TAMPA — As fellow Haitians attending Hillsborough Community College, Robenson Jean and Nicolas Victorin pledged they would return to Haiti to lead a new generation of elected officials untainted by political corruption.
"We used to always talk about the change we have to make in our community," Jean said via email. "It inspired me."
Victorin lived up to his end of the informal pact when at age 30 he was elected the Caribbean nation’s youngest mayor to lead the agricultural village of Pignon in northern Haiti and its population of 42,000.
Now Jean, 34, says it’s his turn.
He has announced his 2019 candidacy for the Chamber of Deputies, similar to the U.S. House of Representatives, to represent the northwest city of Jean-Rabel, which has a population of 150,000 and lacks adequate medicine or clean water.
It’s a situation sure to be exacerbated with an influx of Haitians who must return to the island by 2019 now that President Donald Trump ended the Temporary Protected Status that allowed them to live in the United States.
The region will be hit by the one-two punch of jobless new residents and the loss of remittances they used to send home from their work in the United States.
Jean attended HCC with Victorin from 2006 to 2008 under the same scholarship program while pursuing the same degrees.
"He is a skilled young guy and he loves his city," Victorin, now 32, said via email. "I think he will do good because of his love."
The two men did not know each other before enrolling at HCC, but became friends as they earned degrees in electrical engineering through a U.S. Agency for International Development scholarship program for Central Americans and Haitians. HCC used to participate in the program.
That they may now both play leadership roles in the future of Haiti was to be expected, according to Robert Coppersmith, who over the years hosted dozens of students attending HCC through the international scholarship program, including Jean.
"They came here because they wanted to do better for their country," said Coppersmith, 64. "They sought experiences to become better leaders."
A magnitude 7.0 earthquake that hit near Haiti’s capital of Port-au-Prince in 2010 killed an estimated 300,000 people, left another 1.5 million displaced and sent economic aftershocks throughout the nation.
The world rallied behind Haiti with financial donations. The United States alone made available nearly $5 billion for post-disaster relief plus longer-term recovery, reconstruction, and development programs, according to the U.S. State Department.
Yet Haiti remains in chaos.
"People in my community are still waking up at 2 in the morning and walking at least 2 kilometers to get drinking water," Jean said.
Government corruption has played a role, he said.
"A project costs $1 million and they steal half of it. My generation cannot let things go like that."
It’s an issue that the United Nations calls a roadblock to Haiti’s recovery. Jean said he hopes other young leaders are inspired to join them in fighting corruption.
"This generation can think of the basic needs of the population," he said.
When Jean returned to Haiti from HCC, he earned degrees in law and economics and spent eight years as a logistician for the United Nations.
Still, Jean admits that he remains an unknown politically, which is why he’s announcing his candidacy now for an election that will be held in late 2019.
"I need to invest more in a community project that can make me more popular," he said.
That was Mayor Victorin’s path to success. With assistance from connections he made in Tampa, such as real estate firm DeBartolo Development, he raised money before his election to start a community radio station and provide holiday meals to villagers.
These benefactors continue to support Victorin’s agenda.
In Jean-Rabel, candidate Jean also is working to establish a community radio station as well as a computer training program, with help from some $2,000 plus equipment provided by Coppersmith, his former HCC host, who is head of the Central Florida chapter of the labor organization National Electrical Contractors Association.
All donations Jean receives are invested in a nonprofit he titled the Robert Coppersmith Foundation."
"Down there, $200 goes a long way," said Coppersmith, whom Jean lovingly calls "daddy." "But he needs 15, $20,000 to do what he wants to do."
Projects that Jean has in mind beyond vital clean water and medical supplies include business loans for women and a technical school.
"Yes, we can," he said, echoing former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan that he heard while a student at HCC. "That is what we talk about to the new generation. ‘Yes, we can.’?"
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.