Mark Wilson #1

The writer is an international journalist based in Port of Spain

Around Emancipation Day, I’m struck by two contrasting views on Haiti.

First, there’s huge respect for the historic Haiti where Toussaint L’Ouverture led a slave revolt against the French to victory in 1804.

Less happily, there’s rampant distrust, shading into fear and hostility for actual 3-D living Haitians who find themselves elsewhere in the Caribbean, or indeed pretty much anywhere in this big world.

Check this from the Guyana Times, a daily paper which is a strong supporter of that country’s ex-president Bharrat Jagdeo and his opposition People’s Progressive Party. It was published, tactfully, on August 2, the day after Emancipation.

“Haiti is among the leading countries for its high statistics on Human Immunodeficiency Virus and the cholera epidemic, which has brewed serious health concerns after a large influx of its citizens arrived in Guyana... 98 per cent of all pregnant women at Haitian medical facilities tested positive for HIV.

“Through interaction with Guyanese, it is expected that any communicable and non-communicable diseases will spread.” Casual interaction spreading non-communicable diseases? That one leaves me confused. And 98 per cent of all pregnant women? Haiti’s healthy birth rate must be close to zero.

Meanwhile, “persons were already complaining about Haitians being employed at hospitals and in other sectors but being unable to speak proper English, while thousands of Guyanese have lost their jobs”. It gets worse. With a tightly fought general election now overdue, there’s apparently a government plot to pad the voters’ list with illegal Haitians.

Jagdeo says the citizenship minister, former police commissioner Winston Felix, is “untrustworthy”. He adds: “I heard there are others there who might be responsible for issuing fake documents, birth certificates.

“Many of these foreign nationals—not just Haitians, but others—who are not eligible... They will form part of the new voters’ list if house-to-house registration succeeds.”

So, what’s really happening?

Back in January, Guyana amended its immigration rules to allow Haitian arrivals six months’ stay, in line with other Caricom nationals. In principle, says Felix, this was to implement a decision of the July 2018 Heads of Government meeting. If so, most Caricom states seem to have ignored it.

With visa-free entry to Guyana, a steady flow of Haitians arrived on COPA flights, via Panama.

Most arrived with return tickets, but did not fly back home. Felix reports 8,476 arrivals and 1,170 airline departures from January to July. More dramatically (but perhaps, inaccurately) a wide-circulation newspaper Kaieteur News reports just 13 departures.

So, large-scale Haitian settlement in Guyana? Maybe not. On Felix’s figures, around 7,300 Haitian arrivals didn’t leave with COPA. In a country of just 750,000 people, that’s almost one per cent of the population. But Guyanese I’ve spoken to don’t report a sizeable resident community of Haitian migrants.

In T&T, with a larger background population of around 1.4 million, the 16,000 Venezuelans registered this year make a highly visible minority. There’s nothing like that in Georgetown. Guyana’s Haitian arrivals don’t use their return tickets to fly home. But they don’t stay around, either.

Lurid news reports say they’re “whisked away” on a sinister maxi ride from the airport to Georgetown. That’s “under cover of darkness”, so let’s say after six in the evening.

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The onward journey is a gruelling full-day 450-km maxi ride on the sodden mud road to Lethem on the southern border with Brazil. That sounds like hard work, but it’s not illegal. There’s a regular service, Route 94.

For travellers used to Haiti’s parched and denuded landscape, the Guyanese rainforest must look like another planet.

For those who can afford it, the alternative is an internal flight to Lethem from Georgetown’s Ogle airport.

Across from Lethem on the Brazilian side, Guyanese newspapers have printed pictures of arriving Haitians outside a well-appointed border post. That would imply officially documented entry, rather than people smuggling or human trafficking.

After entry to Brazil, what happens next is far from clear. There are Haitian migrant communities in Brazilian cities, in Chile, Colombia, and many parts of South America. Another possible path from Georgetown would be the unofficial “backtrack” route by small boat to Suriname, and then onward to Guyane Française—a French overseas department with perhaps 25,000 resident Haitians and direct flights to Paris. But that’s not so easy; one obstacle is a Surinamese checkpoint astride their only east-west road.

Either way, most Haitians aren’t staying in Guyana to spread non-communicable diseases and HIV, thief jobs in Guyanese hospitals, or vote illegally in the upcoming election.

It’s not just Guyana. Barbados has reversed a no-visa policy introduced last year. The Bahamas deports Haitians by the planeload. T&T has no welcome mat.

Guyana’s oil boom starts next year, with a useful US$200m boost to government coffers. After that, it’s onwards and upwards. That will mean migration. Abu Dhabi had 50,000 people when their oil boom started in the 1970s. Today, they have 1.8 million.

For half a century, hard-pressed Guyanese travelled to make new lives in the Caribbean or North America. That flow will now be swiftly reversed. In a country already riven by racial intolerance, how will the inflow be handled? Judging by this past week’s conversation, not well.

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