By Trevor Bach
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This past January 22, shortly before 5:00 p.m., Dany Toussaint arrived at Miami International Airport aboard American Airlines flight 1292 from Port-au-Prince and was detained by officials from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Although he is a legal permanent resident of the United States, Toussaint had become accustomed to such delays on his trips back and forth from Haiti. During the previous twelve weeks Toussaint had been stopped at MIA three times by INS officials. On each occasion he was held for an hour or two, then allowed to leave without any explanation as to why he had been detained. He was never questioned and his immigration status was never challenged. This time, however, would be different.
His belt and shoes were confiscated and he was placed in a holding cell at the airport. Beginning at approximately 8:00 p.m., Toussaint was interrogated by an immigration inspector named James Carroll. Although some of the questions were related to Toussaint's immigration status, he says the majority dealt with political matters in Haiti and specifically with his ties to former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the country's current leader, Rene Preval.
According to Toussaint, the interview session lasted nearly seven hours, until roughly 3:00 a.m. One reason it dragged on so long was the peculiar way in which the questions were asked. According to Toussaint, the INS agent would ask a question, then type Toussaint's answer into a laptop computer. This was then followed by an awkward silence -- sometimes as long as ten minutes -- before the INS official would ask another question. Slowly it dawned on Toussaint that someone other than the agent in the room with him was actually conducting the interview -- by way of e-mail. But who?
The answer to that question can be found in Toussaint's background. He was born in Cap-Ha•tien on September 12, 1957. Before his first birthday, his father was killed by security forces working for François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. Several years later his stepfather was also killed by Duvalierists.
Paradoxical as it may seem, these murders induced Toussaint to join the Haitian army. "When you are in the military," he explains, "you know what is going on and you are in a better position to protect your family."
Toussaint excelled in the military. Not only did he become a black belt in tae kwon do, he also represented Haiti in international karate competitions. As a reward he was sent to the United States, where he learned English at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, then went on to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he received advanced military training. By the time Toussaint completed his eight-month stint in Georgia in 1985, the political situation in Haiti had deteriorated dramatically; killings had become commonplace.
Toussaint had already moved his family to the United States, so rather than return to Haiti, he received permanent-resident status under an agricultural program. (For a time he had been a farmworker in South Dade.) He then began shuttling between New York and Miami, working for various Haitian-American organizations. He also became a vocal critic of Haiti's self-proclaimed president-for-life, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
After Duvalier was forced from power in February 1986 and replaced by Haitian army leaders, Toussaint returned to the island, where he resumed his military career. He claims he was then trained by the CIA to conduct surveillance for the military junta. "I was the best clandestine photographer in Haiti," he says proudly.
Among those he was assigned to spy on was a populist priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But Toussaint claims Haitian officials wanted more than just photographs of Aristide; they wanted Aristide killed. Rather than carry out that order, Toussaint says, he went to Aristide and warned him of the plot. Toussaint once again fled to the United States, eventually settling in Miami, where he went to work at Coconut Grove's landmark E-Z Kwik Kuntry Grocery Store on SW 27th Avenue.
In December 1990 Aristide became the first democratically elected president of Haiti. One of his first calls went to Toussaint. He reached him at E-Z Kwik.
Aristide asked Toussaint to return to Haiti and become one of the commanders responsible for overseeing his corps of bodyguards. "I was working for E-Z Kwik. I had a good job, but I wanted to serve my country," Toussaint recalls. "I wanted to be part of the change. We wanted to show a different image of the army." Toussaint returned with the rank of captain.
But there was nothing easy or quick about changing the culture within the Haitian army. In September 1991 the military, led by Gen. Raoul Cedras, launched a bloody coup. At the time of the uprising Toussaint was with Aristide at the president's home in a suburb of Port-au-Prince, along with about 30 loyal bodyguards. For the next two hours, Toussaint recalls, they fought their way through roadblocks so Aristide could reach the presidential palace, where the fighting grew even more intense.
At the palace Toussaint's best friend, the head of Aristide's security force, died in the firefight. Eventually Aristide was permitted to leave the country and go into exile. Toussaint says military officials asked him to stay behind and swear his allegiance to Cedras, but he refused and tendered his resignation. He returned to Miami and his job at E-Z Kwik.