The Miami Herald
February 24, 2004

Island Chaos Casts a Pall Over Miami's Little Haiti

MIAMI, Feb. 23 The music flowing from Eddy Michel's record shop in Little Haiti was plaintive on Monday, and Mr. Michel could not imagine playing more buoyant songs for weeks, even months, to come.

"I'm sad, so sad for my family," said Mr. Michel, who moved here from Haiti in 1988 and still has relatives there, engulfed in the turmoil that has plagued the island nation for months. "I try to call; I can't get through. I try to send money last week; it doesn't go through."

Mr. Michel and many other Haitians living in South Florida there are at least 230,000, the largest concentration in the United States have been transfixed by the violence and chaos in Haiti in recent weeks, though they are divided on how it should end. Mr. Michel, 47, is among those who believe President Jean-Bertrand Aristide should serve out his term, which ends in 2006, even if his leadership has fallen short.

"He don't do a good job, but he was elected," Mr. Michel said as he brought lunch back to his shop, Edma Music and Video, in the pastel-hued neighborhood just north of downtown where thousands of Haitian immigrants live and work. "So he should stay. He has to stay."

Down the street, Stacy Apollon, who left Port-au-Prince for Miami five years ago, made the opposite argument. "He's got to go; too many people are dying," Mr. Apollon, 23, said of Mr. Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president, who was held up as a populist hero when he won office in 1990 but has lost support for failing to address his nation's rampant poverty. "He's been in for a while and he isn't doing nothing. Most people I know want him to go, I'd say 95 percent."

A telephone poll of 600 Haitian-Americans conducted this month for New California Media, a network of ethnic news outlets based in San Francisco, found that 52 percent believed Mr. Aristide should stay in office, with older respondents and those who did not speak fluent English most likely to support him. Twenty-seven percent thought Mr. Aristide should leave. The poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus four percentage points.

Younger respondents were more likely to say Mr. Aristide, whose government is under attack by rebel forces, should resign. Half of the respondents were in Florida; the rest were in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

But most respondents to the poll, conducted by Bendixen and Associates, a Miami firm, also said Haiti was better off politically and economically under the dictators François and Jean-Claude Duvalier than under Mr. Aristide.

Forty-two percent of the respondents said that American immigration policy discriminated against Haitians, crystallizing one of the biggest frustrations of Haitian immigrants here. Under a Bush administration policy adopted in 2001, Haitian refugees who reach the United States are held in indefinite detention until they are deported or, less frequently, granted asylum.

Critics have called the policy discriminatory because it applies almost exclusively to Haitians. Cuban refugees are allowed to stay without detention during their asylum proceedings because of the possibility of persecution if they are returned.

At one South Florida detention center, some Haitian women awaiting asylum hearings are so terrified of being returned to Haiti that they went on a hunger strike this month, said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, a legal aid organization.

"They believe if they are sent back they'll be killed, so they would rather die here," said Ms. Little, who sent staff members to interview the women last week. "We were there late last week trying to convince them to begin eating, because many were getting seriously ill."

Many of the detainees, who are being held at the Broward Transitional Center, have lost relatives in the violence that has swept Haiti in recent weeks, Ms. Little said.

Ms. Little and other immigration advocates are lobbying Washington to ease its policy on Haitian refugees. In the immediate term, they seek temporary protective status for Haitians here who might otherwise be deported. But Representative Kendrick B. Meek, a Miami Democrat who has joined their effort, said there had been no progress.

"It's hard to explain the current policy to the community when you have this kind of televised, documented violence taking place in their homeland right now," Mr. Meek said. "I think this will motivate Haitians to vote against the president."

At the Haitian Neighborhood Center, a resource center for Haitian immigrants in Miami, Gepsie Metellus, the executive director, said her clients were obsessively monitoring Haitian television and radio, but regarding the strife more realistically than in the past.

"People's hearts are in their throats," Ms. Metellus said. "Everyone is so torn. What's surprising is all the people here who are not necessarily pro-Aristide, but who don't favor his resignation. That shows a lot of maturing politically, because they are not just reacting emotionally."

At another music store, Patrick Juste, whose family emigrated here in 1966, said he wanted the United States to send peacekeeping troops to Haiti so that Mr. Aristide would have a chance to stay in power.

"Aristide has made a lot of mistakes," said Mr. Juste, whose family's music store, Les Cousins, has seen business decline during the unrest in Haiti. "He has only 4,000 police officers what kind of security force is that? But the man is the elected leader of the country."

Mr. Juste and others, including Ms. Little, said they expected Haitians to take to the seas in coming months to seek better lives here. When Haiti was under military dictatorship in the early 1990's after a coup temporarily ousted Mr. Aristide, the Coast Guard intercepted thousands of Haitians at sea and sent most home. Many drowned.

"The biggest concern is that we're going to drag our heels until we have an impossible situation and countless lives are lost," Ms. Little said.