“The last four years have been extremely difficult, and the situation continues to be very difficult.” Political turmoil, violence, and now kidnappings have been a daily occurrence in Haiti over the past years. Western countries, including Canada, are well aware of this crisis that affects the Haitian people as a group and as individuals. In this interview, Father Jean-Denis Saint-Félix, superior of the Jesuits in Haiti, puts the crisis into context and shows the daily impact of the situation on the life of his community. He also explains that Canadians need to educate themselves and share the news from Haiti.
“We’ve experienced nearly four cases of kidnapping, it’s been terrible. So from time to time we find ourselves in a situation where we have to negotiate for the life of a Jesuit.”
What is the situation in Haiti and its impact on the Haitian people?
During the last two years under President Moïse, there was a lot of unrest, political turbulence, and demonstrations in the streets. And since the president’s assassination, there has been an escalation of violence in the country. This was, in my opinion, the climax of the untenable situation. The fact that the president of the republic was assassinated is also very symbolic and sends a rather harsh message to the population.
We were left with two impressions. The first is that life in general has become trivialized, even desecrated. The second is that the official roles have also been trivialized: measures have not been taken to adequately protect either the president of Haiti or even the very office of the presidency. This double message, in my opinion, has a considerable impact on people’s lives.
And now there are also kidnappings. How does this affect you as people and as a Jesuit community?
We have known political violence, economic violence, too. But I think that the issue of kidnapping has added a certain intensity to the violence here. The crisis has created a permanent state of anxiety that affects people’s minds and bodies. We can no longer go out as before: sometimes we spend two or three weeks without going out to the communities. What is catastrophic is the fact that it reminds us of slavery, it is as if we have gone back 200 years to the time when our ancestors were bought and sold. We are a people who have struggled for so long, who have won our freedom…. and we find ourselves in this situation where we are being held hostage.
And there is a price on our heads. We’ve experienced nearly four cases of kidnapping, it’s been terrible. So from time to time we find ourselves in a situation where we have to negotiate for the life of a Jesuit. We participate in the real life of normal people, who experience violence, kidnapping, and assassinations on a daily basis. This has been the day-to-day, almost “normal,” lot of people for the last three or four years.
As the superior of the community, I would say that the psychological cost is enormous. Every time I get a call, I think the worst; and every now and then the worst happens. There is a real cost too, because we have to pay. It’s not in our budgets, there’s no “ransom” line item, so we have to struggle to come up with the money.
“There is a price on our heads. We’ve experienced nearly four cases of kidnapping, it’s been terrible. So from time to time we find ourselves in a situation where we have to negotiate for the life of a Jesuit.”
There is also a kind of embarrassment or uneasiness in communicating this to our confreres, to our networks, to the Society. It’s as if we aren’t doing our job, as if we aren’t protecting ourselves enough, as if we’re responsible for being taken.
There is also the impact on the Society itself: we feel extremely depressed and upset. It also has an impact on our apostolic work, because the situation does not allow us to do much. We always have to plan very carefully, to consider where we can go and what we are able to do.
What are the concrete implications for day-to-day life?
As superior of the community, I cannot conduct visits at the same pace as before, and this has a very concrete impact on the apostolic life of the region. The activities that we carry out are also limited because of the insecurity. Sometimes the people do not respond, and partners have difficulty in knowing how to support us. Indeed, how can we finance things in a country that does not function? How do we report on the activities we have carried out?
It is a situation that has multiple implications at the personal level, at the psychological level, at the apostolic level, and at the level of the Society. And in the midst of this situation of violence, we have witnessed the fire at the Jesuit Migrant Service, we have experienced looting and vandalism. Within this gigantic crisis, we have had to manage some very difficult situations. I can say that we have been very shaken, but not broken.
We have also experienced deaths and illnesses. When someone gets sick in a situation like ours, it’s quite complicated because, depending on the time of day and the security situation, we can’t always move around too much. We have to choose where to go. And sometimes we get sick because of the stress of daily life, when we can’t get out to walk, for example. The stress that this generates affects the physical health of our confreres.
Father Kawas François died on October 23, 2022, as a result of a stroke that he had experienced the day before. He had the stroke in the evening when it was already dark. There were not many options. We had to go to the nearest hospital. But if it had happened in the morning, we would have had many more options. Also, the doctor was not a specialist and even the hospital seemed not to be very well equipped—all this because of the sociopolitical situation. There are fewer and fewer options.
“We have been shaken, but I don’t feel that we are broken. We have lived through these situations of illness, pillage, or death with great serenity, in faith, in the awareness of being in solidarity with the people in whose midst we live, in whose midst we work.”
But as I was saying, we have been shaken, but I don’t feel that we are broken. We have lived through these situations of illness, pillage, or death with great serenity, in faith, in the awareness of being in solidarity with the people in whose midst we live, in whose midst we work. These are situations that have also enabled us as a body to become stronger. We continue to work, people go to work despite the insecurity. We continue to try to respond to the needs, and people continue to count on us. There are some very good initiatives in place that help us to better plan our activities, to better administer our resources, to better accompany the young Jesuits. We continue to be present.
And how do you actually go about planning?
We take the pulse of the situation, we listen to the news, we see which are the hottest areas to avoid. We know, for example, that holidays and Sundays are a bit risky because there is less traffic. We try not to go out too early or come back too late. Sometimes we avoid going out in private vehicles. Our confreres from Ouanaminthe, for example, take public transportation to get here. We also say where we are going and when we plan to come back. We change our route. We take the most frequented roads, and there are areas that we systematically avoid. So going to Foi et Joie in Canaan has become more difficult. These are the simple measures that we take to try to survive this difficult time.
How can we in Canada walk with the Jesuits in Haiti without interfering in what you are doing?
We already feel that we are not alone. Haiti is more and more present in the minds of Canadians, of Quebecers, these last months. With Erik Oland, the provincial, we have just published a letter. It’s important to keep up this momentum and to stay informed.
I also think that there is a real interest in what is happening on the ground. There are a lot of Haitians in Canada, a lot of Jesuits who are studying or working in Canada, so it keeps the links much more alive, much more tangible. And there is a Haitian community in Quebec.
One of the best ways the province can be of service is to keep Haiti alive in the minds and hearts of Canadians.
“We already feel that we are not alone. Haiti is more and more present in the minds of Canadians… these last months. […] One of the best ways the province can be of service is to keep Haiti alive in the minds and hearts of Canadians.”
And finally, how do you see the situation with the international community?
I think there is something happening now with the issue of sanctions. The people who govern us must know that not everything is allowed, and unfortunately, this requires the collaboration of the international community because we have lost all capacity to impose sanctions. There are questions about how to do this, but I think it is a good thing that the international community assist us in a process of moralization of the country’s political class, since it has contributed to the establishment of this political class.
We have to start doing politics differently because it affects people’s lives in a very concrete way. Poverty is a consequence of bad governance and corruption. We must continue to exert pressure, to increase sanctions. We have human resources, we have a very beautiful country, but the national police must be genuinely supported in order to get us out of this situation. The people need to breathe, the youth need to stay home and participate in the life of their country, they are victims of the political and economic elites.