With beautiful, palm-lined beaches and fertile green hillsides, the island of Ile-a-Vache off Haiti's south coast ought to be a tourist mecca.
But the island's four hotels are struggling to make ends meet, in part due to a U.S. State Department warning which discourages Americans from risking the journey by road and a short boat ride to get there. Many Haitians complain the travel warning unjustly stigmatizes the country and hurts the economy, creating even deeper woes for the poorest nation in the hemisphere.
The decision last month by the Trump administration to end a temporary visa program for 60,000 Haitians in the U.S., makes the travel ban even more perplexing.
“The fact that the administration is sending 60,000 Haitians back to a country that our own State Department says is too dangerous for Americans to visit is ridiculous," Florida's U.S. Senator, Bill Nelson told Univision News. "There is no reason to send 60,000 Haitians back to a country that cannot provide for them. And I am strongly urging the administration to reconsider this disastrous decision,” he added.
The Obama administration introduced the temporary residency permit program, known as TPS ('Temporary Protected Status') after a powerful earthquake shook the Caribbean nation in 2010, killing an estimated 200,000 people.
Last month, the Homeland Security Department said conditions in Haiti had improved significantly so the benefit will be terminated in July 2019, giving Haitians time to prepare to return home.
“Since the 2010 earthquake, the number of displaced people in Haiti has decreased by 97 percent,” the department said in a press release. “Haiti is able to safely receive traditional levels of returned citizens.”
But serious questions remain as to how much conditions have really improved. The Caribbean nation remains the poorest in the hemisphere, and is saddled with $2 billion in unpayable debt to oil-rich Venezuela.
Haitians are still recovering from hurricane Matthew last year which laid waste to the southwest, including Ile-a-Vache where roofs were ripped off, homes destroyed, and crops and livestock lost.
"Sending them back to die."
Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean once described Ile-a-Vache to me as "Haiti's best kept secret." He wished more people could get to see its beauty.
Haitians who lose their TPS would be sent back "on a starve mission," he told Billboard magazine, "It's like you're sending them back to die."
I recently traveled over Thanksgiving to Ile-a-Vache with a group of Americans adults and students to volunteer at a community school on the island. It's a journey I have taken many times over the last six years after my wife began supporting the school and sending volunteers.
Admittedly, it's an arduous five-hour van ride past one poor village after another, though the road surface is good and the scenery is stunning.
Before leaving Miami, I wrote to the U.S. embassy to advise them of our travel plans, something they encourage groups to do.
"The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Haiti due to its current security environment and lack of adequate medical facilities and response," the advisory says.
While the traffic can be chaotic in places, especially leaving the capital Port-au-Prince, we had an uneventful journey. In the past, we have run into the occasional street protest, and we missed our flight home on one occasion due to a road block by people in the countryside complaining about the lack of electricity.
Our five days on the island were busy and we were warmly welcomed everywhere we went, on foot and by boat. When two of our group got sick from dehydration, they were treated at an internationally funded health clinic run by the Foundation for Health and Hope Haiti. They recovered quickly with the help of an intravenous drip.
The biggest risk we took was taking on a far fitter local soccer team.
The Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, says the decision to end TPS lacked “compassion" for the “great pain and suffering” for families due to be deported.
South Florida politicians have also joined the chorus of criticism, including several Republicans. U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) expressed “strong opposition” to the measure and urged the administration to reconsider. “Almost eight years later, Haiti remains in total disarray and still requires much rebuilding,” he said.
Senator Marco Rubio added that Haitians who have been in the United States under TPS have played "a significant role in rebuilding their country." Personal contributions from the Haitian community in the U.S. make up nearly 25 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product, he noted.
To be sure, Haiti is a volatile place and it is not easy to travel around. But critics say the U.S. government should make up its mind. If it's safe enough to send Haitians home, it ought to be safe for American tourists too.
As the saying goes: what's good enough for the goose is good for the gander.