Inside Little Haiti

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Wenski and I adjourned for lunch to Smitty's II, an all-American diner A after twelve years, he had consumed far more spicy Creole cooking than he had bargained for. Walking outside under the rectory's canopy of live oaks, we came upon Sans Debt, one of Notre Dame's four resident lunatics, homeless and harmless, whom Wenski allowed to squat on church property. One slept in the doorway to the chapel, one in the barbecue pit, one in various spots on the lawn. One talked nonstop to the dial tone of a nearby pay phone, one picked up trash, one wanted the trash-picker's job. It was very Haitian of Wenski to have them around. Like any other ethnic enclave in the United States, the Haitian community in South Florida was rich in diversity, not without its madmen, and not without its millionaires A one of whom I would soon meet, but not before I had first met Erithe Montville, a young woman who seemed to have been created by God to breathe life into a xenophobe's stereotype of wretchedness.

As I write, Haitians are being repatriated back to a society that, in its totalitarian repressiveness, its government-sponsored violence, its mockery of human rights, most resembles Castro's Cuba. I have traveled extensively through both countries (Haiti in 1986, Cuba in 1991) and must confess, with no apologies to Miami's Cubans, that, given the choice between an ideologically based dictatorship and a dictatorship based on brute power and greed, and given the choice between ideologically inspired persecution and persecution sprayed randomly throughout a population by tyrants storming along on oblique agendas, I would much prefer to take my chances in Cuba, any day of the week. The Communist variety of terror, as practiced by Cubans, at least has its rules. The unvarnished variety of terror, as practiced by the Haitian ruling class, unravels arbitrarily, according to a pattern neither I nor anybody else has been able to anticipate, let alone comprehend.

In my perambulations throughout Little Haiti, I spoke with many refugees tragically familiar with the birth of the modern era in their never-ending past, and Wenski introduced me to another, Roger Biamby, the director of the Haitian Catholic Center. Biamby came of age in the capital of Port-au-Prince at a time when Franaois "Papa Doc" Duvalier's (self-appointed president-for-life) corruption of Haitian society had achieved such an apex of barbarity that one of his proteges could present himself before the Haitian legislature and defiantly declare, "A good Duvalierist stands ready to kill his children, or children to kill their parents." The year was 1961, Biamby was fourteen, and soon found himself living in a foreign embassy while his father, a colonel in the army, was being sentenced to death by a military tribunal for his central role in a scheme to assassinate Duvalier. Pardoned at the last moment, the colonel, his wife, and eight children were allowed safe conduct out of the country, settling in Brooklyn a year later. "Imagine," Biamby said to me, "coming to the United States with only $100 for ten people."

"Under Duvalier," Wenski had reminded me, "the emerging middle class had to go," but not before notice had already been served on the more influential upper class. Many of them, like Miami social worker Nancy Desire's family, went to Africa on UN-sponsored contracts, where their professional skills were much in demand during the groping, turbulent transition from colonialism to independence. Desire's father was a doctor, her mother a nurse, both harried in their positions by inexperienced and increasingly jealous political appointees swarming into Duvalier's government. Nancy was born in Port-au-Prince in 1962, spent her childhood in the Congo, then Canada, and her high school and college years in New York City, among 300,000 other Haitians who sought sanctuary there in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties. Now people like Desire are American-educated, first- and even second-generation Haitian-American citizens, responsible for a growing secondary migration of Haitians out of northern cities to Miami.

Less affluent refugees were dependent upon a different, though often no less circuitous, route to Florida, and it was of course by sea. As a matter of record, the first boatload of Haitians landed in Miami in 1963. But in terms of the civil rights movement in the South, and a federal government anxious to believe the myth that Duvalier was an indispensable ally in the Caribbean Basin's suddenly hot Cold War, the attempt was premature; the passengers were denied asylum and turned back into the waves.

Throughout the next ten years, Haitians trickled into South Florida by plane, and by boat in the mid-Seventies. Upon the death of his father in 1971, Jean-Claude Duvalier inherited Haiti's bloody reins of power, enforced by the Tonton Macoutes, the ruthless paramilitary troops created by Duvalier to intimidate his civilian opposition and counteract his adversaries in the traditional armed services. Not for the first time, thousands disappeared into the dictatorship's prisons, and the city dump stank with mutilated corpses. In 1977, during still another crackdown on dissidents, student groups, journalists, and anybody unlucky enough to get in the way of the psychopathic Macoutes, the boats began to arrive in Florida regularly. By 1981 50,000 to 70,000 refugees had come ashore, 25,000 of them in 1980 alone, on the coattails of the Mariel boatlift. The exodus ended in 1981, when the Reagan administration ordered a Coast Guard cutter into Haitian waters to turn back the boat people, and began a policy of incarceration and deportation for Haitians "fortunate" enough to actually reach their destination.

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Bob Shacochis