07 May 2011, Posted by Luke Renner in Commentary, 9 Comments
My last blog entry was essentially about how tired I have grown of people telling stories using bad techniques. Strangely, this blog entry is more or less about the same thing.
On Friday, May 6, 2011, The New York Times posted this article about Royal Caribbean Cruise lines and their operation in the North of Haiti. It was written by Sarah Maslin Nir and, in my opinion, it’s a rather curt little piece questioning whether this major corporate cruise line is doing enough to rescue the impoverished people that it shamelessly profits around.
Royal Caribbean’s little roost in Haiti is called Labadee. It’s just on the other side of the mountain from my home. I’ve been there several times.
Compared to . . . well . . . anywhere . . . it’s very, very nice.
So what’s wrong with Sarah’s piece in The New York Times?
Let me break it down for you.
- THE CONTEXT -
To read Sarah’s article, one might be led to believe that Haiti is some poor little burg in the Caribbean peppered with impoverished children, earthquake victims, and amputee moms who just wanna have a fighting chance to live a good life.
Certainly those things are a part of Haiti’s reality but I am not charmed by the reporter’s choice of colors or her quaint little brush strokes.
Listen guys, this ain’t Norman Rockwell down here. This place is on fire.
For starters, Haiti is incredibly unsafe, especially in places where there are large amounts of resources and supplies . . . and Labadee definitely counts as one of those places. As a matter of fact, the lack of security (political/social instability) is a major reason many international corporations pulled out of Haiti so long ago (and refuse to come back again).
If there’s one thing that’s certain for international businesses in Haiti, it’s that your investment is certainly at risk.
Kidnappings have become commonplace over the years, at one time earning Haiti the title “Kidnapping capital of the world”. The US State Department almost perpetually has a travel warning issued for Haiti that would make your blood curdle. Click here to read that. To absorb a really well-told story about the insecurity, I strongly encourage you to watch the PBS Frontline documentary, “Battle For Haiti.” You can watch it free by clicking here.
The point is, the presence of ANY international corporation in Haiti (like RCCL) is a BIG DEAL. Many times I have driven the treacherous road along the Northern coast of Haiti and wondered, “What if Royal Caribbean wasn’t here? What would it take to make that happen . . . to convince a major corporation like that to come in and do business . . . to take on the risks . . . to take Haiti that seriously?” I want you to ask yourself those same questions.
Imagine that they weren’t here.
Imagine that they never had been.
Who do you talk to? What legal team do you have to convince?
When was the last time any major corporation took a risk . . . like parking 7,000 liabilities (read: cruise-goers) in Haiti . . . three times a week? What other corporation would roll those kinds of dice while also employing somewhere between 200 and 300 of the locals?
The only one I see a the game is RCCL.
- LABADEE -
That Royal Caribbean happens to be a company which provides a luxurious recreational experience for its customers is unfortunate. I say “unfortunate” because anyone providing a recreational experience like theirs in Haiti is going to have to weather the same kind of unfair (albeit inferred) criticism being posited by Sarah. I say “unfortunate” because one of Haiti’s most valuable commodities is its beauty and making money on it should be celebrated, not criticized.
From a tourism perspective, making money in Haiti should be as easy as falling off a log.
Not so. In addition to all of the real problems that RCCL has to tackle in Haiti (security, electricity, clean water, sanitation, communications, and an under-educated workforce), article’s like Sarah’s create external obstacles to success.
From what I read, Sarah seems to take great literary care in structuring a juxtaposition between the squalor outside of the gates (something that is not Royal Caribbeans fault . . . and was worse before they arrived) and “a playground of lounge chairs, bars and even an alpine coaster that shoots guests though the forest.” I’m curious about why she left out the enormous zip line across the bay. You’d have to be blind to miss that.
Even the title of Sarah’s piece (“In Haiti, Class Comes With a Peek at Lush Life”) reeks of a cleverly crafted message. And, no, the use of the word “class” was not an accident. It immediately sets the tone that poor little schoolchildren are seated in squalor, watching rich people flop around like fat pigs in mud.
Is that what we’re saying?
So then let me ask you, are we not allowed to have pockets of wealth alongside poverty? If not, how could Haiti ever support a legitimate tourism industry again? After all, riches don’t return at the flip of a switch. It takes years. Decades. Centuries maybe. In the in-between period, you’re gonna see riches and poverty rubbing shoulders quite a bit.
People, if Haiti is truly going to advance, it’s time to get comfortable with that.
- HYPOCRISY LOVES A TRIPLE CHEESEBURGER -
Just before you get to Labadee (if you’re coming in by car, not by boat) you pass Cormier Plage, a small but gorgeous beach resort with many of the same kinds of lovely amenities that Labadee has to offer . . . only much, much smaller. There are fruity little island drinks, music in the air, a uniformed staff (including security) , a gorgeous beach full of powdery-white sand, volleyball nets, a tennis court, lounge chairs, and freshly prepared food.
It’s plush by Haitian standards; a little island paradise.
Outside the front gate at Cormier Plage, men and women bathe fully nude in a large concrete cistern-like structure that is apparently available to the surrounding community but must certainly exist for the resort. It’s right by the road and there is no privacy for the community bathers. That’s the ultimate sign of poverty . . . a lack of options . . . and there is limitless poverty everywhere around Cormier, including the very same kinds of rickety schools that Sarah pointed out beyond the sprawling complex at Labadee.
They make money at Cormier, and lots of it. The UN rents rooms here on a full time basis. The place is always buzzing with customers. Cormier has a gate and armed security and they chase people away who try to soak up their profits.
