The King of Jacmel

Joel Khawly and wife Sheila Khawly outside the home they built in Jacmel. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Joel Khawly and wife Sheila Khawly outside the home they built in Jacmel.
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)


Sitting at the Hotel Cyvadier’s best open-air table, Joel Khawly is staring poker-faced at the darkened Bay of Jacmel when his phone rings.

Mr. Khawly does not take calls after 6 p.m., so his wife, Sheila, with jet black hair and the almond eyes of Disney’s princess Jasmine, carries an extra cell in her black Chanel to respond to the overflow.

An acquaintance is on the line.

“He wants you to turn the power back on,” Ms. Khawly says. Her husband’s eyes glint for a moment before he gives his head a tired shake.

“Tell him to pay his bill.”

The most prosperous businessman in Jacmel, Mr. Khawly built his empire by delivering necessities here – gas, trucks, water, construction materials, motorcycles and currency exchange. The services he provides literally powered the Canadian military effort here in the days after the earthquake; his philanthropy enabled a school to reopen and teachers to take home pay once the institution’s coffers had run dry.

Before an epic earthquake and even more so now, Jacmel could not function without him. That everyone knows this is evinced by the way they fawn over him in the streets or scuttle to get out of his way.

While the 46-year-old patriarch finishes his dinner of bouillabaisse and grilled fish on this January night, Ms. Khawly will listen to three more calls pleading for her husband’s help.

It has been a year since the earthquake hollowed out downtown Jacmel, Haiti’s favourite vacation town and its cultural hub. It was the third-most destroyed city in the quake; cut off from other towns by debris-covered roads, Jacmel became the recipient of the largest Canadian military-aid commitment outside of Afghanistan. For the past year, The Globe and Mail has been documenting its attempt to rebuild.

While most of Jacmel’s 60,000 people are still trying to scrape their way back to status quo, Mr. Khawly logged a record year, parlaying huge spikes in demand for just about everything he owns: new apartments, gas stations and a small resort.

Despite his burgeoning business, he doesn’t expect a pile of job applications. His Haitian brethren, he says, are too passive to risk competing with him, too vengeful toward his success to work alongside him, preferring instead to work on sullying his name.

“The biggest handicap of the Haitians is they hate each other. They hate people with money. They make up ridiculous lies about me,” Mr. Khawly said, spitting: “If I was a drunk in the street, they would love me.”

The choppy gulf between a prospering businessman like him and the people of Jacmel has existed for years, mirroring the undercurrent of dependency and hatred that runs through broader Haitian society. It is the reason the country has not seen real change this year – and might never – despite the continuing post-quake efforts to reorient it.

Haiti’s downslide has been long and deep: over two centuries ago, it became the world’s first independent black republic, but the country is better known now as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. That unfortunate title came from years of economic and political instability, exacerbated by a litany of attempts by other nations to intervene. Over the years of bloody coups and upheavals, Canada has maintained significant ties to Haiti through the United Nations. Those strengthened last January when the earthquake struck and Haiti rocketed into position as the world’s largest recipient of humanitarian aid.

This obscures the fact that some Haitians living here remain prosperous.

The Khawly family’s range of flashy vehicles – from a Mercedes G-Class sport utility to Hummers and a Land Cruiser – are easy markers for their whereabouts in Jacmel, a town which typically consumes motorcycles sold by the Khawlys.

The most legendary of the Jacmel bunch was Jacques Khawly, Joel’s deceased father.

Joel, the eldest of Jacques’s four children, was 8 when the government jailed his father “for being a communist.” After 21 days, he was granted release; he went on to become one of the city’s most beloved mayors.

By the time Jacques died of liver cancer in 2005, he had anointed his eldest son as head of the family and taught him the value of self-reliance.

Mr. Khawly said his father refused to give him anything for free and even went as far as bidding against him on the gas-station property to toughen up his son. Joel won the run-off, but only after taking out a high-interest loan. At the time, he was incensed and hurt. But it taught him to “like competitions.” Now, “I love them,” he said.

Besides operating Jacmel’s only gas station, he is Chevron’s sole distributor of fuel in Haiti. He operated a lottery at one point and the city’s first motorcycle shop. He expanded into a slate of businesses he saw as sure wins in service-strapped Jacmel: construction materials, purified water (which yields him $10,000 a month alone), mechanics, rental cars, cheque cashing and currency exchange. “I provide solutions,” he said. “People need fuel to get to work in the morning. After that, they need water to cook and to live. What people need, I’m on it.”

