By Hervé Laguerre
Thirteen years ago, Haitel’s marketing team was already in the vicinity of Gelée, the famous beach in Les Cayes on the south side of Haiti. The tent was installed, and the devoted Haitel employees began promoting their products: a cellular phone and home internet service. The brochures were all placed on the table and, with the music blasting and employees singing, Haitelwas actively participating in the great Catholic and cultural celebration, the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.
It was a beautiful Wednesday. The sun was shining brightly, and folks could enjoy the breeze coming from the Caribbean Sea.With the weather cooperating so well, the beach was crowded. Natives of Les Cayes and their guests, especially from the Diaspora, invaded the city, and the festivities were at their peak.The celebrations continued until the wee hours of the night. By early morning, the tent was dismantled, and we were all on our way back to the office in Port-au-Prince.
As we entered the main office of Haitel in Petionville, the spirit of celebration quickly disappeared as the crumbling situation of the company dawned on us. That is, Haitel was fraught with problems — internal and external — that threatened its existence.
A Company for Haitians by Haitians
Haitel S.A., the first privately-owned telecommunication company of Haiti, was the brainchild of Franck Ciné. A Haitian-born professional and former employee of MCI/Worldcom, Cinéwas determined to introduce this technology to Haiti and build his empire. Thanks to his vision and hard work, Haitel had over 500 employees in local offices across Haiti’s major cities.
I did not know Franck Cine before joining Haitel’s finance department in 2005. The CFO, whom I had met years prior at Baruch College in New York, invited me to join the team. I later found out that Ciné is also a Baruch College alum. In time, I worked with Ciné and had the opportunity to know him.
To be honest, he was not a saint. Indeed, he was the pompous and arrogant type, referring to others as chief. He had good business acumen, but was more focused on himself than on company operations. Wisely, Ciné selected competent Haitian professionals to manage the company. I met some great minds there.
Haitel had a great team of engineers — 100% young Haitians who would travel to China at times, at the expense of the company, to improve their knowledge of CDMA technology. Their performance and ability were well-known in in Haiti’s wireless community, and they were always courted by Haitel’s two competitors.
We lost many of our engineers to the other companies for the offer of a meager increase in salary. Unfortunately, Haitel management failed to realize and correct this problem.
The third generation of wireless mobile telecommunications technology, or 3G, was the newest in the industry, and few companies in the world had it. Ciné was determined to acquire it and traveled quite often to China to negotiate its purchase for Haitel. Forty million dollars was the stated cost. The investment proved itself worthwhile to Haitel.
After the 2010 earthquake destroyed Haiti’s infrastructure, Haitel was the only of the three wireless companies left in operation.
Destructive Forces at Play
Ciné’s success, innovative ideas, and arrogance attracted enemies, many of whom worked in politics. As some sought revenge, Haitel had some major issues to deal with.
Internally, Haitel was top heavy. About 10% of the employees collected more than 75% of the company’s total salary, and the dissatisfaction of the remaining 90% was becoming more and more menacing.
Externally, the Haitian consumer resented Haitel. Some decided never to use Haitel because, until the arrival of a competing company, they were charged for both incoming and outgoing calls. They felt betrayed and exploited by a company created and ran by Haitians. (editor’s note: That was the business model in the industry worldwide at that time)
The behemoth that threatened and eventually destroyed Haitel however, was ironically the pettiness of a cynical, angry, resentful, and sadistic little man who was then the President of Haiti: René Préval.
Préval, for some reason, abhorred Frank Cine and consequently Haitel. As President, he swore to use the power of his office to get rid of the company, and he did. The details are well-known and documented.
The moto of Haitel: nou se piti te Dayiti. ( Haitel IS THE PRODUCT OF THE LAND OF HAITI)
The reality : te Dayiti detrui prop pitit li. (THE LAND OF HAITI DESTROYED ITS OWN PRODUCT)
The disappearance of Haitel from the Haitian market created a void felt by all professional Haitians and a terrible example for potential Haitian investors. As a matter of fact, since then, no investment by Haitians has risen to the level of Haitel, worth over $100 million.
Resentment and Its Consequences
Although there were other precedent flops, the failure of Haitel was the incident that mostly confirmed the negative attitude thatHaitian politicians held toward the diaspora.
In February of 1986, the first generation of Haitians of 40 years old and older, professionals or not, who left Haiti in the 50s and early 60s, were ready to return home. A lot of them did. Some sold their residences, took their pension funds and savings, and moved to the motherland. By 1991, five years later, the promise of a better Haiti started to dissipate. The dream vanished.
The last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st have seen the destruction of the Haitian society and its structure. My father, who moved to Haiti in 1986, witnessed this phenomenon,and with pain in his heart, died in 2007. Most of his friends and colleagues who have done the same suffered similar disappointment and died.
My generation, the baby-boomers who left Haiti as teenagers in the late 60s and early 70s, are retiring now. Unfortunately, we are witnessing with dismay the situation back home and are, therefore, looking for an alternative to Haiti. Those of the younger generations claim the Haitian identity, but are more impressed with the music than anything else.
Unless something is done, the material and/or intellectual wealth accumulated by the baby-boomers, my generation and the younger generation of Haitians will not be used for the welfare of our nation. It will be thus simply because our brothers and sisters living in and managing Haiti are not receptive to our ideas and wealth, which make them feel threatened.
The Haitian Diaspora: An Unexplored Gold Mine
The diaspora is and should not be a menace to anyone, but rather a gold mine to be exploited for the benefit of the people of Haiti.
A couple of years ago during a campaign meeting in Cap-Haitien, I asked the current president of Haiti what his plans were to encourage the diaspora to come and invest in Haiti. His reply was quite encouraging. But to this day, nothing concrete has been done.
I had to leave Haitel and Haiti in June 2008 because of circumstances that I do not care to discuss. I will only say that for three years, I was completely depressed, unable to accept the situation that I was in. But I finally realized that, and as I have been told by so many other victims, a job in Haiti with a decent salary is tantamount to a hidden treasure that everyone is fetching. There are no rules, and all is allowed including the elimination of a candidate by whatever means necessary.
It is a pity and an error for the leaders of Haiti to ignore the diaspora.
The Haitian diaspora, together with the local authorities, could have been among those placing the first stone in the reconstruction of Haiti. We want to remind everyone that we are Haitians too and want to participate at any level in the process of developing Haiti. We are ready to return home and together build a haven for us all.
Haiti and all Haitians are losing the battle. It is time that the debate begins.