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Chatting with ... Monique Clesca ’81 MS

Journalist and democracy activist discusses Haiti’s political crisis and a path toward peace and stability.

Monique Clesca leans up against a wall in Miami. She is smiling and wearing a white blouse. Her hair is in a bun.
Monique ClescaImage: George Alexandre

By Diana Babineau
April 1, 2024

Haiti is in turmoil. For weeks Monique Clesca ’81 MS has been sheltering in place at her home in Port-au-Prince, the capital city. On the day she spoke with Northwestern Magazine, Clesca reported that gang members were breaking into and looting homes in her neighborhood. “There’s no police,” says Clesca. “That’s the big thing — there is nobody to help.”

Clesca, who lives in both Miami and Haiti, returned to Port-au-Prince in January 2024, following her recent work as an international consultant for the United Nations in Mali.

A longtime freelance journalist and Haitian democracy activist, Clesca has recently appeared on CNN, NPR, WBUR, Democracy Now, the BBC and other news outlets to report on the ongoing humanitarian and political crisis in Haiti. She is an organizer, signatory and de facto spokesperson for the civilian-led Montana Accord, a road map for creating an interim government in Haiti and a path toward stability, justice and prosperity.

Clesca is a former UN official and former information officer for UNICEF who is fluent in English, French and Haitian Creole. She discussed the origins of the crisis in Haiti and what must be done to restore peace, democracy and equity in the country.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Get up to speed on the crisis by reading NBC News’ timeline of events.)


Haiti is embroiled in a humanitarian crisis, with gangs controlling around 95% of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. What are you observing?

It’s a war zone, but with no war being declared. There is no logic to it other than criminal logic. The gangs want to control more territory. It is not about the greater good.

How did it get to this point?

A lot of people think that this crisis began with the 2021 assassination of former Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, but no. It started in July 2018, when inflation skyrocketed and gas prices surged. Youth took to the streets and rioted. ... They had a social justice agenda — they were asking for jobs, for training, for education. ... This big movement was followed by another one that occurred after an accounting report exposed a corruption scandal in the government.

What did the report find?

For context, Venezuela gave $4 billion worth of oil to Haiti in low-interest loans as part of the 2005 PetroCaribe program to fund development projects in Haiti for health, education, etc. And the Haitian political leaders in power stole most of it.

So there was a massive popular movement, demanding that this money be found and returned to the people. ... I participated in the demonstrations and wrote about it. So this social justice and anti-corruption and anti-impunity movement, which started in 2018, never really abated.

Government corruption has fueled the massive poverty and gang violence we’re seeing today, then?

A lot of Haitians say the government itself is a gang, because ... the gangs started out working for government officials. Government has worked with and armed the gangs. It historically has validated crime and given those criminals contracts to subvert protest movements. That’s how one of the big massacres happened in 2018. ... Moïse used some of the gangs to try to stop the protests. That led to the massacre of 71 people, orchestrated by gang leader Jimmy Chérizier and the government officials who gave them arms and transportation. Then the gangs became so powerful that they broke free and a lot of them began operating on their own. 

So you do not have a clear separation between government officials and the gangs.

“A lot of Haitians say the government itself is a gang, because ... the gangs started out working for government officials.” — Monique Clesca

After Moïse’s assassination, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon and nonelected official, came to power. Though Henry promised to hold general elections, he never did. The gangs called for his resignation, and he has promised to resign after the creation of a presidential transition council. What more do the gangs want at this point?

They want the criminal Guy Philippe to be in power. Philippe led the successful 2004 coup in Haiti and has been convicted of money laundering. They want to install a regime where they can continue freely running their criminal organization, like the Mafia. Recent UN reports talked about the gangs’ drug trafficking ... kidnapping ... ransoming hostages. That’s how they make their money.

What needs to happen before general elections can be held in Haiti?

Well, that is the major question.

First, you need to have a government that understands that it has a responsibility to provide services. Right now, Henry has agreed to resign and the government is just handling regular administrative tasks. But even when Henry was there, he wasn’t doing anything.

You also need to establish some minimum peace and security so that people can feel comfortable enough to go vote. Right now, the gangs are in control of Port-au-Prince. They are shooting and looting in my neighborhood. So even if you told me, “Monique, elections are tomorrow,” I still could not go. For about two weeks now, I haven’t been able to go to the bank, an office, the doctor. Besides, they are all closed.

We have a massive humanitarian crisis also. Close to 4 million people are going to bed hungry tonight, according to the UN. More than 300,000 people had to leave their homes because of the gang assaults. Last year alone, more than 3,700 girls and women were raped and tortured. So the government has to provide some relief.

