MIAMI — Kanye West, the eccentric rapper and producer who jetted off to Haiti in the middle of a global pandemic last month, is claiming that the president of Haiti gave him an island to develop. Unfortunately for West, Haiti doesn't own the development rights — a lawyer in Texas does.
"That's just outrageous," said Grey Pierson, whose father negotiated a 99-year lease with the Haitian government of Île de la Tortue, the former pirate's lair that West visited on Sept. 25. "The president is just giving away stuff?"
So how did a guy in Texas come to own the development rights to an island off the northern coast of Haiti?
That is a long and complicated tale. It involves egocentric Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, a World War II minesweeper with a large antenna and a clever entrepreneur, Don Pierson, who wanted to stick it to the British for not playing the Beatles on the radio. Pierson uses the ship as a station for offshore broadcasts of pop and rock 'n roll music to British listeners. This story was too good to not make into a movie, hence the 2009 comedy "Pirate Radio."
When the British government in 1967 finally outlawed advertising on offshore commercial radio stations, Pierson's pirate radio station aboard the ship was dead. But Duvalier's idea was borne. He wanted to buy the ship to go around the world beaming, "We love Papa Doc."
The dictator, and Haiti, however, were broke and the ship was never purchased. But Pierson and the Haitian government, seeing an opportunity, spent four years negotiating a 99-year agreement to transform a secluded Île de la Tortue and its white sandy beaches into an economic hub with hotels, an international airport and jobs. The commercial investments would be administered by a freeport authority with investors and the Haitian government owning equal shares.
The contract was officially recorded in the government newspaper, Le Moniteur, on April 5, 1971. Less than a month later, Duvalier was dead of a heart attack — unleashing a four decades-long debate over the deal's legality, and a battle by the Piersons to get Haiti to live up to the contract.
"It's the same old, same old. I wish it weren't but it is," Grey Pierson said from his home in Arlington in response to West's announcement and the dismissal of his family's contract by yet another Haitian government. "You would think at some point, somebody would be in charge and have a molecule of sense. I have always been nice ... (but) they are their own worst enemies."
The Miami Herald first reported about Pierson's rights to the sparsely populated rugged island off the northwest coast of Haiti after another Haitian president — Michel Martelly — tried in 2014 to get Miami-based Carnival Corp. to develop the island's western edge for cruise ship passengers. By then, Don Pierson had died, and Grey had inherited the lease.
Now it seems that Martelly's hand-picked successor, Jovenel Moise, wants to give West the chance to do what Carnival has so far been unable to despite signing a letter of intent with the Martelly government to develop a $70 million cruise ship port on the barrier island.