Our Voices

Kerry Kennedy is a great supporter of my work, says Haitian health rights champion Loune Viaud

In 2002, when Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights named Loune Viaud its Human Rights Award recipient, she was at the forefront of a rights-based campaign in the fight against HIV/AIDS in Haiti. For a period of five years after receiving the award, Viaud said Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights provided her with the technical support she needed to advance her work at Zanmi Lasante—the country’s largest healthcare provider outside of the government. “Monthly, I will go to Washington D.C. to meet with the staff and to meet with Kerry Kennedy. They will arrange meetings for me with the Congress members, with the World Bank and anything I would need to continue my work,” she said in an interview over Zoom.

Four years earlier, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) had approved $145.9 million in loans to Haiti to improve water, sanitation and education. But in 2001, the payments of the loans were derailed by U.S. officials, resulting in a long-drawn advocacy campaign and the launch of an 87-page report highlighting the human rights impact of the botched loan disbursement. In the report, documents obtained by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Treasury Department, exposed the government’s complicity in blocking the release of the IDB loan. Viaud, whose organization Zanmi Lasante co-authored the report, said the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights’ team assisted her with briefs and preparations for meetings in the course of the fight to secure the release of the funds to Haiti. She acknowledged the organization’s president, Kerry Kennedy, as a “great supporter” of her work, as “someone I can call on for anything I need.”

Viaud, 56, was born in the coastal town of Port-Salut, 108 miles west of Port-au-Prince, the country’s capital. Although her passion for humanitarian causes predates her high school years, her meeting with renowned health activist Paul Farmer in 1988 intensified her interest in social justice. Ever since, her life has been devoted to helping the poor and vulnerable get access to healthcare in a country where more than a third of the population lacks access to clean water and two-thirds have limited or no access to basic sanitation.

Amid the scourge of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Haiti, Viaud has helped to attract funding to fight the disease. “We fought until we received a $67 million grant from the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. At the time, in the early 2000s, it was the largest HIV/AIDS program in the world,” she said. Despite her many successes, insecurity constitutes the greatest threat to her work in Haiti today. “We don’t have a safe environment to do our work,” she said. “If I had the power to change something, I would start by stopping the violence and changing the security situation.”

Faced with escalating gang violence, amid an economic crisis associated with the pandemic, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021, and the earthquake that followed in August have worsened the country’s challenges of political instability. Under these circumstances, civic actors like Viaud are forced to operate in the absence of a functional civic space. But without a working civic space, Haiti, Viaud said, “will continue to lack all the necessary freedoms to progress.”

This article is part of #RFKStories—an ongoing series of reports from interviews with past Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award laureates.