Located in the Caribbean Sea, the Republic of Haiti, which became independent right after the French Revolution, was the first independent nation in Latin America and the world’s first Black-led republic. H.E. Mr. Helph Monod Honorat, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Embassy of the Republic of Haiti in Japan, earned his PhD in Japan. Motoya spoke with Honorat about Haiti’s history, culture, industries, future visions, and other topics.
(M) Thank you for joining me on Big Talk today. Many Japanese people don’t know much about the Republic of Haiti, so I invited you here to teach us about your country. Having visited Bermuda and Cuba, I know that Haiti is also located in the Caribbean Sea.
(H) Thank you for inviting me. As you said, Haiti is a Caribbean country. It is found to the east of Cuba. Haiti is on the west side of the island Hispaniola, and the Dominican Republic is on the east side. My mission is to strengthen the ties between Haiti and Japan, so I’m happy to have this chance to talk about my country.
(M) When did you become the ambassador to Japan?
(H) I took up my post on October 7, 2020, but I was involved with Japan before that. I came to Japan for the first time in 2008 when I was a student. I earned a PhD in economics at Kobe University.
(M) Where did you study before that?
(H) I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Statistics at a university in Haiti and a Master’s of Research in Economic Policy at the Faculty of Law and Economics of the University of Antilles-Guyane in Martinique. After that, I did my doctoral studies in Japan.
(M) What was the topic of your doctoral thesis?
(H) I wrote about Haiti’s economy and foreign exchange from the perspective of macro-economics. After my studies, I joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and started working at the Embassy of Haiti in Japan as 1st secretary because living in Japan inspired me to build ties between Haiti and Japan. I was given priority because there were no Japan specialists in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. After working at the embassy, I went to Canada in 2016 and rounded off my specialization in public policy at the School of Public Policy and Governance of the University of Toronto. I returned to Haiti in 2017 as an economic advisor to the president. I came back to Japan in May 2019 as a minister-counsellor. I became chargé d’affaires a.i. in June 2020, then became the ambassador in October 2020. My experience as a diplomat has given me a broad understanding of the diplomatic ties that exist between Haiti and Japan. I have come to fully understand the strategic points of Haiti’s bilateral cooperation with Japan, mainly in areas such as education, risk, disaster management, and agriculture. It is without false modesty that I consider myself to be the right man for this job. Indeed, with my many years of experience dealing with diplomatic ties with Japan, I consider myself capable of fulfilling the wishes of the President of the Republic, His Excellency Mr. Jovenel Moise, and of Prime Minister ad Interim and Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worships Dr. Claude Joseph, to see Haitian diplomacy constitute a powerful lever for growth and economic development through cultural, political, and economic exchange.
(M) You are quite young. How old are you?
(H) I am 37.
(M) They must have recognized your great talent when choosing such a young ambassador! That’s wonderful. Can you share some basic information about Haiti?
(H) Of course. Haiti is about one third the size of Hokkaido and has a population of roughly 11 million people. The capital is Port-au-Prince and the official languages are French and Haitian Creole. There are many Christians, mainly Catholics. In addition, lots of people follow the customs of Vodou, the native religion.
(M) How many Haitians are there in Japan?
(H) I think there are about 60. Most Haitians living overseas are in the nearby United States, France, or Canada.
(M) Some parts of Canada speak French.
(H) Yes, there is a large Haitian community in Montreal, Quebec, which is part of the French-speaking world. However, I wanted to go to a country with few Haitians. Japan has a long history and a wonderful culture. I decided to study in Japan because I thought I could find some kind of inspiration here. As a matter of fact, having explored almost every country in Asia, I believe that this part of the world, particularly Japan, can turn into a region of opportunity for Haiti. I also believe that it is in the best interest of Haiti to develop a strategic and efficient plan to better position itself for cooperation with countries in this geographic area. My years in Japan have allowed me to identify several types of possible partnerships with this country. For example, Haiti can use the experience of Japan in integrating risk and disaster management into development planning. In addition, Haiti can also develop a partnership with Japan in the field of maritime fishing, which could relate in particular to the technical aspect by contributing to the development of fisheries research in general, but also to training, supervision, and restructuring of the sector. This cooperation in the field of sea fishing should include technical and technological collaboration, facilitate professional training and scientific research, and finally make available the material resources necessary for the development of this sphere of activity in target regions of the country.
(M) As a Japanese person, I’m thrilled to hear that.
