Inside Little Haiti

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

Last year, when the presidential candidates campaigned in South Florida, Despinosse listened to each one's platform and promises and told himself, "Clinton is the man." After that HADC did "everything people are supposed to do in a campaign, A to Z." The club initiated a registration drive, chauffeured Hillary Clinton around Little Haiti, delivered two truckloads of food to Homestead in the wake of the hurricane, and sent a massive mailing to 10,000 Haitian-American citizens whose names appeared on master voting lists. The actual voting population in the community, however, is estimated to be three times that size. Add those votes to the votes of black Americans in Liberty City and Overtown, and Despinosse began to see the shape of the Haitians' power base.

"Let's not play games," he said. "While we're here, can we build a voting bloc, join together with people of similar concerns, and with people from other countries in the Caribbean, and let Bob Graham know, 'Listen, this is the way we want things to happen,' or 'You might get re-elected, sir, but without our support.' Let's call Connie Mack. Let's call Carrie Meek. Let's call Alcee Hastings." Clinton, as you might expect, was at the top of the list. In January Despinosse was granting the president-elect a 90-day grace period to resolve the Haitian issue. Beyond that, he predicted, expect to see the boats.

Not quite 90 days later I spoke to Despinosse by phone in Washington, where he was aggressively lobbying for his cause, which by now had evolved to include apologia for his president and party leader, as much as anything else. Was he disappointed, I wondered, that the Clinton administration was there in the Supreme Court, arguing in defense of George Bush's interdiction and repatriation policy?

Not exactly.
"The Bush operatives left Clinton with no choice," said Despinosse. "Until he gets his own attorney general, he's buying time, rather than defending the Bush policy sending Haitians back to a death trap. We have to understand that after 30 years of Duvaliers, and twelve years of Republicans, it's going to take Clinton at least six months to get his government together. Until then I'll give him the benefit of the doubt." Despinosse had been up on the Hill all day, monitoring the Janet Reno confirmation hearings. "She was the most important missing piece for us. Now, thank God, he's got Janet Reno, and we'll see if he means business."

"Help us keep our people home in Haiti, where they want to be, believe me," Roseline Philippe told me back in January, as we sat around after the meeting had adjourned. The secretary of the Haitian American Democratic Club, she was employed by the YWCA to oversee day-care centers. An American citizen since the age of sixteen, she wanted to be sure I understood how she could love the Untied States, though her roots A and her heart A were back in Haiti. For a time during the Eighties, she had been able to marry those two sides of herself by teaching American government at a private school in Port-au-Prince. "I wanted my students to know true democracy, and how it operates. In America we learned what true democracy is and, given that knowledge, why wouldn't we want change in Haiti? This is what we learned in America. And now, for the first time, we know that we have political power." She paused to smile ruefully and added an afterthought. "Maybe they didn't expect it of us."

On another wall, there is a second, less subtle mural that, if paired with the mural in the Krome cafeteria, would compose a grim diptych of our national mood, a visual expression of two questions that gnaw incessantly at our self-image: Are we a well-intentioned people? Are we a racist society? Unfortunately the Haitian debate simplifies each issue, and riddles each answer with moral confusion.

On the storefront faaade of the Haitian Refugee Center in Little Haiti, an artist has painted the Statue of Liberty atop a pedestal of imprisoned blacks. In her free arm, Lady Liberty cradles a tablet bearing the inscription, NO HAITIANS. In the wave-tossed harbor below her feet, a ragged, bleeding man stumbles from his shipwrecked boat. He holds a sign asking, simply, WHY?

For Haitians, at the surface of their dilemma is the artificial distinction, manufactured by Washington, between economic and political refugees. No aspect of the argument against permitting Haitians to enter this country is more troublesome than the claim that few among them are actually political refugees. That the assertion has any legitimacy whatsoever is testimony to the resilience of our Cold War paradigms, in particular the notion that political refugees were people who fled from communism, while those leaving other countries were merely economic refugees seeking not safe haven but streets of gold. One might just as well ask, Is a trade embargo (against Haiti or Cuba or Iraq) an economic or a political act?

This neat bifurcation of refugees has served a number of purposes, mostly cynical. It allowed the United States, especially in its own hemisphere, to limit immigration A only Cubans and (in the Eighties) Nicaraguans need apply A and also, in effect, to ensure that immigrants would enter, to a substantial degree, well-off and educated, since it was those among the upper and middle classes who tended to leave in the wake of Marxist revolutions. Moreover, by denying political-refugee status to those fleeing other nations, the U.S. government was announcing that there was no kind of oppression of consequence except communist oppression A that the victims of the "dirty war" in Argentina, or the "anti-terror" campaign waged in the highlands of Guatemala, or the death squads in El Salvador, were different, were just poor, or possibly exaggerating, or maybe asking for it. That the violence in all these cases, including Haiti, was being carried out with U.S. aid or acquiescence, of course, had something to do with it.

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