-Prince”, senior lecturer in French at the University of the West Indies, Dr Marie Jose Nzengou-Tayo, said the closure sent negative signals.

“We may have some difficulties for renewal of passports and endorsements of official documents (notary acts). We don’t know what will be the scope of the new honorary consul’s authority,” said Nzengou-Tayo, who has been living here for the past 22 years.

Convenor of the Haiti-Jamaica Society Myrtha Desulme also weighed in on the development.

“The closure of the Haitian embassy is a sad day, not only for the Haitian-Jamaican community, but for Haiti-Jamaica relations as well,” she said.

Like Alcé and Nzengou-Tayo, she spoke of the disparities in the relationship between Haiti and Jamaica, and added that the inequitable treatment extended to Caricom as well.

“It has been at least a decade since, at the urging of Caricom, visas to Haiti have been waived for all Caricom nationals, but reciprocity has been hard to come by... [for] nationals of Haiti, which contributes to Caricom as a fullfledged member, require a visa to travel to Caricom member countries.

Negotiations on the mechanisms to facilitate ease of travel within the community by Haitian officials and business representatives alone are only just being finalised. The terms are that only officials or authenticated business travellers, who have demonstrated sufficient funds for the duration of their stay, and are in possession of either a diplomatic passport, or a valid US, UK, Canadian, or Schengen visa, and a return ticket, or a ticket to a third destination where he/she has legal status, can be granted a visa,” she said.

The foreign affairs ministry says there are between 1,000 and 1,500 documented and undocumented Haitians currently living in Jamaica.

 

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