Diplomacy in Haiti has never been easy. There are coups to contend with, famines to battle, regular hurricanes and candidates to vet for political asylum. But Kenneth Merten, who grew up in Hudson, has found in his first year as U.S. ambassador to Haiti that the job can also involve evacuating more than 15,000 American citizens, feeding thousands of Haitians and helping to rebuild a nation crumbled by a massive earthquake.
On the afternoon of Jan. 12, the day the quake struck, Merten and U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ken Keen had just returned to the ambassador’s house in Port-au-Prince after touring two neighborhoods the embassy was working to clean up. The men sat on Merten’s veranda sipping sodas. Then there was a boom, and the ground began to shake.
“It was like standing on a trampoline that someone else is jumping on,” Merten says. “You couldn’t keep your balance.”
His wife, Susan, daughters, Caryl and Elisabeth, and puppy were inside. Merten, 48, spent the 35 seconds of rumbling imagining the concrete circa-1939 house collapsing on them. The house stood, though, and his family emerged unharmed.
The same could not be said for much of Port-au-Prince.
“It really was hard to get a good grasp of what was going on, but you could tell it was awful because there were just clouds and clouds and clouds of dust coming from the valleys below,” Merten says. “You could hear people screaming and shouting and wailing.”
Born in St. Louis, Merten moved to Hudson with his family when he was in sixth grade. He graduated from Walsh Jesuit High School and earned a degree in diplomacy and foreign affairs from Miami University.
“I was hoping to do something with an international bent from pretty early on since my father was from Austria and we always had visitors coming in and out of the house,” he says.
Following post-graduate programs at American University and institutions in Austria and France, Merten joined the foreign service in 1987. He was promptly placed in Port-au-Prince. In the ensuing 20 years he served stints in Paris, Bonn and Brussels. At one point he had the choice between a plum posting in London or a return to hardscrabble Haiti. “I thought I would actually have something to contribute here having been here once before,” Merten says. “In London, I would have been a tiny cog in a very large machine.”
In August, following a stretch in Washington, D.C., Merten was appointed ambassador. At his senate confirmation hearing, he spoke of a troubled country on the mend.
Violent political instability remained possible. Starvation was just a tropical storm or a shock in food prices away. Drug trafficking could foster corruption and chaos.
Still, the Haiti to which Merten returned was markedly better off than it was a few years prior. There was a fledgling yet fairly elected government. Investors were trickling back, and Haiti’s economy had grown modestly even as many countries saw dips in gross national product. The earthquake was an obvious and tragic setback, but Merten sees the rebuilding process as an opportunity for Haiti.
“It’s hard to see that now when we’re in the stage where people are still looking at collapsed buildings, ... but there is going to be a lot of money coming down here,” he says. “I think this is a good opportunity for Haitians to take stock of things they have long wanted to change in their country. Now is the time.”