Spokesmen from local banks say they're aware of the exemptions for students and permanent residents. Their computer "search procedure" for locating Haitian accounts, however, was based on the account holder's address. In view of the penalties -- up to one million dollars -- for disregarding the order, the banks weren't about to take any chances. Like the U.S. government, bank officials maintain that it's now up to students to provide evidence that they have been in the U.S. more than nine months and that they are studying full-time. Once provided with proof, bank staffers can contact the Treasury Department for permission to release an account.
"We've had a number of students come through and basically we handle it on a situation-by-situation basis," says Bob Stickler, a spokesman for Florida giant Barnett Bank, which has frozen more than 500 accounts.
Despite all the good intentions, the policy has resulted in the release of only about a dozen student accounts nationwide, according to figures provided by the Treasury Department. Russ Behrmann, for example, says he was told he'd have to sue the Treasury Department in order to get his money; fellow FIU student Jean Paul, by contrast, successfully persuaded officials at NationsBank to let him withdraw funds.
Behrmann notes that the blocked bank accounts merely add injury to insult. Months before the executive order was sent out, he says, the U.S. media had begun to stigmatize the small group of successful mulatto families that form the nation's business elite, labeling them "MREs" (the morally repugnant elite), which served to make the American public more receptive to the sweeping sanctions. The majority of Haitians studying in the U.S., the FIU senior asserts, support neither the military nor Aristide, but would like to see democracy restored.
"Why should students have to pay for the actions of the Haitian military?" protests Fayola Cantave, a sophomore at FIU. Cantave, who is circulating a petition that expresses support for Haitian students studying in the U.S., says she believed in earlier U.S. attempts to punish coup leaders but that the most recent sanctions go too far. "Now they're hurting everyone, including the students, who have nothing to do with what is going on.