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Haiti on the Internet – a chat with Alice Eddie Backer

Alice Eddie Backer
Haitian American blogger Alice Eddie Backer

My conversation with Nicholas Laughlin about the Caribbean blogosphere has elicited some strong reactions from Caribbean bloggers. Haitian-American blogger Alice Eddie Backer, a lawyer based in New York, first came to my attention when she answered my appeal for more Haitian bloggers. Alice then went on to respond to our conversation on her blog kiskeyAcity with a post outlining her own views on the Caribbean blogosphere plus a lively analysis of the online conversation about Haiti, a nation the world is fond of referring to as “the poorest country in the western hemisphere”. Alice took some time out from her Thanksgiving holiday to talk with me via IM on Friday 24 November. Here's an edited version of our chat:

GP: Perhaps you could begin by giving me a little background on yourself.

AB: I lived in Haiti — of Haitian parents — until the age of 18, at which point I migrated to the US. I've since been occupied with attending college (Barnard) and law school (NYU) and have become a lawyer. I started my blog kiskeyAcity about three months ago.

GP: What motivated you to start a blog?

AB: Well, I needed more of a connection to a place to which I was no longer feeling connected any more and which nonetheless made me who I am.

GP: What do you think caused this feeling of disconnection?

AB: First, there's the geographical distance. Second is the fact that every time I watch news of Haiti, I do not recognize the place. I have to ask, have things gotten that much worse? Or was this always the way the world looked at Haiti? Although there is a little bit of the former, I have come to understand that it is mostly the latter.

GP: And how come you chose blogging and not, say, joining an organization?


AB: In terms of joining an organization, I have joined tons over the years. My interests are not always served out there. Also, not all Haitians are interested in linking up with people who study Haiti for a living. This medium allows me to network with all sorts or Haitianists, Caribbeanists and journalists from the region. Also — and this is by far the most important point here — I find very few actors who seek to look at Haiti in a Caribbean context, Haitians included.

GP: Who is reading your blog?

AB: A broad range of people, although those who interact with the medium the most tend to be younger. The readership includes Haitians but also Caribbeans and various non-Caribbean actors who are interested in fresh perspectives on Haiti.

GP: You gave a very lively response to the conversation Nicholas and I had the other day. In it you expressed strong feelings about what you call “pundits”. It seems to me that the word has special resonance for you and perhaps for other Haitians as well. Could you define what you mean by a “pundit”?

AB: There is actually a definition on my pundit blog entry [Pundit: "photogenic horse's ass who makes wild, unfounded predictions"]! Because of the joblessness that affects intellectuals in Haiti, many have to turn to politics in some way or the other to make a living. So we have a political class made up of people whose profession it is to run for office and keep an office for a “party” whose members are their spouse and children.

GP: You also imply that you'd prefer if these pundits stayed out of the blogosphere. Here's how you put it: “Luckily these days national and transnational Haitian pundits populate list-serves such as Corbett or haitianpolitics@yahoogroups rather than my dreams. I can pop in to their world when I need the exercise but pop out as soon as I'm about to pass out from deja-vu asphyxiation.”

AB: You cannot trust that when you go on [the] Corbett [list] and read an article . . . that there is not a political agenda of some form behind it. It would be naïve, of course, to think that pundits here in the US are all independent — in fact most are known for certain biases. But now more than ever, people in Haiti and even in Jamaica profoundly distrust politicians and pundits, who I believe they lump together. All you have to do is listen to the music. Is there a single reggae song that does not diss politicians in some way, shape or form?

GP: What if the pundits were suddenly to “swarm the blogosphere”, as you say? And, in fact, why haven't they?

AB: It seems like for some reason or the other, that technology has not yet become fashionable for pundits. I was reading your interview with Nicholas (perhaps in error) to deplore the lack of political discussions in the “cariblogosphere”, and my gut reaction was “No! please don't bring the types of pudits that put me to sleep on the blogosphere!” And I made sure to cite the names of those pundits that I like. Interestingly, they did not last very long out here (Haitian Mofo), or only post sporadically (like yon ayisyen).

GP: Haitian Mofo is one of the few bloggers who is/was actually based in Haiti, right? Do you know why he stopped blogging?

