Champagne on Haiti: Devastation and Life
January 10th, 2011
by Erik Weber
SOUTH TOMS RIVER – It has been less than a month since this borough’s mayor, Joseph M. Champagne, took office as the first voter-elected black mayor of Ocean County, and a little over a year since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck his native country of Haiti, claiming the life of his sister, a 19-year-old student preparing for life.
Marking this first anniversary amidst celebrations over his political accomplishment, Mayor Champagne sat down with the Signal in his new office at 144 Mill Street, here, to reflect upon his life, his journey to America, the devastation that now plagues his homeland and the unifying bond he sees between the two nations.
You are a native of Haiti. What brought you to America, and how did you see yourself looking back upon your home country?
I came in this country indefinitely when I was only 19. I used to come before as a youngster, every summer, vacations since I was 13, and at 19 years old, there was at that time [the] overthrowing of [Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Haitian politician who served as Haiti’s first democratically elected president until a military coup in September 1991 took over the government and began a three-year rampage of torture, murders and rape that rocked the country and its people]. Aristide was exiled, there was a lot of political turmoil and unrest and violence that I witnessed firsthand, and because of that, we were forced to leave Haiti not because of poverty where we were concerned because, thank God, we were not rich but we could enjoy our lives there. Haiti to some extent is a paradise to those who do have the means and the substance, but we were forced to leave for our own security, to come to the United States indefinitely.
My presence in the United States perhaps was different from a lot of people in the sense that I had a sense of mission. My mission was to amass as much knowledge as possible, to acquire as much knowledge and wisdom and understanding as possible to benefit myself, my family, my community and certainly humanity at large because of what I saw in Haiti: poverty and the misuse of power. I wanted to become the antithesis of that, how to use the government for the benefit of people as opposed to the detriment of people, and so I always find myself in leadership positions, even at an early age when I came in high school. I ended up being the salutatorian [Mr. Champagne graduated in 1993]. Really, I was the valedictorian, but they knocked me down because I had only been in the high school for two years and I was supposed to be there for four years.
Where did you live when you first came here?
I lived in Brooklyn. Because of my grades, I was able to receive a full academic scholarship to study at Columbia University, and right there I created a new organization for the students to address the dropout rate on that campus [Mr. Champagne graduated in 1998]. From that point I went to Vermont Law School, and there I created a human rights organization [the Student Leadership Collective for Human Rights], which eventually became an umbrella organization over all the other student organizations. These student leaders would participate in our yearly summit to give a state of the union address and what’s happening in their respective community, be it Jewish, be it black, Hispanic or what have you. It ended up becoming this huge organization I created in 2002, and now we’re in 2011 and it’s still going. I am invited to speak at Vermont Law School to speak to the students in February through the organization [Mr. Champagne graduated in 2002].
So I always find myself in leadership positions, not that I’m seeking it but it eventually translates itself into that because I always find myself interacting with people, being concerned about what they are going through, and finding ways to find a solution for that.
I know the motivating factor is my experience in Haiti to see how I can be the antithesis of what I saw, how those leaders have used their power, or misused their power, and eventually misused those people that they were supposed to govern.
What year did you come to South Toms River and what attracted you to it?
I first came to Toms River in 2002. I got a clerkship to clerk for Judge [Wendel E.] Daniels, and I didn’t have any family members here. I drove past it. I intended only to spend a year and then go back to Washington, D.C., but I ended up staying because, A, I got a job, and B, I found my wife.
I went to Haiti and met with my wife-to-be, brought her to Toms River where I was living at the time, we ended up having a child and from that point we moved to South Toms River in 2006.
Mr. Champagne ran and won a seat on the borough council in 2008. Early last year, just prior to beginning his campaign for the mayoral spot, the earthquake struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, including Mr. Champagne’s sister, Karine.
The earthquake took everybody by surprise. January 12, 2010. It was a Tuesday if my memory serves me well, and it was about 4:53 in the afternoon. I was, at that time – I was thinking about my little sister because I’m pretty much the one who was overseeing her needs. She’s my stepsister, but nevertheless, my sister, and so that day, when I heard about the earthquake, I immediately tried to contact her, and I did my very best to reach out to everybody else who knows her and knows her whereabouts, and nobody could give me an answer. The next day, I looked at my phone and I saw a missed call, and it had her name on it, but because I was so hopeful that everything was fine with her, I thought that it was a call from her after the fact, but in actuality was the day of the earthquake, that morning, that she tried to reach out to me. I did not have the chance to speak to her that morning, which I will forever regret, but I spoke to her the Saturday before the earthquake, and that was the last conversation we had.
Certainly, there was more than one person who passed. We later learned that there were an astronomical number of people, a record number of people who died in that one millisecond. The number that first came out was that 300,000 human souls had passed. The government later decreased it to 220,000, but still it’s a lot of loss in one particular earthquake. I always say that earthquakes do not necessarily kill people in that magnitude. It is the housing: the way they have been built and the lack of code enforcement, coupled with ill-guided economic policies that have forced the people to leave their land, their agri-business, and to swarm and saturate Port-au-Prince to work in factories and sweatshops. After a number of years [of this], you have a staggering number of people in a city that was built for 100,000 people now housing 2 million. That’s the earthquake.
