The Catalyst

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

Throughout 1995 a group of Miami immigration attorneys worked to secure the release of more than 300 Haitian children being held at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba. The children, ages three to seventeen, had either left Haiti without adult guardians or had been orphaned. At that time, tens of thousands of Cubans and Haitians were detained at Guantanamo, but the Cubans were gradually being released into the United States while the Haitians were being sent back to the country they had fled.

Attorney Cheryl Little, then-director of Florida Rural Legal Services in Miami (she currently heads the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center and is a member of Grassroots), led a team that flew several times to the base to interview the children. Bastien accompanied her as interpreter. They returned to Miami with stories of depressed and grieving children, many of whom had witnessed the murders of family members in Haiti; some youngsters in the camp had attempted suicide by drinking bleach or hanging themselves. Most were repatriated beginning in March 1995, even though many had relatives waiting for them in the United States. Only about 70 of the children were allowed into the country.

After the repatriations began, Little's investigators located some of the children back in Haiti, abandoned and starving. So while trying to get the remaining Guantanamo children admitted to the United States, she began a simultaneous campaign to bring the repatriated children in too. She and Bastien appeared on Oprah and told the nation about children living on the streets of Port-au-Prince while their mothers in Miami were powerless to rescue them. Some members of Congress, such as Carrie Meek, got involved, and movie stars, including Harry Belafonte, Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, and the late Gregory Peck, took the issue to their friend Bill Clinton.

A few factors complicated the efforts to bring the children here: fallout from the Haitian government, and Haitian exile politics. An American-led military force had returned Aristide to power only months before, in a long-awaited ouster of the military officers who had staged the 1991 coup. It wasn't popular in pro-Aristide Miami, then, to imply that the children might go home to a country unprepared to receive them. Aristide even sent a delegation to Guantanamo to persuade authorities to release the children to Haiti.

"We'd go on the radio to ask for support and we'd get all these calls from Haitians yelling at us and calling us Macoutes," says Bastien, referring to the Tonton Macoutes, Duvalierist paramilitary thugs. "We had rallies downtown, and very few people would show up." Proponents came to rely mostly on support from outside the Haitian community. Eventually months of work resulted in twelve children being plucked from misery in Haiti to settle with relatives in the United States.

Guantanamo has remained an immediate concern for Bastien and Haitian Women of Miami, which assisted in the resettlement of many of the 70 children who first came to Miami. For the past two years the Miami-Dade Women's Alliance has awarded the organization grants of $2000 to continue helping several girls by providing support that ranges from education and health referrals to psychological counseling.

At Guantanamo, too, Bastien met Jocelyne Mayas, a banker who had left Haiti more than 30 years earlier and taken up residence in New York. Mayas was volunteering for the United Nations at Guantanamo when Little's group began visiting. Bastien and Mayas have since become friends and collaborators in many causes.

Mayas was one of the Haitians in New York working for the immigration bill; she also founded two schools in that city to help Haitians adjust to the American system. "In Miami they have the same problems. Therefore the advocates always know one another, and we can unify our work," says Mayas. "So whenever Marleine has to go to Washington, she always calls me and we meet."

Growing up in Pont Benoit, a village in northern Haiti, Bastien was sure she was going to be a doctor. Her father, Philippe Bastien, was a rice and mango farmer who, because of a gift for diagnosing and healing diseases, was also considered the town's physician. Philippe Bastien had wanted to go to medical school but his illiterate father wouldn't allow it. Instead he taught himself nursing. "Our house was like an institution," recalls Marleine, the third of eight children. "Even us kids, even our mom, learned to take care of wounds. My dad had this gift -- whenever he'd see a patient, he could tell right away whether he could help them."

If he couldn't, they had to go to the nearest hospital at Des Chapelles, about fifteen miles away. "Even now in my mind's eye I can see how they carried the sick person," she says. "Early in the morning they'd put [the patient] on a flat piece of wood and they'd walk fast along the road, two holding the front, two at the back. Sometimes later they carried him back dead, oh, they'd be crying and crying." She balls her fists against her eyes, remembering. "Sometimes they would reach the hospital, but the hospital would send them back because he was going to die anyway and they had to give the bed to someone who had a chance."

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