Tag Archives: Haitian

How A Mission To Turn A Haitian Town Into A Surfing Destination Failed To Live Up To Its Promise


Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Samuel Jules, 23, a member of Surf Haiti, has participated in surf competitions.

The sun had just crested above the hills when Samuel Jules walked past an abandoned house on Kabic Beach, in southern Haiti, wrapped the surfboard leash around his ankle, and glided into the turquoise waves.

For a few minutes during that August morning, 23-year-old Jules — the uncontested best surfer in the country — bobbed alone out in the water, where his dream of representing Haiti in the Olympics had been born. Soon, a couple more surfers paddled out and joined him, the town behind the group still asleep.

“When you surf, you forget all your problems and you just focus on what’s in front of you at the moment,” said Frantzy Andris, 22, one of the surfers.

There was a lot to leave behind, even in this paradisiac setting.

A month before, Haiti’s then-president, Jovenel Moïse, had been assassinated, plunging the Caribbean nation into a political crisis. The country’s nerves were taut as a series of arrests — of top officials and foreign mercenaries linked to the magnicide — dragged on for weeks. Abroad, a new barrage of dismal headlines from Haiti dominated newspaper front pages and primetime segments on TV: natural disasters, government failure, corruption.


Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Michael Jules, 18, heads onto Kabic Beach in Jacmel, where people are known to surf.

The first surfers rode waves in this Haitian bay in the wake of a crisis over a decade earlier. After a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, an American physician who traveled to the country to help with the emergency response founded a surfing program that drew dozens of local kids and turned a hobby into a profitable project for the neighborhood, as a growing trickle of tourists rented boards and signed up for surf lessons. But in the years since, as funds dwindled and founding members departed, Surf Haiti languished and is now on the verge of extinction, with only a handful of surfers out on the water during any given week and barely any customers.

It has become a common story in Haiti: Well-intentioned ventures established by foreigners have failed to produce the long-term relief that inspired their initial missions. Some left too early, without providing the community with the resources necessary to continue the projects. Others have mismanaged funds, or worse — more than 200 UN peacekeepers abused or engaged in exploitative relationships with women, impregnated dozens of them, and left the country, later refusing to pay child support. All efforts have been stunted by political instability and the series of cataclysms battering the country.

One week after Jules’s surfing session last month, an earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 2,200 people, followed by a destructive tropical storm within days.

Available estimates place the nation’s unemployment rate as high as 70% — most locals lack the resources to continue surfing. In addition to drawing tourists to the area, the surf project aimed to provide an escape from daily realities for those who couldn’t leave the country.

And yet, even that escape has become inaccessible for many.

Wolvenson Gilles, 27, watched from the shore as Jules did a 360 on a wave and landed softly on his board, his legs dangling on either side of it.

Gilles said he was craving a ride, but his board was at home, broken.


Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Wolvenson Gilles in Jacmel, Haiti

At first, he was afraid of the sea.

Gilles’s parents, like so many others, had told him if he plunged in he might drown. A bad spirit, they said, lurked in its waters. He met many others who shared the fear, including fisherfolk who couldn’t swim.

Gilles thinks the anxiety around the water is a legacy of slavery: generational trauma, passed down from ancestors who had been kidnapped, shipped to a French colony across the ocean, and forced to work coffee and sugar plantations that enriched white colonizers.

Curious and freedom-seeking, Gilles, who goes by Papito, learned to swim when he was 5. There wasn’t much to do in town except to play soccer on the beach or horse around on scraps of plastic in the water. Then one day when he was around 15, he was mesmerized by the sight of a dark-haired figure standing on a board dozens of miles into the horizon, weaving through the waves.

Ken Pierce had recently left Kauai, Hawaii, after seeing footage of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which had flattened much of the capital city, buried thousands under rubble, and filled tent camps with dazed and injured people. Pierce, an emergency physician, was among the legion of volunteers who streamed into the country. He brought a suitcase full of medical supplies — and a surfboard, just in case.

After settling in, he took a drive down the coast near Jacmel, a cultural hub that resembles a worn-down New Orleans, with some buildings boasting high ceilings, vivacious colors, and wrap-around verandas. Painters and sculptors in the city used rubble from pancaked buildings to make art. As Pierce later recounted, he kept looking over his right shoulder at the waves, looking for the right one — until, at last, he found it near Kabic Beach.

When he paddled back to shore, a group of local boys was waiting for him, bursting with questions, and a request to try his board out. Gilles remembers getting on Pierce’s surfboard, taking a wave, and plunging into the sea even before he was able to get off his knees.

By the end of the day, he was able to stand. For those fleeting moments gliding across the water, Gilles’s mind cleared — he wasn’t thinking about his damaged house or fear of aftershocks but was purely consumed by the thrilling challenge of trying to keep from flying off the board.