(H) Back in 2010, when I was in the doctoral course at Kobe University, another thing happened that made me want to live in Japan: the Haiti earthquake that killed over 300,000 people. Port-au-Prince suffered major damage, and some of my friends passed away. Haiti had to rebuild after that. I wanted to learn from Japan’s resilience as a country that accomplished such rapid economic growth after the devastation of World War II.
(M) Both Haiti and Japan are on the Ring of Fire, which was likely the cause of such a major earthquake. The Great East Japan Earthquake occurred the following year in 2011. Japan is skilled at rebuilding, but we also have excellent anti-seismic technologies. New buildings can withstand earthquakes even with a rating of six on the shindo seismic scale, like those that struck Haiti and the Tohoku region. I’ve heard many buildings that were not made of reinforced concrete were destroyed in Haiti.
(H) Yes, and today the government of Haiti is implementing various measures to improve the seismic resistance of buildings. Part of this is our attempts to learn about Japan’s anti-earthquake design and earthquake-proof construction materials. Of course Japan has appealing technologies, but I think the spirit of the Japanese people is even more wonderful. Regular Japanese people all have pride and future visions. They also have great fortitude and a mentality to rebuild after natural disasters. I hope that Haitians can have a similar spirit, and that this will contribute to our national development.
(M) I’m sure another earthquake will occur someday.
(H) Me too. I also hope to learn from how people in Japan behave during earthquakes and other disasters. No one in Haiti had been educated about earthquakes, and some people died when they went back inside buildings that collapsed. Many people were unaware of what to do during an earthquake.
(M) They should be taught how to act.
(H) I agree.
(M) Japanese people are trained about how to respond, but negligence and judgment errors resulted in some people being swept away by the tsunami after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Thorough preparedness is essential. Japan’s Building Standards Act was tightened after the earthquake, requiring buildings in urban areas to be constructed with earthquake-resistant methods. I think this type of legislation will also be extremely important.
(H) Yes, we are sending engineers and other specialists to Japan so they can bring what they’ve learned back to Haiti.
(M) I’d like to hear about Haiti’s history. Was it a French colony?
(H) Hispaniola was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, and the whole island was a Spanish colony for some time after that. France occupied the west side of the island in the 17th century. That area is Haiti’s territory today.
(M) I’ve heard it was the first independent nation in Latin America.
(H) That’s right. Haiti was the first Latin American nation to achieve independence, and the second in North and South America after the United States. It is also the world’s only Black-led republic. The French Revolution occurred in 1789. Directly after that in 1791, there was an uprising of mulattos (mixed-race free people of color) and Black slaves. Various things happened, and Haiti declared independence in 1804. This was the first example of Black slaves successfully winning their independence, and I am very proud of how our nation was established. I believe we must develop it into an even better country that corresponds to this history.
(M) Which of Haiti’s industries bring in foreign money?
(H) Agriculture. Coffee has been a famous agriculture product since the colonial era. At one point, half of the world’s coffee supply was grown in Haiti.
(M) That’s amazing! People say that coffee harvested at high elevations is of better quality.
(H) Coffee is cultivated in Haiti’s mountainous regions. I believe it’s the best coffee in the world. However, today we produce more cacao and mango than coffee.
(M) Does Haiti have many mountains?
(H) Yes, in fact the name “Haiti” means “land of high mountains” in an indigenous language.
(M) There must be many picturesque spots.
(H) There are, and right now we are considering applying to become a UNESCO Global Geopark. Last December I visited the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark, which was approved in 2009. The mountainous scenery in Itoigawa was quite similar to Haiti.
(M) Maybe Haiti and Itoigawa have similar geographical features and scenery because they are both on plate boundaries.
(H) I also learned a lot from the Geopark’s tourism initiatives. Today Haiti’s tourism is mainly focused on resorts.
(M) What are Haiti’s best sightseeing spots? Where do you recommend going?
(H) First, I recommend National History Park – Citadel, Sans Souci, Ramiers, Haiti’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Citadelle Laferrière is an enormous fort on the peak of a 970-meter-tall mountain, and is the largest stone fortress in the western hemisphere. After Haiti’s independence in 1804, they started building this citadel in 1805 to guard against an invasion by France, the former suzerain state. It took 12 years to complete. Haitians already had those kinds of skills back then. The building itself is amazing, and the views are fantastic – you can see all the way to Cuba in a clear day. Ten kilometers from this citadel is the Palace of Sans-Souci, which was finished in 1813. Today it is a ruin, but the parts that remain give a sense of its past splendor.
