Pam White and her husband, Steve Cowper, pose for a photo with Haiti’s president and first lady, Michel and Sophia Martelly, during White’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to the Caribbean nation. White and Cowper now live year-round on Orr’s Island.

As chaos swirls in Haiti after the assassination of its president in July and a deadly earthquake in August, former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Pamela A. White — a Maine native who lives on Orr’s Island — says America should shift its approach to a country long plagued by poverty and violence.

Early on July 7, assassins shot President Jovenel Moïse to death in his bedroom. The New York Times reported in August that authorities have detained 44 people, including 18 Colombian mercenaries and more than a dozen officers from Moïse’s security force, but have yet to charge anyone.

White was ambassador to Haiti from August 2012 to September 2015, during the presidency of Michel Martelly. She did not know Moïse well, although they met several times.

In Haiti, the president serves one five-year term. Martelly, a popular singer before his election, had campaigned for Moïse, a wealthy banana exporter, to succeed him.

“He just struck me as a really introverted, shy person, a complete opposite of President Martelly, who was this bigger-than-life singer, dancer, entertainer,” White said.

Moïse won a slim majority in an election with about 20% turnout. With support from only about 10% of the population, “he was doomed to have a very rough go of it,” White said.

As president, Moïse clashed with prime ministers and effectively dissolved the parliament, allowing terms to expire in January 2020 without holding elections. He ruled by decree thereafter, dogged by accusations of corruption and links to violent gangs.

When he died, he was working toward a constitutional referendum that would eliminate the position of prime minister, consolidate the parliament from two chambers into one, and allow presidents to serve two five-year terms.

For almost a year before his assassination, the country had seen daily protests calling for Moïse to resign, White said. The unrest had arisen out of discontent about unemployment and violence.

“Kidnappings now are a daily occurrence. The murder rate has quadrupled in the last year,” White said. “Nobody dares go to school. Nobody even dares go to market.” Gangs have taken over much of the capital city, Port-au-Prince.

The day of the assassination, White received a 5 a.m. phone call with the news. 

“I was surprised but I was not shocked,” she said.

White suspects the world may never know the full story behind Moïse’s assassination. She is skeptical of accounts focusing on Dr. Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian American pastor and physician said to have claimed that God sent him to replace Moïse.

“I think the important thing is, well, what do we do now?” White said.

The U.S., a powerful force in Haiti, wants the country to hold elections this year, but White is advocating for a change of priorities.

“The mechanics of a decent election are not in place,” she said. An election now would see low confidence, low turnout and, as a result, low support for new leadership.

“My thing is, do three things first: Get food security, get physical security and deal with COVID,” she said — the vaccination rate in Haiti was 0.1% as of Aug. 19, according to Reuters. “And then you can turn your attention toward the organization of elections, maybe over the next two years.”

White has been trying to change U.S. thinking on the issue for 35 years. Haiti was her first post as a foreign service officer in 1985.

Since the late 1950s, Haiti had been a dictatorship, first under François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and then his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.

About six months after White arrived and as anti-Duvalier protests grew, the U.S. ambassador picked up Baby Doc and his wife in the middle of the night and escorted them to a plane, which flew them to exile in France.

The next day, White remembers, “all hell broke loose.” The U.S. embassy evacuated three-quarters of its staff amid the riots, but White stayed.

The ambassador called a meeting of the embassy staff and told them the U.S. wanted to see elections.

“I remember, even though I was a junior, nothing officer, saying to him, ‘But Mr. Ambassador, elections? I mean, this country has no political parties, it doesn’t have a vibrant civil society, it doesn’t have a justice system that functions. … I think we need to build up institutions in the country before we can think about elections,” White recalls. “And he said, ‘No, the Haitian people deserve elections.'”

“That was, I think, a big, big mistake, all those many years ago,” White said. Haiti has had 20 presidential administrations since Baby Doc.

White left Haiti in 1990, going on to serve in many other countries and ascend through the ranks of the foreign service. In 2010, she became ambassador to The Gambia, a sliver of a country in West Africa. Two years later, she returned to Haiti as ambassador. It would be her last post before retirement, and she embraced the opportunity to end her foreign service career in the place where it began.

At the time, the country was recovering from a 2010 earthquake “where 250,000 people died in five minutes,” as White summarizes it.

“The country was in shambles,” she said. The earthquake had destroyed the airport and port, as well as many hospitals, schools and factories.

Haiti “was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere before the earthquake — you can imagine what it was like after the earthquake,” White said.

White believes the U.S. investment in Haiti after the earthquake was inadequate, but “we did do miraculous things right after the earthquake,” she said.

“We did get rid of all that rubble. We did rebuild an airport. We did get the port functioning. We did build schools everywhere. We did train teachers everywhere,” she said. 

“I’m very proud of the work that we did while I was there,” she said, but “it’s hard when you don’t really have enough money or enough time to do the in-depth work that is really needed.”

She developed a close relationship with Martelly, the charismatic president. Martelly could play any instrument or song, she recalls. “He would come to my house and he would say, ‘What do you want to hear?'” she said. 

Like Moïse after him, Martelly allowed parliamentary terms to expire without holding elections and governed by executive order late in his presidency. Charges of corruption and scandal beset his inner circle.

But Martelly “loved people and they loved him back” and he tried to move the country forward, White said.

Violent crime — rampant after the earthquake — was down under Martelly, White said. The dangerous exodus of refugees across the Caribbean Sea to Florida slowed.

The magnitude 7.2 earthquake last month was more powerful than the 7.0 quake in 2010, but struck an outlying region and caused a fraction of the devastation. Still, Haitian authorities have reported 2,189 deaths, with 12,268 people injured and tens of thousands displaced.

White called the earthquake “misery added onto chaos.” Gang control of roads is slowing the delivery of supplies to the affected region, on the country’s southern peninsula, and the dysfunctional government is little help.

Despite past and present crises, White says politicians and the public have the wrong idea about Haiti. She describes Haitians as creative, hardworking, joyful people who want their country to prosper. With enough opportunity, she believes they could achieve change. But natural disasters, coupled with inadequate support from the international community, have sabotaged those efforts.

To create this opportunity, Haiti needs education and jobs. A program of the type White envisions would cost billions, though. White predicts that the U.S. and the international community will provide aid after last month’s earthquake, but sees long-term investment as unlikely.

White was born in Lewiston and grew up in Auburn. She graduated from Edward Little High School and the University of Maine at Orono before going on to earn master’s degrees in international development and national resource strategy.

Her connection to Orr’s Island dates to the early 1970s, when her parents started coming to the island. She and her family have long vacationed on Orr’s and she moved there year-round upon retiring in 2015.

She calls Orr’s Island a “magical” place with a caring and friendly community. She volunteers at the Mingo Club and the Orr’s Island Library, and enjoys golf, reading and cooking.

She remains active in the diplomacy world by serving on the boards of Global Camps Africa, which focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention in South Africa; and the University of Maine School of Policy and International Affairs, where she sometimes teaches and mentors students as well.

“Development and diplomacy are the way our country remains safe in the world,” she said. She often reminds her students of this important mission.

“We need you. We need your talent. We need your brains. We need your spirit,” she said. “It’s crucial to our future as a country and if we don’t use those tools, our country is going to suffer.”