How A Mission To Turn A Haitian Town Into A Surfing Destination Failed To Live Up To Its Promise

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The trouble began in July 2018 in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, 54 miles north.

The government had just announced a 50% increase in fuel prices following an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, eliciting protests that turned violent, with demonstrators looting stores and police firing tear gas. The protesters called for accountability, most notably regarding the whereabouts of $2 billion from PetroCaribe, an oil deal with Venezuela that was meant to help Haiti invest in infrastructure and social programs.

Economic growth was grinding to a halt and inflation was soaring. The question on everyone’s mind: What did Haiti have to show for the $13 billion from the world, thousands of volunteers, and countless projects?

Tourists were barely coming to Haiti — and many Haitians were leaving, including Gilles, who moved to the Dominican Republic in December 2019 for two years so he could find a job and save some money. Today, he’s trying to set up a small shop selling snacks and drinks on the Haiti–Dominican Republic border. Though he longed to stay in southern Haiti, he said, “I really want a job and to feel independent.”

Around half a dozen of Surf Haiti’s founders and older members were among those who left, most of them to the US, after getting into college or finding jobs.

When boards began breaking, there wasn’t anyone to bring new ones. Wax became scarce. Visitors slowed to a trickle, and the kids who had waited by the shore for Pierce to paddle back in years earlier were now in college, with no job prospects and no income.

“The people who were there to motivate us and support us haven’t been here as much,” Andris said.

And then, the pandemic hit. Jules’s bid for the Olympics fell apart when he wasn’t able to gain the support he needed from sponsors and local authorities in Jacmel. Last year, less than a dozen people showed up for surf classes, a far cry from the years when that many showed each month.

In recent months, gangs took over the main route out of the capital city, cutting it off from the south; few dare traverse it. Another route, a long stretch of steep, narrow dirt road, is too dangerous if there’s even a trickle of rain. Water taxis are limited.

The stream of visitors to Kabic Beach is, for now, virtually shut off. Remaining Surf Haiti members say they plan on selling t-shirts with the organization’s logo and hand-crafted souvenirs online.

In the meantime, it’s mostly locals in the water, less than half a dozen of them on this August morning. The regulars are teaching their younger siblings to surf in an effort to keep the sport going. Samuel Andris, Frantzy’s 13-year-old brother, stayed close to the shore during a recent morning, pausing to observe the waves’ buildup and trying to catch the smaller ones.

Further out, Jules practiced his more advanced moves. He learned some of them while surfing in the Dominican Republic in 2019, during the only competition he has attended abroad. After a while, he emerged from the water, patted his adopted mutt, Brutus, on the head, and climbed the steps up to the patio of the abandoned house — Pierce’s home, years ago. With no job prospects or a functioning gym in the neighborhood, Jules spends most of his time here doing push-ups on the grass.

He still dreams of going to surfing competitions in Brazil, Hawaii, and Tahiti.

“It’s like someone that wakes up and has to walk,” Jules said. “I see surfing the same way.” ●

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