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Haitian Activist Brings Awareness To Spate Of Violence Rattling Country

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Haiti, the prime minister resigned this week after only a year in the job. The reason - a surge in violence and kidnappings directed at people from all walks of life, terrifying to residents and expatriates alike. Just one recent incident underscores the growing impunity of the kidnappers. The Thursday before Easter, Holy Thursday, armed gunmen broke into a church outside the capital, Port au Prince, and abducted the pastor and three others during a service that was being livestreamed. The four were released days after a ransom had been paid.

By one estimate, Haiti has seen a 200% increase in kidnappings just over the past year. We wanted to understand what seems to be behind this uptick and how it's being felt by people who call Haiti home, so we invited Jimmy Jean-Louis, an activist and actor who's been trying to educate people about what's going on in the country.

Jimmy Jean-Louis, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

JIMMY JEAN-LOUIS: Pleasure - a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So as we said, there have been so many terrible incidents in recent weeks. I mean, and just this week, Haitian bishops led a Mass for the freedom of Haiti, which ended with police firing tear gas into the church. And then an orphanage was broken into. Children there were assaulted. I mean, these are some really terrifying incidents. I just wanted to ask, you know, first of all, how are you doing? How is your family doing? And what do you make of it?

JEAN-LOUIS: Yeah. No, I'm good. Thank you. By the way, that church is where I got baptized myself in Petion-Ville, so I know the area very well. So I'm doing OK. My friends and family that are in Haiti - they're struggling. I have to say that this is probably the first time that I'm seeing Haiti in such a bad situation where we don't know where the way out might be.

MARTIN: Is there any sense of why is this happening now?

JEAN-LOUIS: I think it's been the result of many years of problems. I guess we did have an earthquake, which was back in 2010, and we had hope that finally Haiti would be able to get back on its feet again because we had the media attention, we had the international organization with us. But unfortunately, it didn't turn out like that. Since 2012, I should say that things started to go bad, and it led to what we have now.

And in a nutshell, what's been happening is that a gang of people have been getting arms from very powerful people, whether it is politicians or from the private sectors, just so they could do jobs for those powerful people. So for the past eight to 10 years, they've been gathering quite a large number of arms. So now they have more arms that they can ask for, so they become the danger. Now, when they don't have small jobs to do, they look at themself, they look at the arms, and they say to themself, well, let's create a new job. And that new job's going to be kidnapping.

MARTIN: What role do you think the coronavirus pandemic has played in all this, if any?

JEAN-LOUIS: Well, first of all, the situation wasn't good in Haiti. So if on top of that, you add that restriction, which is COVID-19, where people cannot function the way they want to, where people cannot travel to bring a little bit of money in the country, then anxiety kicks in. And at the end of the day, it's all about survival, you know? When you have a gang of people who are hungry, who have nothing, they're going to find things to do. So I can see that maybe somehow COVID-19 might have played a little role. But I'm not going to blame it on COVID-19.

MARTIN: I hope you don't mind my raising this, but I understand that your family has suffered from violence. Your father was shot and later died after an attempted robbery in 2014. And I wonder if - you know, and I'm so sorry for your loss. But you've continued to try to advocate on behalf of the country. And I just wonder if that sense of - do you still have that sense of hope that caused you to continue to, you know, advocate? Or has something even within you broken?

JEAN-LOUIS: Well, before all, I am Haitian. And I can never take that away. I fully know who I am, and I'm very at peace with my identity. I also understand that Haiti is the first Black republic to fight and win their independence back in 1804, so I'm very proud of that. I'm very proud of the past. And even though personally I've been attacked, I've been touched, and I have great lost - yes, I did lose my father. You know, I lost my father from - yeah, it is devastating. Is that going to stop me from fighting for better Haiti? No.

Haiti's not doing great, and I have a feeling that some people are not really paying full attention on what's going on. You know, the insecurity, the kidnapping situation - this is not humane. This is not normal. We should not be in that kind of situation.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, how is this affecting people's daily lives in Haiti? I mean, you - I know you go back and forth. I know you still have family there. How is it affecting their daily life?

JEAN-LOUIS: People are naturally scared these days. They will have normal activity from 6 a.m. up until 5 p.m. At 5 p.m., people are just scared to step out. And even during the daytime, people are very conscious of where they're going and how they're moving. And this is the first time that I felt that much tension.

MARTIN: That was Jimmy Jean-Louis. He is an activist and actor who has been trying to raise awareness about conditions in Haiti. He's also an ambassador-at-large, a title that was conveyed to him in 2014.

Ambassador Jimmy Jean-Louis, thank you so much for speaking with us. And my very best to you and to your family.

JEAN-LOUIS: It was a pleasure. Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "THE CURSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.