That's the Way the Check Bounces
In dealing with Haiti, the young, gifted, and liberal policymakers at the White House and the U.S. State Department have faced a seemingly insurmountable problem: how to convince Haiti's recalcitrant military regime that this E-mail-happy group is prepared to go to war. Gunboat diplomacy, international censure, a naval blockade -- all foundered for lack of credibility. The solution was as elegant as it was obvious.
The Clinton administration would simply carpet-bomb cyberspace. They'd fire devastating memos straight down the information highway.
Thus it came to pass that on June 22, executive order 12922 was beamed to computer bulletin boards around the nation, instructing banks to freeze "all property and interests in property of any Haitian national resident in Haiti." In other words: Lock their U.S. bank accounts.
Earlier orders had attempted (unsuccessfully) to target supporters of the military coup that overthrew President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's democratically elected head of state, by singling them out on blacklists distributed to U.S. banks. Freezing the U.S. assets of every single Haitian on the island, it was hoped, would inconvenience members of the embattled nation's business elite enough to inspire internal opposition to the army.
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But the high-tech assault has claimed some unlikely casualties. While the Haitian military remains firmly ensconced, Haitian college students in South Florida -- many of whom are permanent U.S. residents -- face the prospect of being booted out of school for lack of funds. The reason: When they opened their bank accounts, they listed a permanent address in Haiti or they drew directly from their parents' U.S. accounts. As the fall semester approaches, some are considering dropping out temporarily. Others have given up their apartments and moved in with friends or family.
Russ Behrmann was used to relying on his father, an automobile dealer from Port-au-Prince. But his father's Barnett Bank account was frozen, leaving the 21-year-old Florida International University senior out in the cold. The family, living with a relative in Kendall for the time being, is making do with loans from friends and some extra cash saved by Behrmann's mother, also an American citizen. "I don't know if I have enough for the semester," Behrmann worries.
Patrick Pautynsky, the owner of a Haitian garment factory, has one daughter who was studying at Berkeley and another at Boston University. After the banks froze his U.S. assets and the account of one of his daughters, he asked the women to come back to Miami, where his wife owns an apartment in the Brickell area.
"Basically I'm being punished because I'm working," Pautynsky fumes. "The whole thing is preposterous." As a factory owner, he says, he provided free health care and subsidized food and housing for about 450 workers, until sanctions made business impossible and he had to shut down the factory and move to Miami.
His daughters say the lack of money is tearing apart the family. "I'm afraid to spend five or ten dollars," says Patricia Pautynsky, who plans to transfer from Boston University to FIU. "Everyone's always getting angry."
Officials at local schools say they'll try to accommodate Haitian students in need. Anna Sippin, director of international student services at FIU, says the university will recommend that the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service allow Haitian students to seek employment in this country. "Students who are experiencing severe economic necessity can be granted authorization to work," she asserts. In addition, FIU will defer tuition payments until September and provide interest-free $500 emergency loans. If that's not enough to tide them over, the students will be dropped from course rolls but permitted to attend lectures and take tests. Once their bursar bills are paid, they will automatically be reinstated, according to Sippin.
Out of a total of 31 Haitian students attending FIU on international student visas, 5 have appealed for financial help, according to Sippin. And therein lies another complication. Only Haitians with student visas are eligible for aid from Sippin's office; the 320 Haitians who attend FIU as U.S. residents are on their own.
The situation is similar at other local schools, most of which don't keep track of students by nationality, save for the handful who are attending on student visas. (Miami-Dade Community College is one exception: According to MDCC officials, fewer than four percent of the school's 2141 Haitian students have student visas.)
John Merchanson, a spokesman for the U.S. Treasury Department, hints that the seizure of most student bank accounts was unintentional: "If you've been in the U.S. for nine consecutive months out of the last twelve, then you're considered a U.S. resident and this would not apply to you," Merchanson explains. Nevertheless, he confirms, no effort was made to protect students from the freeze, and if a student's bank account was frozen, it is incumbent upon that student to apply for a waiver.
"The administration is not a heartless organization," a White House aide maintains. "It's not trying to punish these kids, it's trying to influence their parents and the people who are in power in Haiti."
The Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury Department division responsible for enforcing the executive order, would not provide New Times with the total dollar amount of assets frozen or the total number of accounts affected.
Spokesmen from local banks say they're aware of the exemptions for students and permanent residents. Their computer "search procedure" for locating Haitian accounts, however, was based on the account holder's address. In view of the penalties -- up to one million dollars -- for disregarding the order, the banks weren't about to take any chances. Like the U.S. government, bank officials maintain that it's now up to students to provide evidence that they have been in the U.S. more than nine months and that they are studying full-time. Once provided with proof, bank staffers can contact the Treasury Department for permission to release an account.
"We've had a number of students come through and basically we handle it on a situation-by-situation basis," says Bob Stickler, a spokesman for Florida giant Barnett Bank, which has frozen more than 500 accounts.
Despite all the good intentions, the policy has resulted in the release of only about a dozen student accounts nationwide, according to figures provided by the Treasury Department. Russ Behrmann, for example, says he was told he'd have to sue the Treasury Department in order to get his money; fellow FIU student Jean Paul, by contrast, successfully persuaded officials at NationsBank to let him withdraw funds.
Behrmann notes that the blocked bank accounts merely add injury to insult. Months before the executive order was sent out, he says, the U.S. media had begun to stigmatize the small group of successful mulatto families that form the nation's business elite, labeling them "MREs" (the morally repugnant elite), which served to make the American public more receptive to the sweeping sanctions. The majority of Haitians studying in the U.S., the FIU senior asserts, support neither the military nor Aristide, but would like to see democracy restored.
"Why should students have to pay for the actions of the Haitian military?" protests Fayola Cantave, a sophomore at FIU. Cantave, who is circulating a petition that expresses support for Haitian students studying in the U.S., says she believed in earlier U.S. attempts to punish coup leaders but that the most recent sanctions go too far. "Now they're hurting everyone, including the students, who have nothing to do with what is going on.