On The Cover
Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe '96
concludes his official visit to Vietnam
on Dec. 18, 2012.
2012 Distinguished Alumni Awards
The Success of the Barry Athletics Model
Campus Democracy Project
Spring 2013, Volume 18, Number 1
In the face of daunting challenges, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe ’96 draws on lessons learned as a Barry University student-athlete.
As a successful telecommunications entrepreneur, Lauent Lamothe was used to decisions in high-pressure situations, often with millions of dollars hanging in the balance. He was really good at it. But could he make decisions that would directly affect millions of lives? Would he be able to bring meaningful relief and healing to a nation devastated by natural and manmade disaster — floods, earthquakes, coup d ’états, starvation and pestilence? Was this the right job for a businessman? That’s what went through Lamothe’s mind when, just shy of his 40th birthday and 16 years after graduating from Barry University, he was asked to serve as Prime Minister of Haiti. “In the business world, you work for a company, and if things don’t go well the shareholders might get upset and you might lose your job,” Lamothe said. “The stakes now, if you make a mistake, you have failed 10 million people.” A number of those people, including good friends, advised against accepting the nomination. Honestly, that was Lamothe’s first inclination, too. “But I like challenges, and I want to contribute my time in order for my country to be a better place,” added the Port-au-Prince native. “And the president felt that he wanted me to take the job. Who am I to say ‘no’ to a president?” It’s been this way much of Lamothe’s life. People see in him something special, something that gives them a steadfast confidence in his potential and in his abilities.
A Ticket to Miami
That’s how the 15th Prime Minister of Haiti ended up with a tennis scholarship to Barry back in 1991. When Lamothe showed up for the campus visit and tryout, coach George Samuel pitted him against the school’s best player at the time. “I lost, badly,” Lamothe said. “I went home, and I said, ‘You know, I just blew the biggest chance to attend a huge university.’ What I wanted the most was an opportunity to show what I could do. So I thought that was it.” That wasn’t it. Samuel knew Lamothe had more ability than he showed that day. “I was hoping he would be somebody that would lead the team, because he had pretty good credentials,” Samuel said. “I still liked his tennis. I saw somebody I thought could play high on the team, but I wasn’t certain exactly what role he was going to play.” The phone rang the day after Lamothe got home. “I heard, ‘This is George Samuel’ on the line,” Lamothe said, with a broad smile and gravely intonation. “He gave me the opportunity — the opportunity that shaped the person that I am today.” Turns out Samuel was right. Before long, Lamothe claimed the No. 1 spot on the team, ahead of the player who beat him in the tryout. In 1993, he became Barry’s first men’s tennis player to be named ITA All- American, and represented Haiti in the 1994 and 1995 Davis Cups. “After he came in and got settled, he really started to shine,” Samuel said. “And Laurent was also really into the team spirit, playing for Barry. He had good chemistry on the team. He proved to be somewhat of a leader on the court, doing what a team captain would be expected to do, which he eventually was.”
