Inside Little Haiti

From an island in the sea to an island in the heart of Miami

In my perambulations throughout Little Haiti, I spoke with many refugees tragically familiar with the birth of the modern era in their never-ending past, and Wenski introduced me to another, Roger Biamby, the director of the Haitian Catholic Center. Biamby came of age in the capital of Port-au-Prince at a time when Franaois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's (self-appointed president-for-life) corruption of Haitian society had achieved such an apex of barbarity that one of his proteges could present himself before the Haitian legislature and defiantly declare, "A good Duvalierist stands ready to kill his children, or children to kill their parents." The year was 1961, Biamby was fourteen, and soon found himself living in a foreign embassy while his father, a colonel in the army, was being sentenced to death by a military tribunal for his central role in a scheme to assassinate Duvalier. Pardoned at the last moment, the colonel, his wife, and eight children were allowed safe conduct out of the country, settling in Brooklyn a year later. "Imagine," Biamby said to me, "coming to the United States with only $100 for ten people."

"Under Duvalier," Wenski had reminded me, "the emerging middle class had to go," but not before notice had already been served on the more influential upper class. Many of them, like Miami social worker Nancy Desire's family, went to Africa on UN-sponsored contracts, where their professional skills were much in demand during the groping, turbulent transition from colonialism to independence. Desire's father was a doctor, her mother a nurse, both harried in their positions by inexperienced and increasingly jealous political appointees swarming into Duvalier's government. Nancy was born in Port-au-Prince in 1962, spent her childhood in the Congo, then Canada, and her high school and college years in New York City, among 300,000 other Haitians who sought sanctuary there in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Now people like Desire are American-educated, first- and even second-generation Haitian-American citizens, responsible for a growing secondary migration of Haitians out of northern cities to Miami.

Less affluent refugees were dependent upon a different, though often no less circuitous, route to Florida, and it was of course by sea. As a matter of record, the first boatload of Haitians landed in Miami in 1963. But in terms of the civil rights movement in the South, and a federal government anxious to believe the myth that Duvalier was an indispensable ally in the Caribbean Basin's suddenly hot Cold War, the attempt was premature; the passengers were denied asylum and turned back into the waves.

Throughout the next ten years, Haitians trickled into South Florida by plane, and by boat in the mid-Seventies. Upon the death of his father in 1971, Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited Haiti's bloody reins of power, enforced by the Tonton Macoutes, the ruthless paramilitary troops created by Duvalier to intimidate his civilian opposition and counteract his adversaries in the traditional armed services. Not for the first time, thousands disappeared into the dictatorship's prisons, and the city dump stank with mutilated corpses. In 1977, during still another crackdown on dissidents, student groups, journalists, and anybody unlucky enough to get in the way of the psychopathic Macoutes, the boats began to arrive in Florida regularly. By 1981 50,000 to 70,000 refugees had come ashore, 25,000 of them in 1980 alone, on the coattails of the Mariel boatlift. The exodus ended in 1981, when the Reagan administration ordered a Coast Guard cutter into Haitian waters to turn back the boat people, and began a policy of incarceration and deportation for Haitians "fortunate" enough to actually reach their destination.

On February 7, 1986, the Duvalier dynasty crashed and burned, although Duvalierists maintained a death grip on power until 1990, when, in an election monitored by the international community, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the young priest espousing liberation theology, defeated a field of ten candidates by receiving 70 percent of the vote to become Haiti's first democratically elected president. In September 1991, Aristide was overthrown by the military, who began a systematic and thorough nationwide purge of Aristide's supporters. Having even a peripheral association with Lavalas A Aristide's grassroots political organization A was tantamount to a death sentence. Throughout the coming months, about 40,000 refugees took to the seas in hundreds of primitive boats. Among them were Erithe Montville and her family.

I recently spent an afternoon in Florida City with Erithe and her neighbors. She was from Pestel, an isolated fishing hamlet on Haiti's mountainous southern coast. She had lived there all her life, as had her husband, a fisherman and farmer. In the 1990 election, Erithe's husband spent the day as a Lavalas volunteer inside the Pestel polling station, and after the military coup, the Montvilles' lives underwent dramatic and irreversible change. The Tonton Macoutes, who had receded into the woodwork during Aristide's eight-month tenure, were back. Pro-Aristide villagers were beaten and shot; others vanished into custody. Houses were destroyed. Erithe's family was threatened, her husband assaulted. Aristide's power had flowed directly from his impassioned support among Haiti's poor and Haiti's youth throughout the urban slums and countryside. Now it was these people who were most at risk, and Erithe knew it was only a matter of days or weeks before something terrible happened. She decided it was no longer possible to live in her own country, and in January 1992, on a boat captained by her husband and packed with 102 other villagers, she set sail on a voyage across the water. With her were her two daughters, ages one and three. Erithe was only 24, and illiterate.

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