Haitian-Americans in S. Fla. fear exodus from turmoil at home
By ADRIAN SAINZ
MIAMI -- Many Haitian-Americans fear the bloodletting in their homeland will lead to another exodus of refugees setting out for Florida in dangerously flimsy boats.
``People are trying to find a different way to survive. Right now, all
I hear about over there is death, death, death. It hurts,'' said a tearful
Patricia Alexis, a 27-year-old
nursing student who lives in Miami's Little Haiti section and speaks daily with her mother back in Haiti. ``Obviously we have a lot of problems if we're going to have
people getting in boats, risking their lives.''
U.S. officials said there are no signs of any large-scale boat building
along Haiti's coast, which is usually a harbinger of a mass migration.
But the State Department, the
Coast Guard and the Homeland Security Department said contingency plans are in place to deal with an exodus.
During Haiti's military dictatorship between 1991 and 1994, more than
65,000 Haitians were intercepted at sea by the Coast Guard, and most were
sent back home,
including many who were initially taken to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Activists estimate hundreds of refugees died at sea in 1994 alone, though
there are no reliable official figures.
The flow of refugees eased after the United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti in 1994 and restored President Jean-Bertrande Aristide to power.
Fears of another exodus are mounting as rebels battle Aristide supporters in a bloody, two-week-old uprising in the Caribbean nation some 650 miles from Miami.
``People here are constantly worried. They don't sleep, they don't eat.
Peoples' blood pressure is getting higher every day,'' said Lucie Tondreau,
a community activist in
South Florida, which has the largest concentration of Haitians outside Haiti, with estimates ranging from 230,000 to 400,000.
Haitian-American activists want the United States to set aside its policy
of sending back refugees stopped at sea and to provide a safe haven for
any Haitians who
decide to flee. But the State Department has given no indication it is willing to suspend its policy.
On Thursday, Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Democrat who represents a large part
of Miami's Haitians, urged them to persuade their relatives in Haiti not
to flee by boat
because of the danger.
``The Florida delegation is united on this,'' Meek said. ``We've lived through this before.''
Amid calls for U.S. military intervention to prevent further chaos and
head off an exodus, the Pentagon said Thursday it is sending a military
team of three to four
experts to assess the situation in Haiti. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States was reluctant to send military personnel to help resolve
Florida Sens. Bill Nelson and Bob Graham, both Democrats, have recommended
an international police force be sent to help restore order. Nelson criticized
administration for taking ``only meager steps to assist the people of Haiti.''
Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Tony Russell said there has been no increase
in Haitians setting sail for the United States. He said the Coast Guard
has not stepped up
patrols beyond its regular presence.
Haiti expert Robert Fatton Jr. said it is a safe bet that a mass migration will take place if the capital, Port-au-Prince, is attacked by rebels.
``If there is chaos, it will be very difficult politically for the Bush administration to return them to Haiti,'' said Fatton, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia.
Sending them to Guantanamo Bay would ``contain the problem from becoming
a political hot potato for the Bush administration and for South Florida''
during an election
year, he said.
Some observers warned that the exodus this time could be bigger than
the poverty-driven migration in the 1990s, in part because of the large
number of people who
might fear retaliation from either Aristide's backers or the rebels.
``Today it's different because now you have the army and the drug dealers
and part of the bourgeoisie also involved,'' Tondreau said. ``Low-class
people, the middle
class _ everybody is going to leave.''
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