AB: I e-mailed him and even posted on the site for him to come back, especially when I noticed that he was still posting on the Haitian Politics list. He e-mailed back to say he had experienced some kind of burnout but was reading my blog and thought that he might restart in a bit. My impression of him is that he is a very bright guy who is also very busy.

GP: Which brings us to some of the challenges that could be faced by a blogger attempting to do his/her thing out of Haiti? What are the obstacles, besides burnout?

AB: Well, Georgia, Haitians are all over the web — every day I discover a new Haitian website. I think that the idea of the Haitian web site (with forum, entertainment news, free music and radio) is now seen in the community as a viable business model and it's spreading like wildfire. [There are many Haitian-targeted message boards] and a ridiculous number of konpa-oriented [konpa is a Haitian musical genre; also see Alice's post about konpa] web sites. So Haitians, like most people, seem to go to the web primarily for entertainment.

GP: Are any of these sites based in Haiti?

AB: I'm not sure, but they are definitely read by Haitians in Haiti and same with the lists.

GP: But to get back to the blogging issue: you said in your post that “there's no particular need for caribloggers to mirror anyone. If Jamaicans had merely mimicked the R&B they captured through New Orleans airwaves in the 50s, there'd be no reggae. Aren't we about the blending of old disparate forms into new ones?” In what ways do you think a Caribbean blogosphere could create its own forms?

AB: The Caribbean blogosphere, like reggae, is going to take the form and make it into something new and creolized.

GP: Any idea what a “creolized” blogosphere might look like?

AB: You are going to have your average people, on the one hand, liming [Caribbean slang for "hanging out"] with their friends and showing pictures of beautiful women while discussing their daily vicissitudes, and on the other you are going to have your outliers discussing news and policy concerns along with whatever their passion is. Another point about Haitians from Haiti and the Internet is that they are apparently going online mostly to use the free phoning capacities. Cybercafés in Haiti are populated mostly by people looking for a cheaper way to talk to their relatives abroad. Remittances do make the world go 'round in Haiti, as does, consequently, keeping close tabs on your relatives abroad. People get their fair share of punditry on Haitian radio and I think want to get away from it all by the time they get online.

GP: So you'd say it will be some time before we see the emergence of a native Haitian blogosphere?

AB: I'd say anything can happen depending on people's needs and when they have something to say.

GP: How much of an obstacle would literacy be?

AB: According to the CIA factbook, we are at 52.9% literacy nowadays which is much higher that the 25% that I was hearing while growing up. And again, there is plenty of written activity on message boards and lists (you should have seen Moun.com around the time of Aristide's departure last year), so that cannot explain the lack of activity on the blogosphere. The 52.9%, btw, puts us above India and Egypt.

GP: Last but not least: what's the hot topic in the Haitian news this week?

AB: Simeus, Simeus, Simeus [Haitian-American Presidential candidate Dumarsais Simeus]! Whether he will be able to run — the CEP and the Supreme court seem to be at loggerheads on this issue. And his “secret meeting” with [interim president Gérard] Latortue which he then outed to the press. The talk is whether he or Charlito [Charles Henry Baker] will win the elections. Sadly, noone is really talking about what kind of president either would make, and the underlying issue is, of course, double nationality and whether the diaspora which votes all he time in its pocket will eventually be allowed to vote point blank. That is a crucial issue to being able to reverse the brain drain. As a Haitian who has taken on a different passport you technically can't vote, but thanks to yon ayisyen [post in French] we found out that [Haitian-American rapper] Wyclef Jean apparently has registered to vote.

  • Stan

    “…every time I watch news of Haiti, I do not recognize the place. I have to ask, have things gotten that much worse? Or was this always the way the world looked at Haiti? Although there is a little bit of the former, I have come to understand that it is mostly the latter.”

    Interesting.

    So, may one say, it’s the media, the “news of Haiti” that gives a less than true/accurate image of Haiti?

  • http://www.kiskeyacity.blogspot.com Alice B.

