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#482: The Max Blanchet Story by Judith Scherr (fwd)
From: Guy Antoine <GuyAntoine@windowsonhaiti.com>
By Judith Scherr
Daily Planet Staff
As soon as he awakes each morning, Max Blanchet flips on his computer
and scrolls through the news of Haiti. Then he reads the Bay Area
Since arriving in the United States as a student in 1960, Blanchet has
kept one foot in this country and the other in the land of his birth
The duality cannot be ignored. "I think about it all the time," said
Blanchet, a Berkeley resident since 1968.
Unlike the lives of Europeans who came to this country early in the
century, the modern world permits immigrants to retain close ties,
Blanchet said, pointing to the ease of travel and e-mail communication.
"People go back and forth. They never make a clean break, and function
in two worlds," he said.
In an interview over coffee Friday, Blanchet's dedication to Haiti was
evident. He professes an ardent desire to teach people about the land
that, he says, the mainstream media forget unless there's blood in the
Blanchet is leading a nine-person delegation to Haiti at the end of the
month. He hopes the travelers will learn in-depth about the beauty and
needs of his homeland, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The product of a middle-class Haitian family, Blanchet came to the
United States when he was 19 to study at the University of Wisconsin. He
had intended to return home to work in his family's coffee business, but
repression under Francois Duvalier's dictatorship was growing.
Blanchet's father was jailed for a short time, "perceived as a political
opponent," Blanchet said. So he decided it was best to make a life for
himself in this country. (Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier ruled from 1957
to 1971 and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier ruled from 1971 to 1986.)
In 1968, Blanchet came to UC Berkeley to do graduate work. He settled
here, married, sent his twin girls through Berkeley schools and worked
as a chemical engineer for Shell, Chevron and PG&E.
Still, Blanchet said, "I always had Haiti in my gut."
Now that his girls are grown and he does consulting work part-time,
Blanchet has time to devote himself to working for Haiti.
Recognizing that he lived a privileged life as a child in
Port-au-Prince, he said, "I always felt I should give something back."
Haiti's needs are almost overwhelming. The average income is $300 per
month, 45 percent of the population is literate and life expectancy is
slightly less that 50 years of age, according to U.S. government
Still, Blanchet has set about working for Haiti in a very concerted way.
With Pierre Labossiere of Oakland and others, he founded the Bay Area
Haitian American Council.
Working with the Haiti support group, an initiative of the East Bay
Sanctuary Covenant, and the Marin Interfaith Task Force, BAHACO recently
shipped a school bus to Haiti for the use of "Lafanmi Selavi" - the
Creole name for The Family is Life - which is the center for some 500
street children. The center was founded by former president
The bus was to arrive in Haiti on Saturday, Blanchet said.
BAHACO also helped bring Aristide to the Bay Area several times during
the former Haitian president's time in exile from 1991 to 1994. Aristide
was ousted in a military coup and was brought back to Haiti in 1994 with
the help of U.S. troops. He served out the rest of his term and was
succeeded by President Rene Preval. Aristide has said he will run again
for office next year.
"Aristide was extremely well-received in Berkeley," Blanchet said. "The
joke was, should he fail to return to power, he could run for mayor of
When Blanchet leads the delegation to Haiti, he will show them firsthand
some of the work he's been involved in. One is the projects is FONKOZE,
whose acronym in Creole means shoulder-to-shoulder. Blanchet is
president of FONKOZE USA, the U.S. fund-raising arm of the bank.
FONKOZE is Haiti's bank for the organized poor, modeled on the Grameen
Bank of India. Collectives of Haitian women borrow money at low interest
rates to build their businesses. In order to get the loan, they have to
attend classes and obtain basic literacy and business skills.
Blanchet will also be taking the delegation to the coutryside to see the
agricultural development program sponsored by FONKOZE. Blanchet says he
is particularly concerned about Haiti's agricultural sector. The
International Monetary Fund, which lends money to developing countries,
has insisted that the country remove all tariffs. Without the protection
of tariffs, Haiti's rice and beans will have to compete directly with
the world market, which produces crops more cheaply. That will be a
hardship on the people of Haiti, Blanchet says.
Although he's concerned about his country of birth, Blanchet still can
see the bright side. There are a host of political problems, but Haiti
has been returned to a constitutional government, he said. There is a
growing criminal element, but the violence is much less than it was
under the 1991-94 military regime, and the army has been disbanded, he
"The situation is far better than it was," Blanchet said.
And there is the center for street children, where Blanchet will take
the delegation. It is, as Aristide once wrote, "A place to eat, a place
to sleep, a place to love and to be loved, a place to dream."
The delegation Blanchet is leading will not travel in comfort, as most
American tourists do on vacation. The roads are very rough and
accommodations will be far from first class.
Working telephones and electricity will be sporadic. But the delegation
will come away will a much deeper understanding of Haiti, Blanchet said.
"We're building a solid network in the U.S. for Haiti."
Blanchet and Pierre Labossiere will be speaking on the current
political situation in Haiti at a Haitian dinner, 6:30 p.m., Sept. 18,
at the Unitarian Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists, at Cedar and
Bonita. Cost is $8 to $15, sliding scale. Call 528-5403 for more
BAHACO and the Haiti Support Group meet the last Monday of the month at
5 p.m., at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, 2320 Dana in Berkeley. Call
540-5296 for more information.
Several articles on Haiti by Max Blanchet are posted on the Windows on
Haiti web site (http://windowsonhaiti.com). Information on FONKOZE is
also available on the web (http://greatidea.com.fonkoze.default/htm).