Within months, Pierce had rented a house on Kabic Beach, imported more boards, and started teaching local kids to surf. He started Surf Haiti, a nonprofit organization, intended to establish the country as a surfing destination and provide jobs for people in the community.


Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

Frantzy Andris (Japipo), 22, Samuel Andris, 13, and Samuel Jules hang out and talk on their surfboards in the water waiting for a wave.

The organization grew to 30 members, who bonded over their shared passion for the ocean. They set up a sign with a price list for surf lessons and board rentals on the street, and watched as tourists — mostly foreign aid workers who drove south for some R&R — began trickling in. Donations of boards and bathing suits for the members of Surf Haiti started arriving from the US. A New York–based surfboard design company made a special board for Jules, whose local celebrity was growing, and soon the founding members of Surf Haiti began plotting to send Jules — whose own mother doesn’t know how to swim — to train in France so he could represent Haiti in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

On land, debris from the earthquake that had brought Pierce out to Haiti lingered on the streets for years, and money for reconstruction from the international community was either mismanaged by development authorities or promised but never delivered by donors.

But out in the waters of Kabic Beach, dozens of young people were falling into a new pastime. Those who knew how to swim taught those who didn’t, and within a few years, the surfing community was bustling. The kids rented out boards to visitors. Then, as they honed their skills on the boards, they started giving surfing lessons themselves. In what is a luxury for most teenagers in Haiti, they were both in school and making money on the side.

“Surfing is in Haiti to stay,” Pierce, who returned to the US in 2012, told the online publication Roads & Kingdoms in 2014. (Pierce declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the surge of COVID patients in his hospital has left him unavailable.)

In 2016, Surf Haiti hosted its first international surfing competition. Over two days, DJs played music on the beach, local artists promoted their work, and restaurants filled up with visitors. A similar event took place the following year. The community had a shot at making headlines abroad not for political crises or traumatic natural catastrophes, but for being talented and entrepreneurial.

Surf Haiti had become “like a family” and its members “were connected,” said Andris during a humid and cloudless afternoon near Kabic Beach in August.

It seemed like the tides had turned in this corner of Haiti.


Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

The guys bring the surfboards back to the Surf Haiti storeroom after surfing in the morning in Kabic Beach in Jacmel.

The trouble began in July 2018 in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, 54 miles north.

The government had just announced a 50% increase in fuel prices following an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, eliciting protests that turned violent, with demonstrators looting stores and police firing tear gas. The protesters called for accountability, most notably regarding the whereabouts of $ 2 billion from PetroCaribe, an oil deal with Venezuela that was meant to help Haiti invest in infrastructure and social programs.

Economic growth was grinding to a halt and inflation was soaring. The question on everyone’s mind: What did Haiti have to show for the $ 13 billion from the world, thousands of volunteers, and countless projects?

Tourists were barely coming to Haiti — and many Haitians were leaving, including Gilles, who moved to the Dominican Republic in December 2019 for two years so he could find a job and save some money. Today, he’s trying to set up a small shop selling snacks and drinks on the Haiti–Dominican Republic border. Though he longed to stay in southern Haiti, he said, “I really want a job and to feel independent.”

Around half a dozen of Surf Haiti’s founders and older members were among those who left, most of them to the US, after getting into college or finding jobs.

When boards began breaking, there wasn’t anyone to bring new ones. Wax became scarce. Visitors slowed to a trickle, and the kids who had waited by the shore for Pierce to paddle back in years earlier were now in college, with no job prospects and no income.

“The people who were there to motivate us and support us haven’t been here as much,” Andris said.

And then, the pandemic hit. Jules’s bid for the Olympics fell apart when he wasn’t able to gain the support he needed from sponsors and local authorities in Jacmel. Last year, less than a dozen people showed up for surf classes, a far cry from the years when that many showed each month.

In recent months, gangs took over the main route out of the capital city, cutting it off from the south; few dare traverse it. Another route, a long stretch of steep, narrow dirt road, is too dangerous if there’s even a trickle of rain. Water taxis are limited.

The stream of visitors to Kabic Beach is, for now, virtually shut off. Remaining Surf Haiti members say they plan on selling t-shirts with the organization’s logo and hand-crafted souvenirs online.

In the meantime, it’s mostly locals in the water, less than half a dozen of them on this August morning. The regulars are teaching their younger siblings to surf in an effort to keep the sport going. Samuel Andris, Frantzy’s 13-year-old brother, stayed close to the shore during a recent morning, pausing to observe the waves’ buildup and trying to catch the smaller ones.

Further out, Jules practiced his more advanced moves. He learned some of them while surfing in the Dominican Republic in 2019, during the only competition he has attended abroad. After a while, he emerged from the water, patted his adopted mutt, Brutus, on the head, and climbed the steps up to the patio of the abandoned house — Pierce’s home, years ago. With no job prospects or a functioning gym in the neighborhood, Jules spends most of his time here doing push-ups on the grass.