Then, in terms of elections, it takes about 18 to 24 months to put in place the electoral machine and to determine who can vote and how. Haiti has not had a census in over 20 years. And with the earthquake in 2010, about 220,000 people died. After the earthquake, you had a massive migration to Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, the United States. We don’t know who left Haiti, who is alive, who is here, who is of age to vote. And then you need to set up a whole electoral system throughout the countryside. It’s a massive endeavor.

You helped draft the Montana Accord, a Haitian-led plan to create a transitional government and bring Haiti out of its current crisis. How did the document come about?

In early 2021 a civil society forum put together the Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis [with] representatives from religious groups, including voodoo, as well as people from artist sectors, women’s rights groups, lawyers and committed citizens. I was one of those citizens.

For five months we met with practically every political party in Haiti and with various civil society groups to determine the root of the crisis and short-, medium- and long-term solutions. Based on what we heard from them, we drew up a document now called the Montana Accord.

The Montana Accord is a road map [for the country, a set of values that emphasizes government] transparency and says that the function of government must be to provide services to its citizens — not steal from them. A lot of problems in Haiti come from inequality, from people being poor, but also from the fact that the government doesn’t consider its obligation to provide services.

Our commission set up a bureau to monitor the work being done with the Montana Accord. We carry out diplomacy and meet with officials from the U.S. State Department, Defense Department, the White House, as well as with diplomats from different countries. We carry out policy dialogue and advocate for the accord to CARICOM [the Caribbean Community and Common Market, an intergovernmental body comprising 15 Caribbean countries/territories, including Haiti] and the UN Security Council to make sure our position is known.

This is my last chance to make Haiti better for the ones who are coming up behind us.

“A lot of problems in Haiti come from inequality ... but also from the fact that the government doesn’t consider its obligation to provide services.” — Monique Clesca

Haiti has been impoverished from the start. After Haitians successfully revolted against French enslavers in 1804, Haiti was forced to pay roughly 40% of its gross domestic product to France and the U.S. in exchange for its freedom — a debt that took 122 years to pay off. Is there any movement on the idea that Haiti should be refunded that money, to alleviate poverty and fund societal services?

Yeah, there is an underground movement for this. But you need a government that is legitimate, that is elected, to really bring that to the forefront. You need to build the pressure — the political pressure, the popular pressure. And we’re working on that. But certainly, this is absolutely necessary. According to The New York Times, France owes about $21 billion in reparations. Some experts estimate that the amount is higher.

Having France repay Haiti would certainly help in terms of funding the Montana Accord’s social infrastructure ideas. Where else could the funding come from?

After World War II, there was money to help Japan because there was political will in Japan. There was money to help Germany because there was political will there. A legitimate Haitian government, run by committed public officials who are serving the republic, can discuss with the world economies what we need to fast-track our development.

How are you surviving right now?

I’m doing last-minute corrections on my manuscript Silence and Resistance: Memoir of a Girlhood in Haiti, and I’ve been working for the past few weeks as an international consultant.

Believe it or not, I am an avid gardener. It is one of the things that allows me to deal with the terror and stress. When I get overwhelmed, I go in my garden and I focus on nature. I have lilies, I have orchids. I have daturas — they are very dangerous hallucinogenic plants, but so beautiful. And then I have irises. I have roses. So gardening is a stress reliever. Sometimes I hear all the bad things that are happening and then I go out and see what a beautiful lily I have. My flowers are my pride and joy. 


A pink datura flower growing in Clesca’s yard.
A pink datura flower growing in Clesca’s yard. Courtesy of Monique Clesca.
Goldenrod flowers in Clesca’s yard.
Goldenrod flowers in Clesca’s yard. Courtesy of Monique Clesca.
Lilies, grown in Clesca’s yard, on display in her home.
Lilies, grown in Clesca’s yard, on display in her home. Courtesy of Monique Clesca.
Yellow flower in Monique Clesca's garden.
A yellow datura in Clesca’s yard. Courtesy of Monique Clesca.
Peach flower in Monique Clesca's garden.
A group of datura flowers growing in Clesca’s yard. Courtesy of Monique Clesca.
Red flower in Monique Clesca's garden.
Queen’s tears flower in Clesca's yard. Courtesy of Monique Clesca.
Small white flowers in Monique Clesca's garden.
Orchids growing in Clesca’s yard. Courtesy of Monique Clesca.

What is your hope for the future?

I love Haiti. I love the land. ... I love the people. We are survivors. Resistance is a lifestyle. It’s not a motto. It is what we do. We resist.

I am confident that Haiti can be fixed. If not, I wouldn’t be in the struggle. Because I believe, I keep on fighting.

Diana Babineau is senior editor and writer in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications. She is the daughter of a Haitian immigrant. 

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