    I’d say what you are seeing in the media is quite simplistic and not nuanced.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story that came out in the New York Times several months ago about the Brazil-Haiti soccer match that happened in Port-au-Prince and how ecstatic people were to loose against the Brazilian team–which Haitians idolize–and Ronaldo. I definitely recognized the Haiti I know in that story. It was a multifaceted story that wove the political turmoil into the bigger picture as opposed to boiling everything down to the political turmoil. (Brazil is an important contributor to the UN force called MINUSTAH currently in place.)

    It was a briliant idea for the New York times to start that column which is weekly I believe and attempts to showcase slices of everyday life in other countries. We need to see more of that.

  • Stan

    Do I understand you correctly, the Haitian people were ecstatic to loose – not win – against a Brazilian team, because Brazil supports MINUSTAH?

    MINUSTAH is same organization that carried out a raid in the Cite Soleil section of Port-au-Prince? (From wikipedia: Although MINUSTAH spokespeople claimed that the raid targeted a base of illegally armed rebels, reports from pro-Lavalas sources contend that the raid targeted civilians and was an attempt to destroy the popular support for Haiti’s exiled former leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before scheduled upcoming elections. [Estimates on the number of fatalities range from 5 to 80 - the higher numbers being claimed by those reporting that the raid targeted civilians. All sources agree that no MINUSTAH personnel were killed.] All sources agree that Dread Wilme [Emmanuel Wilmer] was killed in the raid. MINUSTAH spokespeople called Wilme a “gangster.” Other sources, such as the pro-Aristide Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network call Wilme a community leader and a martyr.)

    It certainly does seem that politics interweaves in everything, even a football match.

  • http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/globalvoices/author/georgia-popplewell/ Georgia

    “Do I understand you correctly, the Haitian people were ecstatic to loose – not win – against a Brazilian team, because Brazil supports MINUSTAH?”

    Stan, I think what Alice said very clearly was that the Haitians were happy to lose against the Brazilians because they idolize them as footballers. She used the example of the article in the NYT because, in her view, it presented a more complete vision of Haiti than she is used to seeing in the international press.

    She mentions MINUSTAH in passing, merely saying that Brazil is a contributor to it, yet you have leapt on this reference as though it was central to her comment. Clearly you want to discuss MINUSTAH and that is fine. It’s just that this may not be the forum to do it in.

  • http://www.kiskeyacity.blogspot.com Alice B.

    Wow Georgia! Couldn’t have said it better myself! I just mentioned MINUSTAH because I suppose the Brazilian presence in it had a lot to do with why the soccer game took place. Thanks for translating.

  • Stan

    Ok, ok, sorry about the misinterpretation. I was only trying to understand that which surprises me, that a team doesn’t get support from its own home country, who in fact cheer the opposition, because of the Ronaldo idolotry! Hey, I wasn’t the first to mention MINUSTAH … I only asked a question about the media, because of a statement made in the interview. (By the way, according to Erving Goffman, “passing” remarks aren’t necessarily something one passes over. They give insight into what others really think and are potentially powerful influencers.)

  • http://www.knowprose.com Taran

    I’ll be referring to this at CARDICIS next week, since I’ll have a few other Haitians there. This should be a good conversation starter with Schiller Jean Baptiste.

    Understanding Haiti is very important for the region, I think, not because it is the poorest or whatever… but mainly because it is a part of the Caribbean which is simply not acknowledged or claimed by any group, probably especially the Dominican Republic (long history there).

  • http://www.kiskeyacity.blogspot.com Alice B.

    Good point, Taran. And I would add that if any caribbean entity is very interested in Haiti, it has been CARICOM of which Haiti is now at least officially a member. Lots of interest from CARICOM in the past 5 years or so. The organization became very involved in the controversy surrounding Aristide’s departure last year. Judging from comments posted to my blog recently, CARICOM has for better or for worse come to embody the Anglo-Caribbean to many Haitians.

  • Bouvil

    I have to say this kind of conversation could really keep people inform about haiti and other carribean countries.
    I’m a Haitian who came to this country at the age of 17 and now 35 I’m now living in Austin, TX I rarely see someone from the carribean where I’m this is for me a window of Haiti.

  • ESMERALDA

    I am a student of counseling and I have a homework about Haiti, can you help me???

    Thank you

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