He still dreams of going to surfing competitions in Brazil, Hawaii, and Tahiti.

“It’s like someone that wakes up and has to walk,” Jules said. “I see surfing the same way.” ●


Jessica Obert for BuzzFeed News

A few of the members of Surf Haiti go surfing early in the morning in Jacmel.

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Haiti says 26 Colombians, two Haitian Americans among group that killed president

A heavily armed commando unit that assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moise was composed of 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans, authorities said on Thursday, as the hunt went on for the masterminds of the killing, Trend reports citing Reuters.

Moise, 53, was fatally shot early on Wednesday at his home by what officials said was a group of foreign, trained killers, pitching the poorest country in the Americas deeper into turmoil amid political divisions, hunger and widespread gang violence.

Authorities tracked the suspected assassins on Wednesday to a house near the scene of the crime in Petionville, a northern, hillside suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince. A firefight lasted late into the night and authorities detained a number of suspects on Thursday.

Police Chief Charles Leon paraded 17 men before journalists at a news conference late on Thursday, showing a number of Colombian passports, plus assault rifles, machetes, walkie-talkies and materials including bolt cutters and hammers.

“Foreigners came to our country to kill the president,” Charles said. “There were … 26 Colombians, identified by their passports … and two Haitian Americans as well.”

He said 15 Colombians were captured, as well as two Haitian Americans. Three of the assailants were killed and eight remained on the run, Charles said.

Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano said in a statement that preliminary information indicated that Colombians involved in the attack were retired members of the country’s military. He said Bogota would cooperate in the investigation.

Haiti’s minister of elections and interparty relations, Mathias Pierre, identified the Haitian-American suspects as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55.

A State Department spokesman could not confirm if any U.S. citizens were among those detained, but U.S. authorities were in regular contact with Haitian officials, including investigative authorities, to discuss how the United States could provide assistance.


Officials in the mostly French- and Creole-speaking Caribbean nation had said on Wednesday the assassins appeared to have spoken in English and Spanish.

“It was a full, well-equipped commando, with more than six cars and a lot of equipment,” Pierre said.

Officials have not yet given a motive for the killing. Since taking office in 2017, Moise had faced mass protests against his rule – first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.

An angry crowd gathered on Thursday morning to watch the police operation unfold, with some setting fire to the suspects’ cars and to the house where they had hunkered down. Bullets were strewn in the street.

“Burn them!” shouted some of the hundreds of people outside the police station where the suspects were being held.

Charles said the local population had helped police track down the suspects, but he implored residents in the sprawling seafront city of 1 million people not to take justice into their own hands.

A 15-day state of emergency was declared on Wednesday to help authorities apprehend the killers. But interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said on Thursday it was time for the economy to reopen and that he had given instructions for the airport to restart operations.

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Haitian President Jovenel Moïse killed in attack: Live

Moïse was assassinated and his wife wounded in an attack at their home by unidentified gunmen, interim PM says.

Haiti President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated and his wife wounded in an attack at their home, the interim prime minister announced.

A group of unidentified gunmen attacked Moïse’s private residence overnight on Wednesday and shot him dead, interim Premier Claude Joseph said.

Joseph said he was now in charge of the country and urged the public to remain calm while insisting the police and army would ensure people’s security.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, was already in a precarious political situation before the assassination, having grown increasingly unstable and disgruntled under Moïse.

Moïse, who was 53, ruled by decree for more than two years after the country failed to hold elections and the opposition demanded his resignation in recent months.

The assassination risks further destabilising the Caribbean nation.

Here are the latest updates:


OAS condemns ‘criminal act’

The Organization of American States condemned the assassination of Haiti President Jovenel Moïse in a statement issued by its communications department in Washington.

“This attack is an affront to the entire community of democratic nations represented in the OAS,” the statement said.

“Political assassinations have no place in a democracy,” the OAS said.


Dominican Republic closes Haiti border after assassination

The government of the neighbouring Dominican Republic has ordered the “immediate closure” of its border with Haiti after the assassination of Moïse.

The border closure was effective immediately, the communications officer of the defence ministry, Ceinett Sanchez, told the AFP news agency.


Colombia urges OAS to send mission to Haiti

Colombian President Ivan Duque called on the Organization of American States to send an urgent mission to Haiti to “protect the democratic order” after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated overnight.

“We reject the vile assassination of the Haitian President Jovenel Moïse,” Duque wrote on Twitter. “It is a cowardly act full of barbarity against the entire Haitian people.”


US condemns ‘horrific’ killing

The United States condemned the killing as “horrific” and said it was ready to assist in any investigation.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said “we will be helpful in any way to the people of Haiti, to the government of Haiti”, adding that President Joe Biden would be briefed on the incident shortly.

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