The government of Haiti has publicized that it wants to use tourism as an engine for development. Like its Caribbean neighbors, Haiti is well endowed with beautiful beaches, turquoise seas, and tropical breezes. Added to these natural blessings is Haiti's rich history that enables it to boast of being a pioneer in abolishing slavery and being the first modern nation to recognize the universal rights of all people. It has a culture as well as architectural structures that speak to that history. Taken together, Haiti has the making of a surefire tourist destination.
Yet, despite its impressive resume, political turmoil in the past 50 years has undermined Haiti's ability to attract tourists as it once did in the 1950's. Haiti's neighbor, the Dominican Republic attracts 25% of the estimated 20 million visitors to the Caribbean annually- visitors from the US, Canada, Western Europe, South America, and even from such faraway places as China and Japan. Tourism in the Dominican Republic is a booming industry, financed in part by international investors and profits from the trafficking of Haitian sugar cane laborers. Impressed by the success of Dominican tourism, the current Haitian administration wants to duplicate the Dominican model.
Under the leadership of its Minister of Tourism, the government has begun to implement this Dominican style tourism plan for Haiti and in particular for Ile-a-Vache. A special tourist police force called Politour, a name adapted from a similar force set up in the Dominican Republic, has already been formed in Haiti to provide added security in tourist areas. Never mind the fact that everyone in Haiti is in need of added security. This focus on Dominican style tourism is particularly worrisome on the tiny offshore island of Ile-a-Vache.
Ile-a-Vache is an island on Haiti's southern coast which once harbored infamous pirates such as Captain Morgan. The island is currently home to 15,000 inhabitants who make their living from farming and fishing. These inhabitants are the descendants of those who gave their lives so that people of African descent could have the right of ownership. Today that right is being challenged as their communities are being bulldozed to make way for foreign investors. With only two hotels, two or three policemen, and zero car traffic, the island had long been a serene and rustic part of Haiti. But the ambitious government plan is set to change all that. The Ile-a-Vache makeover involves the construction of 1,000 hotel rooms and 2,500 condos and villas to be marketed to such high end clients as Madonna, and investors from the Dominican Republic, Qatar, Spain, Venezuela, and other Caribbean islands.
Some of the residents of Ile-a-Vache have revolted against this tourism plan, calling it a “collective suicide” and “cultural genocide”. They've called upon the government to stop implementing what they perceive as a plan established mostly to benefit foreign investors rather than the local population. For some of the residents, the razing of the last remaining patch of forest on the island to build an international airport was a clear indication that the project was not being done for their benefit. They have asked the government to stop ignoring their needs and to include them in discussions of how the island should be developed.
The last time the government of Haiti tried to implement a development project on Ile-a-Vache, Haiti almost lost the island. In the 1860's, President Geffrard envisioned using the well forested island to obtain capital needed to develop the rest of the country. He contracted an American businessman named Klock to oversee a project that would involve the exportation of wood from the island to overseas markets. Unbeknownst to Geffrard, Klock had also approached the president of the United States at the time, Abraham Lincoln, and proposed to him that he be made governor of Ile-a-Vache and the island be used as a stepping stone for US colonization of Haiti. In 1862, in the midst of the US Civil War, 400 African-American men were transported to the island to work under Klock's command. Subjected to forced labor on the island, it did not take long for these men to resist Klock's barbaric rule. The development project failed, and President Lincoln chose not to send reinforcement to crack down on the revolt against Klock.
If this history of development on the island teaches us anything, it is that development projects involving Haiti's off-shore islands must be carefully scrutinized. Ile- a-Vache is about the size of many well known independent islands in the Caribbean. With its own international airport, and modern infrastructure for wealthy villa and condo owners, it can be a free standing community with its own Politour police fortifying it against the residents of the mainland. With a high foreign population backed by foreign investors, the new population of the free standing Ile-a-Vache may not view itself as culturally attached to the mainland and may even view the residents of the mainland as a tax burden from whom they get nothing except maid service that is shuttled in and out. Ile-a-Vache can be a developed community apart from the mainland like Johannesburg and Soweto.
In efforts to quell the rising tide of sentiment against this Apartheid-style development project on Ile-a-Vache, government officials have visited the island accompanied by the press. Hundreds of photograhs have appeared online showing officials hugging children and embracing the elderly. The message they've tried to convey is that the tourism project is for the benefit of the people of the island. But reports of massive police presence, of intimidation, and of arrests of opponents convey a different message: that residents may be forcibly removed to market the island to a more affluent population.
When land is confiscated from small investors, which the local residents are, and sold to bigger investors, no one can feel secure in their investment because another bigger investor can always come along. To ensure the success of development plans for Ile-a-Vache, the government needs to reassure the residents as well as future investors that conventional rules of land ownership will be respected. Otherwise, foreign investors risks having their property nationalized by future governments who could accuse them of having acquired their property illegally. While governments can acquire land through eminent domain for public works, they cannot do so for projects aimed at benefiting private enterprise. The Prime Minister has already admitted that the infrastructure that is buing built on the island, particularly the international airport, was requested by private investors, making any government claim of eminent domain an abuse of authority.
This abuse is all too familiar in next door Dominican Republic where dispossession is ruthlessly encoded in laws such as TC168-13, which strips Dominicans of Haitian ancestry of their citizenship rights and potentially of the right to own property. As tourism and real estate boom in the Dominican Republic, the dispossessed are left stateless to make room for international buyers. International Living, a guide for those who wish to retire overseas, describes the Dominican Republic as “The Fairest Land Under Heaven” sought after by many international investors seeking to find the good life in a tropical paradise.
As the world community has gone ahead of Haiti to denounce the injustice in the Dominican Republic, will the Haitian government pursue its own disposession venture on Ile-a-Vache, in full collaboration with Dominican investors and Dominican construction companies? Can this kind of development without social justice be tenable? Some of the residents of Ile -a-Vache have declared that they are prepared to die fighting to defend their home and community. With so many other options available to vacationers, many tourists may opt not to come to a place built over spilled blood. Investors stand to lose monumentally on their investment if tourists choose not to visit the island. They may want to protect their investment by demanding that the development be done in a socially responsible manner. That would be a win-win for both foreign investors and island residents.
Towards the end of the year (November 13-14, 2014), a Caribbean tourism and investment conference is scheduled to take place in the Dominican Republic. Last November, the Haitian Minister of Tourism spoke at this conference, even as the world community deliberated TC168-13 and considered boycotting the Dominican Republic for its human rights violations. This year, the minister may once again participate in this conference. If she does, she risks beeing seen as oblivious to the plight of the dispossessed, justifying the complaints from the residents of Ile-a-Vache that the Haitian government is engaged in its own land grab for the primary benefit of Dominican and other foreign investors.