I once bought some grilled fish from a vendor passing by on the beach there and watched as he was ushered away by Cormier Plage security.
So why doesn’t Sarah write about this place?
You might think it’s because they’re not a big enough story. Maybe the ownership isn’t foreign enough. Perhaps it’s because you cannot purchase a cheeseburger at Cormier Plage but you can triple-stack them at Labadee. After all, everybody knows, hypocrisy loves a triple cheeseburger.
It’s none of that.
No one crucifies the people of Cormier Plage because there is nothing wrong with profiting in the presence of poverty as long as you are not profiting FROM poverty, and deep down, everyone reading this knows that.
It’s why we’re HAPPY when Haitians launch successful businesses of their own; they once were poor but now they can stand on their own two feet.
If you take nothing else away from this article, hear me when I say this . . .
People MUST be allowed to profit in the proximity of poverty if there is any hope of poverty ever being eradicated.
It’s clear that the management at Cormier has worked incredibly hard to build the place from the ground up, one bamboo pole at a time. They have struggled and fought to carve out a nice living for themselves and have done so with great success. They have earned their way and given jobs to the locals, carrying others toward some added measure of success along the way.
Royal Caribbean has done that too. In addition to the jobs that they provide directly to 230+ Haitians, they provide more than 5,000 full time jobs to hard working people on planet earth, several hundred more part time jobs to locals at other ports of call, have created a tourism platform in Haiti that has increased amount of locally-owned and operated businesses, and have improved the quality of life for those in the communities where they dock.
Additionally . . . and this warrants its own, standalone mention . . . despite all of the risks, costs, and public scrutiny that RCCL has had to endure, RCCL has shown the entire international business community that Haiti is a place worth doing business in.
I’m gonna say that again . . .
Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has shown
the international business community that
Haiti is a place worth doing business in.
- SO MANY QUESTIONS -
Allow me to address a couple of the big questions that are left hanging and give you my response:
1 – Should RCCL include a feeding program in the school that they built?
Culturally speaking, feeding programs are common at schools in Haiti. To include a feeding program would make a lot of sense to the locals here, but it is entirely up to Royal Caribbean to decide how culturally relevant they wish to be.
Would it be smart to add a feeding program? Yes.
Is it required? No.
2 – Should RCCL invest in other schools in the community rather than building their own, hard-to-get-to school on their own land?
When Sarah talks about kids traversing dangerous terrain to go to the RCCL school, she fails to mention that everyplace is hard to get to in Haiti. For that matter, life is dangerous here. That’s not RCCL’s fault, nor is it their responsibility to promise safe passage to every kid who walks to school.
As far as investing in other schools goes . . . consider the liabilities.
Did you personally see crushed kids under poorly built buildings after Haiti’s big earthquake? Did you smell their decaying bodies and watch as the skin on their hands seemed to crawl from the flies they were caked in?
It’s understandable that RCCL manages it’s own facility.
Additionally, when stepping into a preexisting school situation in Haiti, RCCL would be entering into an enormous world of impossibly. Consider their wealth as a corporation. Because of the overwhelming sense of entitlement that exists here in Haiti (which Sarah’s article was very much influenced by), RCCL will never make people truly happy with charity.
For a corporation that size, jobs are the best way to go . . . all the time . . . every time. By investing in education, they are going above and beyond the call of duty, and I applaud them for taking the first steps. A little consultation on how to do it better might be warranted . . . but again, that’s extra.
- MY SUMMATION -
I would love to see more business and less charity in Haiti. Charity kills. As a matter of fact, that’s why so much of our own work here is centered around creating self-sustaining businesses first, and charitable outreaches on the back end.
Let me say this as plainly as I am able . . . Royal Caribbean owes the people of Haiti nothing more than to fulfill its contractual obligations with the government of Haiti, to pay it’s bills, and to comply with regulations. That is true of any business operating internationally throughout the world.
Everything else is extra . . . including RCCL’s little school.
Sarah points out that:
“The company has leased the 260 beachfront acres, about 90 miles north of the nation’s capital, from the government since 1986.”
I was also pleased that she saw fit to mention the following information:
Other projects include a water distribution system in the village of Labadie . . . After the quake, the company donated around $2 million in aid and helped import relief supplies.
So let me get this straight . . . RCCL has been pumping millions into Haiti’s economy since 1986 (and continues to do so despite a seemingly never-ending barrage of horrible PR), has contributed around $2 million since the earthquake alone, shipped in tons (and I means TONS) of relief supplies at their own expense, built a half-million dollar school facility nearby, and funds that annually to the tune of $200,000 . . . and they owe Haiti MORE?
IT’S NO WONDER BUSINESSES STAY THE HELL AWAY FROM HAITI.
Haiti needs to be taken seriously as a country that can contribute to the world. Royal Caribbean has been doing that for quite a long time. In my opinion, they should be praised for that, not scrutinized by some weekend warrior and her absolute failed grasp of the complexity of the situation in Haiti.
The grand irony of it all is that, in Sarah’s attempt to do good for the little kids in a community, she is actually threatening the future of millions of other people in Haiti by demonizing the legitimacy of international companies profiting in Haiti . . . and she’s doing it in the New York Times.
Way. To. Go.
Haiti doesn’t need your well-intentioned storytelling favors, Sarah, it needs dependable jobs. Next time, see if your bosses at The New York Times have a few hundred to give out. Otherwise, maybe buy yourself a cruise ticket and become a part of the solution.
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