South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 19, 2004

Haitians building boats to flee to South Florida

But most say they're running away from poverty, not rebellion

Associated Press

ACUL DU NORD, Haiti -- The men painstakingly shaping the wooden stay of a boat with a homemade tool reckon it'll be ready in two months to take to the seas and, hopefully, reach the shores of Florida.

These would-be migrants are preparing their escape from Haiti at a time of rebellion that poses the greatest threat yet to the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But their reason for fleeing has been the same for many years _ the lack of jobs and a future.

``There is no work here, no money, nothing to do,'' 26-year-old Dorelus Franco said Wednesday, standing guard over two half-finished boats as another man worked on the wooden stay with a sharpened piece of steel.

``I want to go,'' Franco said. ``I'm planning to go.''

``You have to understand there is such a big difference between here and there,'' said Jean Baptiste, 31.

The 30-foot and 40-foot vessels were begun months ago at this hamlet called Camp Louise on Acul Bay, about 10 miles west of Cap-Haitien, where Aristide militants
barricaded themselves against a feared rebel incursion.

The boats already have their ribs and keels laid out and just await their planking and tarring.

Aid agencies, Caribbean nations and the United States fear the bloody uprising that began Feb. 5 and has taken 60 lives could spark a mass exodus of Haitians.

One sign that a refugee crisis is imminent would be a large-scale construction of boats like these. In Washington on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Richard
Boucher said there are no signs of such activity, but the administration wants to ``make sure that we're prepared should something happen.''

Amnesty International warned the emergence among rebel leaders of ex-soldiers and death squad leaders means ``fears of a mass population outflow from Haiti are
bound to increase.''

Tens of thousands of Haitian boatpeople fled to U.S. shores to escape brutal military leaders who ousted Aristide in 1991. Hundreds of Aristide supporters were killed,
maimed and tortured before President Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to restore Aristide and halt the exodus.

But boatpeople have begun leaving again since donors froze aid over flawed legislative elections, aggravating already difficult living conditions in the country.

U.S. Coast Guard patrols have caught some 1,126 Haitians at sea since October, compared to 2,013 in the previous 12 months. Those who don't make it to shore are
returned home.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Joung-ah Ghedini, warned Tuesday that Haiti's situation ``could go from precarious to a full-blown
emergency'' on short notice.

At Acul Bay, the idyllic setting _ the crystalline waters of the Caribbean, the banana trees, the beaches _ belies the utter hopelessness of the residents.

``Everyday is a holiday because there is never any work here,'' said Altiery Saintil, 31.

Asked if they would leave for Miami, about a dozen of the 15 townspeople gathered at a crossroad nodded their heads. ``Everyone one of us would go. Every one,'' said
Pierre Robinson, 23, who hopes to become an engineer but can't afford to attend college.

However, many said they would not risk the voyage on the rickety boats being built in the bay, into which 50 or 60 people could cram for the dangerous crossing.

It's not known how many Haitians die trying to reach the United States. Stories surface only when a boat capsizes close to Bahamian or U.S. shores. And then there
are the constant patrols of the U.S. Coast Guard.

``We won't go that way, because the Americans catch you at sea and they just send you back,'' Saintil said.

But given the more attractive price of a boat trip _ about $800 versus the $5,000 needed for fake documents and a plane ticket _ most who leave do so by sea.

As the adults worked on the craft, a young girl in a ragged T-shirt that read ``Miami'' frolicked amid the half-built vessels, and adults were left to wonder.

The U.S. Coast Guard last stopped Haitian boatpeople on Feb. 1, when 148 people were caught at sea.

``Why? Why do they not want us there?'' Baptiste asked.

Copyright © 2004