The Catalyst

Marleine Bastien -- activist, social worker, songwriter, mother -- is helping to lead the resurgence of South Florida's Haitian political agenda

There's something about a photograph taken last year in Washington, D.C., that recalls images from the civil rights movement of the Fifties and Sixties. Against the backdrop of the Capitol dome, twenty or so people cluster behind a podium and a bank of microphones. Among them are U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek of Miami and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They surround a woman who is dressed in a conservative suit and an African headwrap. Her expression is anguished; she appears to be calling out an entreaty.

The woman is Marleine Bastien, a Haitian-born U.S. citizen who has lived in Miami since 1981. And she and most of the other people in the photo are indeed engaged in a civil rights struggle as all-consuming as that of 40 years ago; it's a fight, however, that remains invisible to most Americans because it is on behalf of the half-million Haitians in this country, a largely ignored immigrant group.

A Little Haiti barber, Luckner Belony, shot the photo on October 30, 1997, the second day of an intensive lobbying effort by a Haitian delegation from Miami and New York that numbered more than 100. Congress was then considering -- and ten days later would pass -- a bill granting green cards to 150,000 Nicaraguan and Cuban immigrants who would otherwise have been subject to deportation. But the legislation didn't cover about 100,000 Haitians who were also subject to deportation, despite years as U.S. taxpayers. Meek had drafted an amendment giving Haitian immigrants the same rights as the other groups, and the Haitian delegation was trying to get the amendment added to the bill.

That attempt failed, but Meek and two other representatives from Florida then submitted the item as a separate bill. Florida's two senators later introduced compromise legislation.

Then followed a year of trips to Washington and volunteers working thousands of hours making phone calls, writing letters, sending e-mails, making speeches, and organizing rallies around the country. It was a year in which Miami's Haitian community united behind a cause as it never had before and assumed an unprecedented leadership role in national Haitian-American politics. Just two weeks ago, all their work resulted in a law that grants green cards to 40,000 Haitians.

The group of lawmakers and Haitian activists in Belony's photograph had just emerged from the Capitol for a press conference on the steps. When a reporter asked the reason for the gathering, Meek turned to Bastien. "Why don't you tell them, Marleine?" the two-term congresswoman urged. Even in the company of national politicians, Meek knew that Bastien's impassioned public speaking, in Creole or English, always had a visceral effect on audiences.

Bastien had assumed the lawmakers would do the talking and so hadn't prepared remarks. But she had articulated the message before and would repeat it many times in coming months. "That girl's voice resounded all the way to the Washington Monument," Meek recalls today. "The cadence of her voice just compels you to follow her."

"In 1990 a new day started in Haiti," began Bastien, referring to the country's first democratic presidential election, won by Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "This was a day of hope; things were going to be different. Unfortunately, this [hope] lasted only seven months....

"The overthrow of Jean-Bertrand Aristide was one of our darkest days," she continued. "Women, men, and children had to leave their houses and go into hiding; others were tortured and beaten. Women were hacked to death by machetes, their arms and breasts cut off. Girls as young as five years old were raped. Because -- they had hope."

Bastien frowned, and her melodic voice rose with emotion. Tiny gold and silver threads glinted in her turban as she gestured. "Some people were lucky enough to escape. Some spent days and months in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Many were sent back. Some were allowed to make new lives in a country that did not welcome them. They found jobs and established businesses. They bought houses, they got married and had children. They are the people who are going to be torn away from that. We Haitians are here on the steps of the Capitol today to ask that this wrong be made right."

Marleine Bastien is not a politician, although friends have encouraged her to run for office. At the moment she is among a small group of Haitian Americans, most of them well-educated and articulate women in their thirties and forties, who have earned political prominence within Miami's Haitian community through years of social activism. Bastien calls herself "a catalyst."

"What I've been trying to do is get people to organize themselves," she says. "But more important, I'm trying to get women to participate more, because I believe it's going to take the empowerment of women to contribute to the building of this community so we can get to the point where we can be respected."

"They have nicknamed the women [activists] diplomats beton -- sidewalk diplomats," says Bishop Thomas Wenski, a Creole-speaking priest who has been involved with Miami's Haitians for decades. The women, Wenski says, are filling a gap in the changing community. "There's a kind of leadership vacuum in the sense that the people who made noise five, ten years ago about [instituting] democracy in Haiti, they're back in Haiti, they're the old generation. The new generation is still emerging."

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