by Brad Smith
On an island not far off the Florida coast, young children
are kept in conditions of outright slavery. This is happening
right now: slave children. Hundreds of thousands of them.
Desperate. Unloved. Cruelly mistreated. This island is Haiti.
Child slavery is a fact of everyday life in Haiti, the
poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Everyone
in Haiti knows about this scandalous reality. But like any
other skeleton in the closet, the secret is tucked away
from the consciousness—and social conscience—of Haitian
society as a whole.
We in the developed world sometimes hear alarming reports
about terrible child-labor practices in Bangladesh, in Pakistan,
in Benin, or elsewhere in Asia or Africa. This practice
of actual slavery—so close to home—has been kept
hidden from us.
A courageous autobiography by a Catholic Haitian educator
who lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, brings this reality to light.
That man, Jean-Robert Cadet, hopes and believes that—once
it is exposed to the world’s scrutiny—the whole system of
child slavery in Haiti will fall apart forever.
The child slaves of Haiti are called restavecs,
a French word which means “ones who stay with.” (Restavec
is the French spelling preferred by Cadet, though restavek
is the common Haitian Creole spelling.) The children “stay
with” rich and middle-class families, but not by choice.
Their “stay” is no visit. They cannot leave.
Extremely poor parents in rural Haiti often find themselves
forced to “give” one or several of their children into the
care of the wealthy or the middle class. They do so in the
belief (more a hope) that their child will be educated by
the family he or she stays with, and that somehow the child
will lead a better life away from the grinding poverty that
affects 90 percent of Haitian society. According to Cadet,
these parents’ hopes and longings for their children are
very seldom realized.
Cadet (pronounced Cah-day) should know. He grew up as a
restavec. And he has written a pain-filled, yet in
some strange way hopeful book about his own horrible experiences
as a child slave. The book is titled Restavec: From Haitian
Slave to Middle-Class American.
I read Cadet’s book during the 10 weeks my wife and I spent
in Haiti early in 1999. I remember sitting on a balcony
in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, and crying uncontrollably
as I read it. The old expression, “Read it and weep,” could
not have been clearer to me.
I was aware that, all around me, children like little “Bobby”
Cadet are living in the most horrifying conditions. And
they are helpless because they are “just kids” and because
they are, in every terrible sense of the word, slaves: the
legal property of masters who look on them as subhuman.
Cadet describes sleeping, as a child, on a pile of rags
under the kitchen table, “like a house cat.” He would wet
his makeshift bed every night. Bedwetting is very common
with restavec children, according to Cadet, because
their lives are filled with so much trauma. For wetting
his ragpile, he was constantly ridiculed and sometimes beaten.
“Restavec [children] are treated worse than slaves,”
Cadet says in his book, “because they don’t cost anything
and their supply seems inexhaustible.” Certainly the fact
that they are young children makes them vulnerable and easy
to manipulate. If they were to run away (as many of them
do once they reach early adolescence), where would they
go in a country so desperately poor, with so few social
safety nets in place? Most of them, having been transported
to the capital city, have no idea where their real families
“For any minor infraction,” Cadet writes, “they are severely
whipped with the cowhide whip that is exclusively made for
that purpose....Girls are usually worse off because they
are sometimes used as concubines for the teenage sons of
their owners. And if they become pregnant, they are thrown
into the streets like garbage.”
During a trip to Haiti following the publication of his
book, Cadet told me in a telephone interview that he met
one of these girls, who had been brought by the police to
the Maurice Sixto Center, an orphanage for escaped or abandoned
restavecs in Port-au-Prince. “Have you seen those
movies where a slave is beaten till his back is covered
in bloody stripes?” Cadet asked me. “That’s the way her
back was. She let me see it.” According to Father Miguel,
director of the Center, this little girl was one of the
worst cases of physical punishment he has seen.
Cadet says that wealthier Haitian families keep slave children
to do jobs that their paid domestic servants refuse to do.
For instance, he would get up at five in the morning to
collect and clean all the family’s chamber pots.
Cadet describes how his owner, Florence, the only “mother”
he ever knew, would make him sit and scratch her feet for
hours. If he nodded or rested, she would kick him violently.
He was simply something to be used.
Originally settled by the Spanish and later taken over
by the French, the country of Haiti shares a Caribbean island
(Hispaniola) with a Spanish-speaking country, the Dominican
Republic. In 1802, the African slaves of Haiti overthrew
their French masters and set up an independent republic
consisting entirely of former slaves.
Today Haiti’s population is primarily black. About 85 percent
of the people are Catholic, although most Haitians also
practice an animistic (“spirit-based”) religion called Voodoo.
Voodoo came to Haiti from Africa on the slave ships.