Was it the rapid industrialization of this country that led to such issues?
Precisely, that’s precisely what it was, and there was an exorbitant amount of importing of staple foods that we produce and that we used to export ourselves. Those items that would come in, for instance rice, when they would come to us in Haiti, the price would be debased compared to the local market price. Obviously, if you have a bag of rice that costs about $5 from the town, local rice, and then you have another that is important, and costs about $2, the natural instinct of any person is to buy the cheapest possible food, especially if the other person is poor and lives on, for instance, a $2 per day income. After a period of time, there was no demand on the local rice, and with the influx of those factories, those sweatshops, these contributed to the massive coming of migration of Haitians from the outskirts of the country and into Port-au-Prince, creating that scenario where we have close to about 220,000 people die in one spot.
[These economic policies] were put in place in the last 30 years, a couple of years before Baby Doc was ousted [Jean-Claude Duvalier, or “Baby Doc” succeeded his father as president of Haiti from 1971 until a popular uprising overthrew his government in 1986]. It did not originate in Haiti, but of course the leaders from Haiti capitulated and went along with the plan. That’s why the ultimate blame would have to be placed on them to some extent, because they agreed to implement those policies.
With the first anniversary of the earthquake just passed, how do you feel today and how has this affected your interest in helping Haiti rebuild?
First, in order to answer that question, I have to preface it with this statement. We have had a lot of support from the United States, people from New Jersey and even our own town who have contributed or made donations, and I am very grateful to see this outpouring of support from our town, from people within the United States and from the world, but my problem is that those hard-earned monies of these good-hearted people have not really been put in good use so far. There has been a lot of red tape in terms of releasing the money for their intended use. I feel the good thing that has come out of this is the fact that the world is being made a witness to the level of poverty that has plagued Haiti, and the emergent need that exists in this county. This is a country that used to be the richest colony, the richest nation, really, in the Western Hemisphere, for a long time. It has moved from being the richest to now being the poorest, and it did not happen in a vacuum. Something, a set of events led to that point, and I’m just thankful that now the world can see [it], and I’m hoping that after seeing that, knowing how much money they have contributed, that they will put pressure on those institutions that have received so much money from well-intended, good-hearted people. That this money, especially in this economy, is being held up in some bank accumulating interest.
The justification I’ve heard for not releasing the monies is that there is, quote/unquote, corruption. Well, I would like to know when there will ever not be any case of corruption at all. That means they will never release the money at all.
Have you been back to Haiti since the earthquake?
Yes, I have. I went there in August with a team to do a feasibility study to see what can be done, to assess the damage and to find out if there was any progress since the earthquake. Eight months later, we noticed that there was practically none, there was still rubble on the street. Only two percent of the rubble was removed, and there were people still under it.
We visited the epicenter where the earthquake hit. We actually went to Cape Haitien, which is one of the provinces of Haiti, pretty much to have a full assessment of the damage and what are the needs, and we looked at some properties where we could have prefabricated housing. Of course, the problem is not the ideas, there are a lot of ideas, but it’s the funds to implement those ideas that have stopped us at all tracks.
Where do you see the country in five years?
Without proper leadership, there will not be any progress, but if we have the right leadership, we will have the right pressure from the international community – not necessarily from the governments, but from the outcry of the people that is supposed to control the governments. Then, I strongly believe that Haiti will be a better Haiti because the future of Haiti is tied with the future of the other third world nations because Haiti is considered the poorest, and if we’re able to change this country around, economically, politically and otherwise, that means it is possible that we can change the condition of other nations that are similarly situated as Haiti, but not necessarily as worse as Haiti.
Where do you see your involvement in this in five years?
I have always been involved in Haiti in some fashion or another, not just because that’s where I’m from, but because of what I know of the history of this nation. Of all the nations you hear about on this planet, Haiti was the first and only nation that helped the United States fight against the British [Haiti, then a colony of France, had about 750 freemen fight alongside colonial troops in the Siege of Savannah on October 9, 1779. The 14-year old Haitian drummer boy of that battle, Henry Christophe, went on to become an important catalyst in his home country’s fight for independence 25 years later, and was crowned the first king of Haiti as a result]. In the Western Hemisphere, for a long time, there were only two independent nations, the United States and Haiti. Understand the importance of this historical fact. We are not just another nation. We are America’s first ally. I don’t like to put it this way, but this is what it is. Of all nations, of all people, we should have been in a better state than any other place.
So, where do I see myself? To make that part of this history known to the world, particularly in the United States, and to bring dignity back into that quote/unquote poor nation, which is really rich historically. And to lend my support, be it politically, or socially, in making this country better known not by its poverty in terms of resources, but by its richness in terms of its culture, and its contribution to not just the United States, but to Latin America. It was the Haitians who sided with Simon Bolivar [a leader of the 19th century Latin America independence movement] and who gave him ammunitions and money so he could free up Latin America. Because of that, most Latin American flags pattern their flags after Haiti’s, with red and blue in the horizontal.
And so, there have been a lot of contributions, and I as one who came from that country and am still American at the same time see my mission as being to restrengthen that bond that existed between the United States and Haiti, that way Haiti can become stronger and return to its glorious state that it was before.