(M) I’d definitely like to see that.
(H) I recommend flying from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien, the closest city to the Palace of Sans-Souci. Nearby is Labadee, one of the highest-grade resorts in the Caribbean.
(M) The ocean is so beautiful. I dove in Bermuda and saw the gorgeous coral reefs. There were many fish, too, and I caught mahi-mahi from a trolling boat.
(H) You can enjoy many different marine activities in the Caribbean. I also suggest that you visit Jacmel, a port city to the south of Port-au-Prince. You can see traces of when it was a thriving center for exporting coffee, and it still has an old-fashioned appearance. It’s rather like New Orleans in the U.S. or Japan’s Kyoto. The lively Carnival of Jacmel takes place every February, with parades, music, and dance. The parade is lauded for its artistic character; participants wear native dress and other costumes, including paper mâché masks.
(M) My impression of Haiti is that it is always hot. Is that true?
(H) The weather is hot throughout the year, but Japan is more humid in the summer. I think you’d find the dry season, from November to March, more comfortable.
(M) There are no direct flights from Japan yet.
(H) Not yet. The American routes to Port-au-Prince depart from New York, Miami, or Atlanta. I think the most convenient way from Japan is to transfer in New York.
(M) I see. I’m thinking of going right after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. You have lived in Japan for a long time, so I imagine you’ve traveled around a great deal.
(H) Yes, I’ve been to about 30 prefectures. I like castles and have visited many.
(M) Have you been to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
(H) Yes, and I’ve visited the atomic bomb museums in both cities. I keenly hope tragedies like that will never occur again, and I think it’s wonderful that Japan was able to recover and become an economic superpower after so much destruction.
(M) Japan was a feudalistic country during the Edo Period, but it was transformed into a modern nation through the Meiji Revolution. It rapidly developed national power in a short time and won two major wars against China and Russia. Japan was laid waste by the atomic bombs in World War II, but it recovered fully. There were clan schools and temple schools from the time of the Edo Period, which were modernized during the Meiji Period. Japan has a tradition of fundamental education, and the general population is highly educated.
(H) Education is a priority issue for the government of Haiti. Japanese companies are helping build new schools in Haiti. We are considering scholarships and other programs, and I hope to encourage more Haitians to study in Japan so they can bring back Japan’s sciences, culture, and way of thinking to Haiti.
(M) How is Haiti’s educational system?
(H) Just like Japan, compulsory education goes up to junior high school. Classes are basically conducted in French. We still have a low percentage of students who continue on to university. Public universities as yet cannot take in many students, which is one reason for the extremely low acceptance rates among people who take the entrance exams. There are private universities as well, but their tuition is very expensive.
(M) Do many people speak English?
(H) Yes, many people can speak English because we are so close to the U.S.
(M) So most people can speak French and Haitian Creole, and some can also speak English like yourself.
(H) Trilingual Haitians are at a great advantage when it comes to work. Also, Haiti is the only Caribbean country where French is used, which draws many overseas company offices, mainly from France.
(M) It seems like many Central and South American countries speak Spanish and Portuguese due to their histories.
(H) Our neighbor Dominica is a Spanish-speaking nation, so the number of Haitians who can speak Spanish is comparatively large. Another point in Haiti’s favor is that 65% of our people are age 40 or younger.
(M) You are young, and your country is young as well.
(H) Yes, which is why Haitians are highly motivated to study and work hard. I think we must start by fully studying Haiti’s culture and then learning about how countries around the world have grown. We should develop Haiti by learning from advanced nations.
(M) What is the political system like in such a young country?
(H) The political system of today is modeled on France, the former suzerain state. The head of state is the president, whose term is five years. The prime minister acts as the head of government and is appointed by the president, chosen from the majority party in the Parliament. The Parliament is a bicameral legislature composed of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies. There was political turmoil at one point, but today the government is stable. Presidential and parliamentary elections will be held this year, as well as a national referendum on establishing a new constitution. The project to create a new constitution intends to abolish the office of prime minister, leaving a president and vice president. This is aimed at ensuring political stability, since the prime minister is frequently replaced.
(M) I see. Do you have a military?
(H) No, it was dismantled in 1995. The Haitian National Police keeps public order and protects our borders.
(M) It is a police army?