Cadet was raised Catholic by his owner, Florence. He was
taught the Ten Commandments, including the first, so he
had great difficulty understanding how Florence could go
to church on Sunday and then come home to a little altar
in her bedroom and worship the Voodoo loas (spirit
One of the most poignant stories from Cadet’s childhood
occurred when he was nine years old and was preparing to
receive his First Holy Communion. Or so he believed.
Because Jean-Robert’s birthfather, a Caucasian, was rich,
Florence was given enough money to send him to school, the
Ecole du Canada. He and his fellow classmates studied their
catechisms every day in anticipation of their First Communion.
His classmates would talk about the white shirts, red ties
and black shoes their parents had bought them for the upcoming
One of the marks of restavec children is the rags
they always wear. These are their only clothes, identifying
them as the lowest class in Haiti’s class-based culture.
Their ragged clothes would often inspire the taunts of other
schoolchildren, who wear bright, clean uniforms to school
every day, even if they are poor.
The young Cadet was convinced that Florence, knowing the
importance of First Communion, had bought him the proper
clothes to wear. For many days, he searched the house, convinced
that his maman (which is what he called her) had
hidden his white suit as a surprise, a surprise he couldn’t
The Saturday before his First Communion, Florence bought
live chickens from a street vendor. Cadet was so happy,
believing the chickens were for a big dinner celebration
following his First Communion.
Then Florence went off shopping. The boy was excited, convinced
that Florence was finally going to buy his First Communion
outfit. When Florence returned, she carried a package, but
said nothing to little Bobby, as she called him. Although
he was never permitted to speak unless spoken to, the child
finally blurted out expectantly, “Confession is at six o’clock,
and Communion is tomorrow at nine o’clock in the morning.”
Florence became very angry. She called him names too awful
to print here. “If you think I’m gonna spend my money on
your First Communion, you’re insane,” she shouted. Then
she told the cook not to prepare the chickens for Sunday.
She told her that she would be attending her own nephew’s
First Communion the following day. There would be no celebration
Without proper clothes, the young Cadet could not make
his First Communion. It would be many years later, when
he was in the U.S. Army, that Cadet—wearing his dress green
uniform and shiny black boots—finally received the sacrament
of Christian unity. Not a single relative or friend was
present in the chapel on the base. Jean-Robert Cadet found
himself alone for his First Communion.
His Son Would Know
During several interviews at his home, Cadet told me why
he wrote the book about his desperate life as a child slave.
He began the work for the sake of his American-born son,
who is 10 years old. “My motivation was Adam. I had no parents
to show him. And I wanted him to know who I was.” Cadet
said that, as he penned the manuscript, he would weep violently
over and over. “The whole thing got wet,” he said.
When Adam made his own First Communion, Cadet was plunged
back into the memory of the devastating disappointments
of his childhood. “That’s what I dreamt my First Communion
would have been,” he said, “just like Adam’s.”
When Cadet was 14 years old, his maman moved with
her biological son to the United States. Several months
later, Cadet found himself once again in Florence’s household,
now in upstate New York. Fortunately, the “slave-to-owner”
relationship was weakened by U.S. law requiring minor children
to be in school. At school, Cadet found a teacher willing
to assist him. When he was thrown out by his maman,
this teacher helped him find housing and money so he could
finish high school, which he did.
In Time magazine this past March, a two-page report
indicated that some immigrants in Miami’s Little Haiti keep
restavecs. Phillip Brutus, Florida’s first Haitian-American
state legislator, told Time, “We are not going to
let Haitian traditions like restavek [Time’s
spelling] flourish here....”
While Cadet benefited from an American education, he found
racism to be another pervasive form of oppression.
Slavery to Racism
The second half of Cadet’s book deals with his life as
a young black man who spoke no English and found himself
totally alone in a country where racism is so dominant a
reality. He was in a whole new ballgame now—with at least
three strikes against him. Sad to say, the “American” part
of the book is almost as sad and disturbing as the part
that happened in Haiti.
Cadet now lives in a suburban neighborhood with his wife,
Cindy, a high school teacher, and their two children, Adam
and Katrina. Cadet taught at the same middle-class school
where his wife works. But in September 1999, an ongoing
series of racial taunts and threats motivated Cadet to resign
his teaching job. At the present time, he has received a
scholarship for doctoral studies at the University of Cincinnati.
Cindy told me that, when they first met, Cadet’s feelings
about Haiti were so negative that he would not even tell
her he was a Haitian. Instead, he told her he was from another
Caribbean island, Martinique. Gradually, he opened up his
Haitian background to her.
“When I learned about all the abuse he had been through,”
Cindy said, “I told him, ‘You should be a basket case or
Instead, she says, her husband is a workaholic. He worked
his way through high school, through the military, through
college and through graduate school. “He gets obsessive
over things,” she says, “but that’s what keeps him going.
When he painted our house, he would work from seven a.m.
Nowadays, a lot of Cadet’s energy is going into the promotion
of Restavec, with its searing indictment of Haitian
society. He is not doing it for the modest book royalties.
