South Florida Sun-Sentinel
March 1, 2004

S. Florida Haitians erupt in tears, cheers on Aristide's exile

By Alva James-Johnson
Staff Writer

As news of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's sudden departure from Haiti spread through South Florida Sunday, emotions ranged from shock to relief in the nation's largest Haitian American community.

For those who demanded the President's resignation, Sunday was a new beginning for their homeland.

For those who fought for Aristide to complete his term, it was a crushing blow to what they saw as a struggle for democracy.

Despite the deep divide, many called on their fellow Haitians to remain calm and do what's best for the country, reminding them of the bicentennial that began Jan. 1.

"Two hundred years ago our forefathers were able to come together and unify around ... liberating themselves from slavery," said Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La, the Haitian Neighborhood Center in Miami. "I hope ... this bicentennial year can again be a watershed year in our history."

Whether such sentiment would prevail was still uncertain. News of the president's flight sparked a confrontation Sunday morning between Aristide opponents and supporters near Miami Avenue and 54th Street in Little Haiti.

Miami Police Cmdr. Gary Eugene said someone among a throng of pro-Aristide protesters threw a rock through the car window of well-known anti-Aristide radio host Karen Sylvestre, who was stopped at a light in front of the Little Haiti Restaurant at 26 NW 54th St.

Sylvestre received a few scratches, but was not seriously injured, Eugene said.

Police shut down a portion of 54th Street for about an hour after the incident, while Aristide supporters carried signs that read "Stop Sponsoring Terrorism," "Respect the People's Choice in Haiti" and "No to Coup D'Etat."

"The White House has killed democracy in Haiti," Ludner Beauvoir shouted through a bullhorn in front of television cameras. "Aristide did not resign. He was forced out."

`We're liberated'

But at a Mardi Gras festival in downtown Miami, Haitians danced in the streets to konpa music, waved Haitian flags and sang along to songs proclaiming liberty.

The Port-au-Prince-based music group, Konpa Kreyol, roused the crowds with chants.

"Aristide ale, nou libere," the band sang over and over. "Aristide left, we're liberated."

Before taking the stage, lead singer Joseph Zenny said he could finally sing more freely about the political situation in his country now that Aristide is gone.

"Before, we couldn't because there was repression," said Zenny, who left Haiti about three weeks ago when the turmoil began. "You were in danger if you talked about politics. I can say anything I want now."

Many also expressed passionate views in New York, home to the second-largest group of Haitian Americans in the United States. Some were angry that the United States, which in their opinion played a background role in Aristide's decision to leave, did not take steps to prevent the violence.

"I'm just flabbergasted by the attitude of the U.S. It's as if the lives of Haitians are worthless," said Michele Montas, who came to New York last year after death threats against her and employees at her Port-au-Prince radio station, Haiti Inter.

Other Haitians living in the New York area said they were happy that Aristide at last had decided to go.

"I think it's a good day for Haiti," said Alice Blanchet, who lives in Queens and served in Haiti during the 1990s as an aide to then-Prime Minister Robert Malval.

In Boca Raton, Lesly Jacques, a Haitian radio personality and Aristide opponent, said he was glad that Aristide resigned, but didn't celebrate publicly. "Personally, if people want to celebrate at their homes, I can understand that," he said. "But our position is that the fight is still on because we don't want to mess up again."

Gerard Ferere, a retired Haitian navy officer in Boca Raton, was in favor of the president's resignation, but issued an e-mail warning Haitians that former military officers who had served under Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier were joining the opposition. He said some were present at an anti-Aristide demonstration that was held at the federal courthouse in Broward County Friday.

"We must be very careful not to allow the fruit of our efforts to fall into the hands of ... the kind that managed to derail our successes in 1986," he said referring to the year "Baby Doc" departed. "In some of the demonstrations that took place in Florida, I noticed the presence of some well-known criminals of the Duvalier era."

Some fear more problems

At the Bethel Evangelical Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, churchgoers were subdued as they arrived for the morning services.

"If people want to start anew in Haiti they must focus on peace," Pastor Larson Joseph said. "What we really need is a Nelson Mandela, someone with a big heart to promote the future instead of focusing on the past."

Many at the church expressed relief the three-week standoff was over. Most said they had been unable to telephone relatives back home and hoped the international community would step in quickly to quell outbreaks of violence.

"This is a relief because [Aristide] has treated poorly his power. He has mistreated the country," said Monfort Octeus, who lives in Fort Lauderdale and has family in Port de Paix. "My family has been mistreated in my different ways there."

At Anne's Take Out Restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Marie Pierre, 48, sat in a chair wearing her apron as she prepared chicken and rice for her customers. A native of Gonaïves, she hasn't spoken with her family in days.

"Oh my God, there will be more problems now," she said when she heard of Aristide's departure. "God help Haiti."

The mood was also bleak at Sunday services at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, which serves 800 Roman Catholic families in Delray Beach. Worshipers sang Creole hymns and wept openly as Father Roland Desormeaux spoke of Aristide's departure and Bush's Haiti policy. Many there described Aristide as a beacon for the ravaged country and consider his capitulation a betrayal and the result of unwelcome U.S. intervention.

"I can feel the tension in this sanctuary, but we are Christians, and we have learned to wait in life," Desormeaux said. "Once this is all over, we need to remember that we will still be brothers and sisters. Let's not let our emotions curse us."

After Sunday Mass at the Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church in Little Haiti, Lonice Pascal was inconsolable as she tried to cope with the downfall of the president she described as the champion and the voice for Haiti's less fortunate.

"They blamed him for everything. They said he's corrupt. If a dog died, they say he killed it," Pascal said. "He loved the poor. He ate with them. They don't support a poor man to be president in Haiti."

Some thought that Sunday's events would mean a new day for Haiti. Eric Boucicaut, a Haitian living in Miami, said the country won its independence in 1804 only to become complacent. Now that the country has sunk so low, he and others believe it will be reborn.

"We fought for our freedom, but we were not mature at that time to know that building a nation requires a lot of effort," he said. "This is a cycle of 200 years, and Haiti is starting again. We were born as a new country in 1804, and we're being born today as a new nation."

Staff writers Karla Shores, Diana Marrero, Sandra Hernandez, Tal Abbady, Thomas Monnay, David Cazares, and Ron Howell of Newsday contributed to this report.

Alva James-Johnson can be reached at or 954-356-4523.

Copyright © 2004