This morning, a Haitian news outlet, LoopHaiti, published the latest travel advisory of the Canadian Embassy. In it, the Embassy warned its citizens against going to many of Port au Prince’s poorer neighborhoods, such as Belair, Martissant, and Cite Soleil, because they are “unstable and dangerous”.
A few years ago, no one would have blinked an eye at this statement. But the past year and a half in Cite Soleil have been marked by a remarkable period of peace brought about by a truce between its major gangs, while security in the rest of Port au Prince has continued to deteriorate. In fact, the Haitian National Police recently declared that Cite Soleil was the safest municipality in the Port au Prince metropolitan area.
Another difference between a few years ago and now? Almost every young person in Cite Soleil has a smartphone, and they are all over social media.
So this morning, as the LoopHaiti article made its way across Soleyan Facebook and Whatsapp, people in Cite Soleil got indignant. They felt they had been working so hard for peace over the past few years, and felt insulted that their progress was ignored outright by the Embassy. Many felt it was a psychological attack on Cite Soleil’s youth, designed to discourage them and invalidate their efforts.
Open letters were circulated across social media. One was circulated in Creole:
In English, it reads: “Dear Embassy of Canada in Haiti: Can you give the population of Cite Soleil an explanation of why our municipality is on this list? For the past year, our authorities, foundations, organizations, and population have given everything to keep the peace. Are you not aware of the negative psychological consequences of this note? We have the safest municipality in Port au Prince at the moment. This note shows that no matter how much effort we make, people outside out community will not understand us. It was absolutely devastating this morning to see our community at the top of a list of places to avoid in Port au Prince. All this while we are trying to invite people to come and see the progress we have made. We hope that this is just a typo that can be corrected quickly. If it is not a typing error, then you should be aware that this is a social crime that builds on the structural violence our community experiences. Cite Soleil needs the understanding of everyone for it to change. Thank you in advance for correcting you error, and in the meantime, all of us in Cite Soleil will continue to work for peace.”
Another one was circulated in French:
This one says: “I am greeting you in the name of diplomacy, the men and women of the Canadian Embassy in Haiti, to inform you of my indignation regarding an article circulated this morning by Loop Haiti that revealed that you have instructed your citizens to not visit Cite Soleil for reasons of insecurity… I remind you that my municipality was recently classified by the Haitian National Police as the safest zone in the Port au Prince metropolitan area…Ladies and gentlemen of the Canadian Embassy of Haiti, I understand that you cannot reconcile the paradoxical idea, that the largest ghetto in the country is in fact its safest. But I assure you, it is true… We demand the Haitian State begin a process to retract this note, and the demand a formal public apology from the Embassy to the Haitian population, and particularly to the inhabitants of Cite Soleil for the negative psychological impact of this note.”
This sparked an exceptional debate across Soleyan Whatsapp groups and Facebook pages. There were those who felt it confirmed long-held suspicions that the world had no interest in peace in Cite Soleil, that this was a deliberate effort to destabilize current progress. Others said it was simply a lazy reliance on old stereotypes, a lack of effort to understand the changing realities of Haiti’s most challenged communities. Still others used it as a chance to question what peace means: while they disagreed with the Canadian Embassy’s categorization of the current reality of Cite Soleil, they agreed with the Embassy’s statement that “the authorities have no meaningful control” over the area and wondered whether the current peace was actually sustainable.
Regardless, this is a significant moment for Cite Soleil. This is a moment where an online, media-literate generation publicly rejects how it is categorized by a foreign government. It demonstrates that young Soleyans are conscious of their image and how stigmatization plays into structural violence, and are tired of being the automatic poster child of Haiti’s insecurity.
How long this peace will last, no one can be sure. But what is sure is that the youth of Cite Soleil are growing more confident and bolder, and are willing to fight for a new image of their community.