The Pernicious Power of American Promises

The first time I saw the famous Fabienne Jean, she was limping toward me, slowly, but with the unmistakable elegance of the dancer that she was. Two years had passed since American donors and American media had turned Fabienne into a symbol of recovery from the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010. Well-wishers had promised her everything from a new house and an American visa to her own dance academy. At the time she was still hopeful; none of it, however, would come to pass.

The last time I saw the famous Fabienne Jean, she was sitting idle in her basement apartment, unable to work, unable to dance, still nostalgic about her brief encounter with American generosity. She took out her phone and flipped through photos. “Did you see this one, Jacob?” she laughed, showing me a photo of her posing on a Florida beach. Eleven months later, she was dead.

Had America let Fabienne down? For all the promises that American charities and politicians made to rebuild Haiti after the earthquake, it seems we somehow failed to rebuild even a single life — the life, in fact, of the person who received more attention and more promises than anybody else.

“When you promise something to someone, you encourage them,” a Haitian translator who worked as a liaison between Fabienne and her American donors told me. But as time goes by and nothing happens, unfulfilled promises can break someone’s will, even to the point of making them physically sick, he said. “And that’s what happened to Fabienne. It affected her mind, her body, and every part of her.”

Read the full article at The New York Times in English or in Spanish. Reporting for this article was supported by grants from The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.