(H) Yes. We have extremely good diplomatic relationships with other countries, so we don’t particularly need strong military power. The people of Haiti were traditionally fond of Cuban political leader Fidel Castro. We restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1996 and have since maintained an extremely positive relationship. Cuba has even sent many physicians to our country. Haiti also has a good relationship with Japan. Haitian President Michel Martelly visited Japan for the first time in 2012 and declared a new vision. Our current President Moise is aware that Japanese people are honest and trustworthy, and that Japanese-made products are of the best quality. Investment from Japan is particularly welcomed. I hope that Japan and Haiti will have even closer ties, with a focus on economic relations that lead to Haiti’s development. However, Asia was one of the regions most neglected by Haitian diplomacy, perhaps because of the geographical distance and the very low percentage of Haitians living in this region. But now Haiti places a great deal of importance on this region of the world. I firmly believe that Japan’s technological and industrial progress, as well as the economic expansion of several Asian countries, make this region the scene of multiple challenges: economic, political, and technological. I hope to help consolidate the commitment and readiness of the Japanese government to continue and strengthen its efforts to support the Haitian government in the process of rebuilding the country through technical cooperation projects, sending experts and volunteers, and financing for development.
(M) Yes, definitely.
(H) Let me also mention that 13 Haitian athletes will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. I would like to say that I am eagerly waiting for the Olympic Games this summer in Tokyo. For example, we will have athletes compete in boxing, karate, judo, athletics, and weightlifting. It’s very important to note that Kota, a city in Aichi Prefecture, was chosen last year as Haiti’s host town for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. Aichi was chosen because the name sounds similar to “Haiti” when pronounced in Japanese. The Olympics promotes values like friendship, respect, and excellence. These games put emphasis on respect for diversity, respect for the environment, and respect for others. Furthermore, I hope that “omotenashi” (the Japanese culture of hospitality) will become a global concept through the Olympic Games.
(M) I can’t wait to see what these Haitian athletes accomplish at the Olympics. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(H) Japan is a wonderful place, and is a very special country to me. I’ve learned so many things here, and I am confident that Japan will help my native country. Young Japanese people are open-minded and curious. I hope they will learn about other cultures, which will make them realize the value of their own.
(M) I agree. However, recently Japanese youth have no pride in their own country. Along with my business, I am making efforts to resolve this.
(H) I hope you will keep doing so. If young Japanese people loved their country and learned about other nations, they could make greater contributions across the globe. Haiti is a young country, so I hope that we can use our strength to contribute to the world.
(M) I hope so, too. Thank you for sharing such a meaningful discussion with me today.
(H) I can’t close this wonderful interview without adding that Japan has taught me that the very first riches of a nation are neither natural nor material, but human. Above the abundant natural resources that a nation could have, human intelligence constitutes to me the most important riches of a nation, meaning that the inhabitants of a nation are the very first riches that a nation possesses. Only humans themselves – based on the kind of mentality they have or on the dreams they possess, and by their civic responsibilities – can produce a just society, a society that makes people want to live there. Japan has also taught me that a nation never dies – it is its inhabitants and its history that either loses its values, fades away slowly, or degrades. In the same light, it is the choice of a nation’s people to manage public funds well, and to reinforce good social security rules, public and environmental structures that benefit the well-being of everyone, good economic projects, and rational political goals that will assure appreciable development. It all depends on the humans themselves, the nationals of a nation. They are the leaders of the country and are in control of everything, thus everything revolves around them and their immediate environment. Japan has completely cleared all my doubts on the fact that my beloved nation Haiti too can someday rise again from its ashes like a phoenix. I will not cease to repeat loudly and strongly that Japan is much more than just a country to me; it is my source of inspiration and my school of life. I have become more and more determined to help my country achieve development as Japan has done. Thank you very much!
H.E. Mr. Helph Monod Honorat
After graduating from the Centre of Planning Techniques and Applied Economics (CTPEA) in Haiti, Honorat earned a Master of Research in Economics from the University of Antilles-Guyane, France; pursued graduate studies in economics at the doctoral level at the Graduate School of Economics, Kobe University; and studied public policy at the School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Toronto in Canada. He was a senior advisor in economic affairs to the Cabinet of the Haitian President from 2017 to 2019. At the Embassy of the Republic of Haiti in Tokyo, Japan, he was a consultant in economic and consulate affairs from 2012 to 2015, deputy chief of mission from May 2019 to June 2020, and chargé d’affaires ad interim from June to September 2020. He became ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary in October 2020.