Recently, he applied for a $500,000 (U.S.) loan to fund the building of 25 vacation bungalows; he built a new $200,000 gas bay dedicated to motorcycles after the earthquake because lineups at his original pumps were spilling into the streets. He is also considering opening Jacmel’s first real supermarket.

But big businesses here do not easily thrive.

“People say to me, ‘Joel, why do you have to work? You have enough money.’ I have to explain to them, ‘To keep working is good for you. I owe the bank my hair.’ And I have a whole family on my shoulders.”

People instead focus on his playboy image, which has proven inescapable despite his attempts to keep a low profile in town. Feeding into it is the fact he and Sheila are a beautiful couple; she looks like a goddess, he has a sinewy physique and obvious charisma.

They jet off to their Miami house when they need a break from Haiti’s chaos; their modern seaside mansion is magazine-spread ready. They dress in expensive clothes – he prefers linen shirts, designer jeans and leather loafers; she wears gold jewellery, diamond rings and clingy outfits that compliment her svelte figure.

Mr. Khawly likes to jet-ski in the bay to let off steam; the roar of its motor makes him stand out amidst the sea of clunky wooden fishing boats. His best friend is an American-bred Rottweiler that acts like a puppy when he calls it, but is quick to growl at anyone it deems a potential threat.

All of that, plus the family’s insular tendencies feed a ravenous rumour mill in this town. Here, speculating on the dubious sources of others’ riches is a popular pastime.

Mr. Khawly himself raises the fact that people whisper he’s into trafficking drugs.

He scoffs at the allegations. He’s too smart of a businessman to risk it all by doing something as stupid as dealing drugs. “When you have a name ... the government is watching always,” he said.

Without prompting he also spells out a folkloric belief that because he owns fuel outlets, he is somehow responsible for and profits from Haiti’s persistent gas shortages. Mr. Khawly occasionally feeds into the rumours by shutting down his operation, which can have a paralyzing effect on residents and on all the organizations that rely on his gas.

“Sometimes, they make you get mad,” he admitted. “So, I stop the fuel to teach them a lesson.”

He feels his contribution to the community is too often ignored.

After last January’s earthquake crippled Jacmel and blocked roadways leading in and out of the city, the Canadian military was credited with flying in to save the day.

Few people know that before it could help anyone, the Canadian military needed saving too. Its behind-the-scenes knight in shining armour was Joel Khawly.

When the soldiers landed to set up camp at Jacmel’s rundown airport, it was Mr. Khawly who enabled them by supplying necessities – construction materials, fuel and a fleet of rental vehicles, including Hummers, pickups and even his front loader.

Mr. Khawly said he’s still receiving e-mails from thankful Canadian soldiers. But few in town acknowledge the pivotal role he played.

“Gratefulness is not something that goes with this culture,” said Moro Baruk, a well-known artist in Jacmel and former adviser to Jacques Khawly. “Duvalier – Papa Doc – said showing gratitude is like showing weakness.”

Mr. Khawly believes this only partly explains Jacmel’s sourness.

“They don’t like me because I don’t give my money away,” he said. “I try to help as much as I can and also to make a living.”

He’s not always out to make money. When the national power authority calls him for an advance of diesel fuel to keep the lights on while they collect late bill payments, he lends it to them; he supplies hot meals twice a week to needy folks. When the Catholic girls’ school crumbled last January, he lent the sisters running it a piece of land to build temporary classrooms on. When they ran out of money to pay teacher salaries, he paid them out of his own pocket.

“I just don’t see the reason to do something for the people and keep talking about it,” he said. Thus, unlike his father, who was seen as an altruist, Mr. Khawly is still seen as a shrewd businessman whose foremost concerns are his own interests. There is no value, he says, in trying to alter this.

“I would love the country to change. But with the mentality of Haitian people, it will be very tough. I think we need at least two generations,” he said.

Mr. Baruk has employed hundreds of Haitians in his Jacmel wood shop over the past three decades and no longer puzzles at their revulsion over his success. The masses, he said, perpetuate the cycle of poverty by conceiving of themselves as unable to climb out of it.

“People need to let go of who they think they are – stop being slaves, stop being beggars,” he said.

Last year, many thought the earthquake had cracked open a window of opportunity for change. But here in Jacmel, realism has eclipsed that optimism.

“Here, if you have some money, you can make big money,” Sheila Khawly said. “If you don’t have, you’ll die.”