Bernard Fils-Aimé, Haitian Activist and Cellphone Mogul, Dies at 67

An obituary by John Leland for The New York Times.

He ran Haiti’s first cellular network, which he saw as a way of raising the voices of ordinary citizens, in Haiti and the United States. He died of the novel coronavirus.

Bernard Fils-Aimé was a left-leaning activist and a corporate cellphone tycoon, and inhabiting those seemingly contradictory roles was a mark of his commitment to his home country, Haiti.

As an organizer of refugees in Miami, he fought for poor migrants fleeing poverty or political violence. And as a founder of Haiti’s first cellular network, he saw connectivity, which was previously out of reach for most Haitians, as an engine of democracy.

Mr. Fils-Aimé saw each role as a means of achieving the same goal: raising the voices of ordinary Haitians at home and abroad. “Bernard recognized that and was able to do it,” said Conor Bohan, the founder and executive director of the Haitian Education and Leadership Program, or HELP, a nonprofit that recruited Mr. Fils-Aimé to its board.

Mr. Fils-Aimé died at the University of Miami Hospital on Aug. 8. He was 67. The cause was the novel coronavirus, his son Karl said.

Bernard Pierre Fils-Aimé was born on May 24, 1953, in the Petionville section of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, the youngest of four children.

His father, Camile Fils-Aimé, died around the time of Bernard’s birth; his mother, Uranie Gabriel, ran a private school. She was a vocal opponent of President François Duvalier, known as Papa Doc, who rose to power in 1957 and began brutally punishing his opponents. Ms. Fils-Aimé was arrested and held briefly.

The family fled to New York in 1966, and Bernard went to public school and then spent two years at Columbia University. At Columbia he joined student protest movements — big Afro, radical ideas, his son Karl said.

At an organizing event for Haitian students, Mr. Fils-Aimé met Marise Piverger. They married in 1980 and left for Florida, leaving a handwritten note for her disapproving parents.

In addition to their son Karl, Mr. Fils-Aimé is survived by the couple’s two other children, Gerard and Erica, who uses the married name Brown, and two siblings, Robert and Carole Fils-Aimé.

Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood in the 1980s was filling with refugees. Mr. Fils-Aimé, who had previously organized migrant farm workers, helped create the Haitian Refugee Center to provide legal advice and social support, and to protest conditions at an immigration detention center. The center became a hub of Haitian opposition.

Mr. Fils-Aimé finished his bachelor’s degree and earned a master’s in education at Florida International University. He took a job as an administrator at Miami-Dade College, where he started a new student center in the early 1990s.

In 1995, a group of American investors wanted to launch a cellular network in Haiti and needed a local partner to satisfy regulators. They chose Mr. Fils-Aimé for his contacts. Though his initial role was to help acquire the license for what became Communication Cellulaire d’Haiti, or ComCEL, he rose to chief executive.

“He could sit there with the president, as unofficially part of the cabinet, but he could also take me to little restaurants you’d never go to yourself,” said Brad Horwitz, a founding partner. “He crossed all classes of society.”

The company changed its name to Voila, and Mr. Fils-Aimé used its profits to create the Voila Foundation at a time when corporate philanthropy was rare in Haiti, said Mr. Bohan, of HELP.

For all his corporate and philanthropic success, Mr. Fils-Aimé lost none of his activist fire. Writing in The Miami Herald last December, he denounced President Jovenel Moise of Haiti as a dangerous demagogue.

“Freedoms and the rule of law are in danger,” he wrote. “Let us wake up!”

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