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.

Victor says Ford came through, not only with financial assistance but with technical help as well. Organizational development specialists from Washington, D.C.'s Center for Community Change received funding from the Ford Foundation to travel to Miami to provide the center and the board of directors with an analysis of what had gone wrong and how to fix it. A review of the center's financial condition, prepared by specialist Tim Siegel in June 1995, chronicled a steady disintegration.

By January 1995, the center's operating deficit had grown to $132,000. In February the center stopped paying IRS payroll taxes. In March the employees' medical insurance was allowed to lapse. On April 13, 1995, staff members received their last regular paychecks. Although some employees continued to volunteer sporadically, the full-time legal staff shrank to two people: Steven Forester, who had agreed to let the center owe him unpaid wages, and a paralegal.

"I have no reason to think that any unethical or criminal activity has occurred," Siegel wrote in his review. "The problem is more that the financial management system the current board and staff inherited lacks some essential products, practices, and capacity." He went on to scold: "The omissions and errors in the financial documents I have seen to date are too numerous to detail here . . . . The 1996 budget shows total income of $600,000 as 'expected' when in fact approximately only $71,000 seems highly likely and another $75,000 to $125,000 seems probable, leaving at least $404,000 to question."

Siegel also noted that the financial crisis was likely to jeopardize the center's legal work: "Pending cases for asylum or other immigration status are at risk of being inadequately served due to reduced staff capacity and curtailed office systems. The current HRC caseload is very heavy and sped-up due to the recent addition of more judges to the court system. It is possible that the clients' legal welfare is at risk."

Despite the crisis, Victor delayed notifying his board of directors, reluctantly releasing only bits and pieces of information. "The board just increasingly did not know what was going on," recalls Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the NAACP and a former board member at the center. Obi Nweze (formerly known as Johnnie McMillian) says the board finally demanded to be informed of the status of unpaid employees. She resigned from her post as first vice president on July 4, 1995, the day after Victor discussed the contents of Siegel's report.

Although Obi Nweze insists that she resigned in order to devote more time to the NAACP, she admits that Victor's failure to reveal the extent of the organization's money problems inserted a wedge of suspicion into the board members' relationships with him. "Initially there was no reason to be distrustful," she says, "not until the question of money came up."

Board members wonder how the problem could have been allowed to fester for so long. "I don't think Guy Victor is incompetent," says Steve Malagodi, a producer at WLRN-FM and a board member who has supported the center's work for more than a decade. "He's obviously a very intelligent man." Malagodi adds that the possibility of corruption seems unlikely: "Frankly, I don't know what funds there are to misuse. It's not like they have a million-dollar budget and that there's a slush fund they can dip into."

Instead Malagodi reasons that the center's problems are a reflection of the radical changes taking place in Haitian society following the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "If you have an organization that's built from a grassroots perspective in opposition to a vicious dictatorial regime, and your guys take power, then obviously there's got to be a change," he observes. Since last fall the politics of the Haitian community and, by extension, the Haitian Refugee Center, have become increasingly murky.

"The Haitian community is not united around anything at this point," Malagodi notes. "Before, the situation was clear -- there was a military coup and a president in exile." Now, although the need for the center is as urgent as ever -- hundreds of clients have asylum cases pending -- the community's priorities are shifting. Malagodi says he is unable to explain how the center was allowed to fall into such disarray. "It's very difficult for a non-Haitian to be privy to what's going on," he concedes. "It's a mystery to me, and I put it down to labyrinthine politics." Malagodi says he no longer feels he can help the center, and though he has not formerly resigned, he has stopped attending board meetings, effectively ending his participation.

Prominent members of the Haitian community have also begun to distance themselves. Claude Charles, director of Haitian services at the New Horizons Community Mental Health Center and an assistant professor at the University of Miami's School of Medicine, describes the center as having "a very twilight type of environment." He explains: "Myself, I'm living in America. I'm a professional living according to American standards, and that's the way I contributed to the creation of the Haitian Refugee Center. When I was there it was a serious matter. We had to fight to get Haitians asylum, to get them work permits. We were accountable. We had quantifiable goals and objectives."

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