Long Day’s Journey
Lamothe earned an MBA after graduating from Barry, and quickly built a lucrative phone card business, called NoPin. His stroke of genius was using popular Haitian musician Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, a politically minded singer and keyboard player, to front the product. (Since May 2011, it has been “President Martelly.” It is, indeed, a small world in Haitian politics.) Lamothe and his partners reinvested the profits in another telecommunications startup called Global Voice Group. The South Africa-based company bridged Lamothe’s two academic interests — business and politics — by targeting emerging economies with telecommunication governance technology. It was an even bigger success, earning Lamothe a nomination for the 2008 Ernst & Young “Entrepreneur of the Year” award. Unsurprisingly, Lamothe takes an executive’s approach to Haiti’s reforms. He has focused on replacing incompetent or corrupt staff members throughout the administration, such as embassy, consulate and ministry officials. “The biggest challenge is changing 208 years of mismanagement, with little resources, and the ability to convince people that you’re doing the right thing,” Lamothe said. “This government, we consider ourselves as professional managers, wanting to just take a problem and improve it. We’re not claiming that we’re going to do miracles, but we have a team that’s working day and night to make a difference.” He does mean that literally. Lamothe typically works 19 to 20 hour days, from 7 a.m. until 2 a.m. It’s not the first time he’s pulled that kind of shift. Lamothe never got much sleep during college, because of tennis. As an entrepreneur, he worked roughly the same schedule, particularly at the beginning. “What I’m trying to build also is a team of competent people around me in order to take some of the load off, and I believe I’m succeeding at that,” Lamothe said. “I have a good team around me. It’s a five-year term for the president. We have 1 ½ in there. So we have another 3 ½ years to go. I believe that for the country, 3 ½ years is not that big of a deal, considering the outcome that we’re seeking.” The outcome he’s seeking is more than ambitious. Lamothe wants Haiti to be an “emerging country” by 2030, which means getting ahead of the disasters rather than simply responding to them. Haiti is, in part, cursed by its very geography, lying on fault lines and in a well-worn tropical storm path. However, the flooding risks can be significantly reduced, officials hope, with a dredging project that should be complete before the next hurricane season. “In Haiti, we haven’t invested enough into the protection of rivers, into unclogging of the canals, into dredging of the Port-au-Prince Bay. It hasn’t been done for 35 years, so any little rain creates almost mass flooding,” Lamothe said. “Just yesterday, there was another flooding, as we were basically doing very well on the relief effort. There was flooding in the northern side of Haiti that killed 15 people.” The relief effort Lamothe referred to was for Hurricane Sandy. The storm didn’t even directly hit the island, but it was large and near enough to cause significant damage. 54 died, and Sandy, along with Hurricane Isaac, wiped out 72 percent of the country’s agriculture industry — $104 million worth of crops — in addition to destroying $200 million worth of infrastructure, Lamothe said.
All of this has happened as the country has struggled to get back on its feet from the catastrophic 2010 earthquake. However, Lamothe is leveraging his business acumen to find new, replacement revenue streams. The administration just implemented an anticorruption and anti-smuggling initiative, which brought in $27 million in its first month. “Haiti should be flying on its own wings and not having to depend on our friends for everything,” he said. “In order to do that, we have to increase our tax revenues. “Right now only 3 percent of the population pays taxes. We have a large percentage of goods coming into the country without paying customs, so we’re working on that. We’ve increased the budget of the anti-corruption unit; we’ve increased the budget of the customs office.” In addition, the nation may be sitting, literally, on a gold mine. Recent independent estimates have shown up to $20 billion in gold, as well as copper and silver, could be extracted from the island, and officials have been negotiating with several mining companies over extraction rights. Lucrative precious metals reserves are often found on fault lines, and Haiti’s production potential wasn’t entirely unknown to international mining companies. United Nations geologists found significant gold and silver deposits in the 1970s, but decades of corruption and political instability made extracting it too high-risk. Testing is under way, but largescale production likely wouldn’t begin for a few years. Lamothe said the administration also hopes to raise $100 million through the issuance of bonds, and is pushing a 2 percent tax increase for its social assistance fund. “We’re not only counting on one group of stakeholders,” Lamothe said.
The Right Stuff
The irony doesn’t escape Lamothe that his future success was put into play by one of the most memorable losses of his career. But Samuel doesn’t see it that way. Tryouts, the 23-year veteran says, are far more complicated than regular matches. “You’ve got the coach standing right next to you, the assistant standing right next to you, wanting to see what your game is like. You’ve got all the members of the team looking over their shoulders to see, ‘Is this guy any good?’” Samuel said. “There’s quite a bit of nervousness, quite a bit of pressure. Most of the time nobody performs to the best of their ability when we do tryouts.” These days, there are a lot more people looking over his shoulders, and Lamothe says he is comfortable with that. He learned how to be scrutinized while at Barry, on that tennis court. But Lamothe is quick to add that he knows repairing 208 years of economic, environmental and psychological damage in Haiti will be the greatest challenge of his young career. Unlike business, where he simply needed to hit the right numbers, success here depends on his ability to engender confidence in an electorate repeatedly traumatized by its own leaders.
“It takes time, and it takes patience, and resilience, and perseverance,” he said. “And, also, it takes the belief that you want to do the right thing.”