Longform

Inside Little Haiti

Page 10 of 11

Despinosse addressed another side of the dilemma in a conversation I had with him a few days before the HADC meeting. "I say to Haitians here," he told me, "in this country there's two factors: money, vote. When you talk to a politician, the first thing they want to know is, 'How many Haitian voters do you have?' Money and vote.

"I tell the Haitian, we have to understand this country. I understand it, but I've got to have players to play with me, okay? Some Haitians, though, they still get so upset. We see the Irish, the Polish, the Italians, the Jewish, everybody using the system. But what's going against us: many Haitians think they're still in Haiti. They want to survive here with the Haitian agenda, which is not possible. If many of them don't want to become citizens, that's their loss. Many of them think they will go back to Haiti, but becoming a citizen doesn't stop you from going back A that's your first mistake, okay? So I tell the Haitian people, 'Listen now, you don't have to be in Haiti to fight for Haiti.'"

Despinosse was a consummate ward politician and I soon noticed he made only a token effort to conceal his disdain for militants in the refugee community, whom he damned with faint praise, and seemed to relish explaining to them the benefits of taking "the upper-class approach" by working within the established order. "If you say you are a revolutionary group, and you go to Haiti and they grab you," he lectured, "then with my money, and my voting strength, I can put pressure to my senator and congressman to go there and release you, the same way we see Ted Kennedy and others went to Cuba and bring people back. And this is what I'm trying to preach, but some people, they can't see it."

Last year, when the presidential candidates campaigned in South Florida, Despinosse listened to each one's platform and promises and told himself, "Clinton is the man." After that HADC did "everything people are supposed to do in a campaign, A to Z." The club initiated a registration drive, chauffeured Hillary Clinton around Little Haiti, delivered two truckloads of food to Homestead in the wake of the hurricane, and sent a massive mailing to 10,000 Haitian-American citizens whose names appeared on master voting lists. The actual voting population in the community, however, is estimated to be three times that size. Add those votes to the votes of black Americans in Liberty City and Overtown, and Despinosse began to see the shape of the Haitians' power base.

"Let's not play games," he said. "While we're here, can we build a voting bloc, join together with people of similar concerns, and with people from other countries in the Caribbean, and let Bob Graham know, 'Listen, this is the way we want things to happen,' or 'You might get re-elected, sir, but without our support.' Let's call Connie Mack. Let's call Carrie Meek. Let's call Alcee Hastings." Clinton, as you might expect, was at the top of the list. In January Despinosse was granting the president-elect a 90-day grace period to resolve the Haitian issue. Beyond that, he predicted, expect to see the boats.

Not quite 90 days later I spoke to Despinosse by phone in Washington, where he was aggressively lobbying for his cause, which by now had evolved to include apologia for his president and party leader, as much as anything else. Was he disappointed, I wondered, that the Clinton administration was there in the Supreme Court, arguing in defense of George Bush's interdiction and repatriation policy?

Not exactly.
"The Bush operatives left Clinton with no choice," said Despinosse. "Until he gets his own attorney general, he's buying time, rather than defending the Bush policy sending Haitians back to a death trap. We have to understand that after 30 years of Duvaliers, and twelve years of Republicans, it's going to take Clinton at least six months to get his government together. Until then I'll give him the benefit of the doubt." Despinosse had been up on the Hill all day, monitoring the Janet Reno confirmation hearings. "She was the most important missing piece for us. Now, thank God, he's got Janet Reno, and we'll see if he means business."

"Help us keep our people home in Haiti, where they want to be, believe me," Roseline Philippe told me back in January, as we sat around after the meeting had adjourned. The secretary of the Haitian American Democratic Club, she was employed by the YWCA to oversee day-care centers. An American citizen since the age of sixteen, she wanted to be sure I understood how she could love the Untied States, though her roots A and her heart A were back in Haiti. For a time during the Eighties, she had been able to marry those two sides of herself by teaching American government at a private school in Port-au-Prince. "I wanted my students to know true democracy, and how it operates. In America we learned what true democracy is and, given that knowledge, why wouldn't we want change in Haiti? This is what we learned in America. And now, for the first time, we know that we have political power." She paused to smile ruefully and added an afterthought. "Maybe they didn't expect it of us."

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Bob Shacochis