Instead, he is a man with a passion. He wants to dismantle
the system of child slavery in Haiti. He believes that his
book, and all the attention it has been getting, could help
bring about a change in the long-standing Haitian practice
of keeping children as slaves.
Recently, Cadet’s mission has been receiving a good deal
of high-level support. After he spoke about the restavec
situation at the U.N. in November 1999, the national media
began paying attention to this man’s quiet, passionate call
for change. He was interviewed in February 2000 on National
Public Radio; then an Associated Press article about him
appeared in The New York Times and other major newspapers.
In early May 2000, CNN flew him back to Haiti where they
spent almost two weeks filming his story from the place
where it had happened, the place where it is still happening.
Haiti may never be the same.
“I’m trying to...,” he hesitates, with passion in his
voice, “to eliminate this system. I can’t do this without
having God on my side.” A friend of his from India suggested
that God had given him a mission, which was to suffer the
horrible childhood he lived through in Haiti. “It was all
so hopeless,” Cadet continues, “but now so many groups and
people are responding to what I am trying to do. I know
God has a hand in that.”
Cadet believes that, if the restavec system is held
up to the scrutiny of the outside world, then the Haitian
elite and middle-class people will be shamed into abolishing
it. “It will become a national taboo,” he says.
During our time in Haiti, my wife and I came in contact
with only one former restavec, Lisa. She was about
20 years old, and working as a paid house servant for our
Creole-language teacher, Este.
A wonderful woman, Este was doing her best to help the
former restavec shape a new life for herself. But
Este lamented to us that Lisa did not seem to have any real
sense of herself as a human being. She had no viable self-image.
She seemed to have little human dignity.
“She won’t even look at me,” Este complained. “She always
keeps her head bowed. When I call her, she brings me something
that I don’t need, anything! She keeps trying to anticipate
what my needs are before I even express them.” It was obvious
that Lisa was unable to understand the difference between
a compassionate employer and a “master.” Like a bird who
breaks its shell and sees something other than its mother,
Lisa’s self-image was imprinted by her owners.
Jean-Robert Cadet understands Lisa’s condition all too
well. He says that the day-to-day existence of the restavec
child depends on his or her anticipating and attempting
to meet the most mundane and sometimes unpleasant needs
of the household members where he or she lives.
In one chapter, Cadet’s book describes how it was his job,
as a young child, to clean the menstrual rags that his maman
would use each month. The rags would frighten him, because
he didn’t understand where all this blood had come from.
Still he had to clean and bleach the rags.
He lived his young life in abject fear of displeasing Florence,
her various lovers or her biological son, who would sometimes
beat him mercilessly. He could be beaten by anyone who came
into the house. He was, after all, only a restavec.
Cadet has been publicizing his book among the large Haitian
communities in New York and Miami. He says that most Haitian-Americans
have enthusiastically endorsed the book and sympathize with
his efforts to change this long-accepted Haitian institution.
In May, the University of Kansas published Cadet’s book
in Haitian Creole. Hopefully, this will enable the book
to make inroads in Haiti itself, even among school students,
whose second language is French, not English. A Spanish
translation will soon be published in Costa Rica. French
and German editions are also in the works.
In June of last year, Cadet was invited by the United Nations
to serve on its working group on contemporary forms of slavery.
Last October, he testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign
Relations Committee on behalf of Haiti’s slave children.
Cadet recently established the Restavec Children’s Fund
to help take care of the thousands of restavec children
who wind up on the streets of Port-au-Prince. He laments
that many Haitians still behave like Florence, treating
their restavec children in the same inhuman way that
he was treated.
“Florence is a product of Haiti,” he told me. “I was born
into Haitian society, but I was forced to see it as an observer.
I was never a participant. I was just there to serve. I
was there to be borrowed [by Florence’s friends]. I was
there to be abused.”
The pain of his childhood is embedded in the soul of Jean-Robert
Cadet, and it is still visible in his eyes. But for him
the greatest pain is that so many children in Haiti remain
victims of this inhuman system, with no privileges, no rights
and, worst of all, no love to hold them and to heal them.
All of Haiti needs help, but restavecs need rescue.
The Restavec Foundation was begun by Jean-Robert Cadet
to accomplish three goals. First, Cadet hopes to find homes
and schools for freed restavecs and streetchildren.
Second, he intends to work toward convincing Haitians that
the restavec system must end. Lastly, he intends
to assist rural families with food and education for their
children, so that they do not need to “give away” their
children. Visit www.restavec.org
for more information or write P.O. Box 43156, Cincinnati,
Jim Luken and his wife, Jeanette, spent 10 weeks in Haiti
in the winter of 1999. They live in Sheffield, Vermont,
where he is a manager of a low-income senior living community.
Luken is currently narrating his long history as an antiwar
activist in a full-length memoir.