Perilous Journey

For more than two decades Miami's Haitian Refugee Center was a beacon of hope and a force for justice. Today its director, Guy Victor, is struggling just to keep it afloat.

By that point Little had left the Haitian Refugee Center to coordinate legal assistance to Haitians for Florida Rural Legal Services. In August 1992, Steven Forester returned to his former post of supervising attorney. Looking back, the lawyers describe the struggle to ban repatriations as a victory, despite their ultimate defeat at the Supreme Court. Although they failed to outlaw the policy, the center's lawsuit resulted in more than 10,000 Haitian refugees being allowed to journey to Florida from Guantanamo to pursue their asylum claims (at least 26,000 refugees were sent back to Haiti). The Guantanamo refugees were divvied up among various nonprofit legal-assistance organizations, who volunteered to carry their claims to court.

While Forester was working on other projects away from the Haitian Refugee Center in the late Eighties, the center's charismatic founding executive director, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, resigned. A search committee made up of board members selected Rolande Dorancy to replace him. The 27-year-old Haitian woman, chosen from an undisclosed pool of applicants, had little administrative experience, and her appointment in October 1990 raised concerns about the secretive methods of the search committee. Forester, in particular, was disturbed, and he argued vehemently (to no avail) with other members of the board that the selection process should be reopened.

Dorancy soon clashed with members of her legal staff, prompting the resignations of Cheryl Little and staff attorney Esther Cruz in 1992. Sources say the conflicts ranged from trivial gripes such as misplaced telephone messages to more troubling charges that Dorancy directed the lawyers to ignore the asylum cases of those refugees who did not support Aristide. Little's high-visibility role as the center's spokeswoman also rankled Dorancy, who was troubled by the image of a white woman speaking for the Haitian community.

By the spring of 1993 the legal staff, which had totaled thirteen at its peak, began to shrink as employees left and were not replaced. The sole Creole interpreter began doubling as a receptionist. In the first of a series of detailed memos, Forester, now back as supervising attorney, warned of inadequate financial and legal resources, and volunteered to spend three months as a fundraiser. He also offered to arrange for one of the center's former fundraisers to return on a volunteer basis.

Neither suggestion was adopted, but for a brief period of time financial concerns were subsumed by external developments. After months of national lobbying, refugee advocates were rewarded in October 1993 by the announcement of a moratorium on Haitian deportations that remained in effect until the summer of 1995. In the meantime, however, discontent with Dorancy's administrative skills mounted.

In May 1994, Dorancy announced she would resign in order to pursue an opportunity to work with Haitian refugees in the Bahamas, and a search committee once again began casting about for a new executive director. They quickly settled on Guy Victor, a 52-year-old Haitian activist who had headed the New York chapter of the "Tenth Department," a Haitian exile group formed in 1991 to support Aristide. (The name of the group derives from the nine departments, or provinces, that constitute Haiti.) Victor was strongly recommended for the Miami job by Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a long-time associate of Victor.

The executive director's appointment caused a stir in local Haitian refugee circles. During Victor's three-year tenure at the Tenth Department, unsubstantiated allegations had swirled though the community, surfacing occasionally in the Haitian media, and raising questions about financial accountability.

Those old allegations still irritate Victor, who points out that he has spent his life working with grassroots organizations to benefit the Haitian community, and that until he was offered his present post, which pays $40,000 per year, he was never paid for his efforts. He blames past criticism of the Tenth Department on forces who sought to discredit Haiti's pro-democracy movement.

Victor's political activity started early, when he was a teenager in Port-au-Prince opposed to the increasing brutality of Franaois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's government. When he was twenty, he fled to exile in Spain. Two years later, in 1965, he moved to the United States and quickly became involved in the civil rights movement, participating in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as well as protesting the war in Vietnam. From 1972 to 1986 he was director of Haitian Americans for Economic, Racial, and Social Justice. He later served as executive director of the Haitian Relief Fund USA, Inc., and chairman of Haitian Enforcement Against Racism.

Though soft-spoken, Victor is quick to anger and is capable of radiating intense hostility, especially when questioned about the condition of the Haitian Refugee Center. As far as the center's finances go, he stresses that he inherited a disaster, though he balks at providing the organization's tax forms, which by law are supposed to be available for public inspection.

"A few weeks after I took this job, I couldn't make my payroll," he recalls. "There was already a deficit of $100,000. We had to ask the Ford Foundation for an advance." (The Ford Foundation gave the center $125,000 in 1994. Other large funders were the Florida Bar, $109,684, and Metro-Dade County, $82,977.) Victor points to unnecessarily expensive leases on office equipment and exorbitant phone bills of more than $6000 per month as evidence that mismanagement predated his arrival.

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