In its own paradoxical fashion, the Haitian Refugee Center's lawsuit against Secretary of State James Baker was a coup. A media coup. The court action, filed in November 1991 and aimed at blocking the repatriation of refugees fleeing the September 30 military coup in Haiti, catapulted the local agency into the international spotlight. As the case ricocheted through the U.S. judiciary, HRC officials, primarily senior attorney Cheryl Little, fed the world's most influential news outlets a steady diet of sound bites. Refugees seeking political asylum, meanwhile, flooded the center.
But beneath the bustle of high-profile activity, discontent was fomenting in the HRC. Within the past six months, three veteran legal staffers have resigned. Attorney Esther Cruz, who handled many of the asylum applications, left in December. Little herself stepped down at the end of March, and her legal assistant departed a few weeks later.
Both Cruz and Little decline to comment about their decisions, fearing that any discussion of the center's internal politics will distract from the group's greater mission: aiding refugees. HRC executive director Rolande Dorancy insists the personnel shuffle reflects nothing more than each employee's desire to move on. But other observers say the exodus marks the denouement of a long-standing tension between Dorancy, who is a Haitian-born grassroots activist, and her white legal advocates. Though few will speak openly about the rift, sources privately suggest that the rancor ran deep.
Much of the trouble apparently revolved around Little's increasingly public visibility, which purportedly distracted her from her legal duties and upstaged Dorancy, as well. "It got to a point where Cheryl would burp and it made the front page of the Miami Herald," one insider observes. "At a certain point, she got carried away with the media attention."
Little vigorously denies she neglected her legal duties, and Dorancy insists she supported the attorney's unofficial role as media liaison. "She kept our cause in the news and said good things about the center," Dorancy says. But others maintain Dorancy was offended that reporters continually sought comment from Little, and that she was troubled by the notion that a white woman was serving as the Haitian community's primary voice.
Other sources fault Dorancy for interfering with the work of her legal staff. The complaints range from practical matters, such as a failure to distribute keys to the attorneys and not passing along phone messages, to political favoritism. For instance, Dorancy allegedly discouraged her lawyers from taking asylum cases after the December 1990 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, on the theory that handling such cases would embarrass the new president and undermine his domestic authority. Dorancy counters that she doesn't even review individual asylum cases. "But," she adds, "criticizing me for `politicizing' the asylum process is foolish. The center is for those seeking political asylum. How can [politics] not be an issue?"
Some suggest that frustration with Dorancy extended beyond her white legal workers. In fact, at a meeting of the HRC board last summer, many staff members, Haitians included, complained about the center's management. But former president of the board Mona Michel recalls that the dissatisfaction was primarily directed toward Dorancy's administrator, who was subsequently fired.
Michel contends that a tragic lack of communication stoked the ongoing dispute between Dorancy and the HRC attorneys, and says she vividly recalls a dinner meeting held last year at which she unsuccessfully attempted to spark dialogue between all the parties. She now expresses outrage at the recent spate of resignations. "What were they trying to do, dissolve the center by pulling out all together?" she demands. "Because that's what it seemed like to me and to the community. Here are all the American people, all the white lawyers, leaving, and who's going to suffer? The refugees. That's who they should think about.
"I told them, `If you're stressed out, take a leave or a vacation. But don't let personality conflicts hurt the people we're trying to help,'" Michel says. "Do I sympathize with them walking out? No! Do I sympathize with the director? No! I sympathize with the refugees."
Fellow board member Stephen Malagodi says the center's pressure-cooker environment simply got to be too much. "Whenever you've got people working for a long time, in a very intense way, with very little support or pay, you tend to personalize issues," he observes. (Little worked for HRC for seven years, Cruz for three.) But Malagodi does admit that "conflicts with the new administration and turf-battle kinds of things" played a key role, too.
He says such turf battles were not an issue during the tenure of Gerard Jean-Juste, who ran the center for a decade before Dorancy took over in late 1990. Veterans who worked under Jean-Juste - who returned to Haiti and is now in hiding - recall that he left the legal department to run itself but reserved the role of spokesman when reporters came calling. "Jean-Juste and I are different people," Dorancy says. "Of course we have different styles. And since the coup, you know, everything has become more difficult."
To Haitian Americans such as Marcus Garcia, editor of the weekly newspaper Haiti En Marche, Little's departure represents a significant loss, especially when it comes to media coverage of Haitian issues. Indeed, some insist that since Little resigned two and half months ago, coverage of the HRC and local Haitian affairs in the Miami Herald and elsewhere has dropped off conspicuously.
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Little, who was given three months of compensation pay by the center, has continued to monitor the situation in Haiti and hopes to keep working on behalf of Haitian refugees, probably at another agency. Cruz has taken a job as director of the immigration unit at Legal Services of Greater Miami.
Like other board members, Stephen Malagodi emphasizes positive changes within the HRC during the past few months, including capital improvements and a recent rally featuring dancer/activist Katherine Dunham that brought hundreds of Haitians together and raised thousands of dollars for the HRC.
But Mona Michel and other advocates stress that the recent shake-up comes in the midst of the center's gravest challenge. While international media attention remains riveted to U.S. policy toward incoming Haitians, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has already allowed more than 10,000 refugees into the country. All of them must now file asylum applications - within three months of arrival, unless INS officials grant an extension - if they are to secure the right to remain in the land of the free.