Gov. Bush unveils new Haiti panel
By JACQUELINE CHARLES
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush -- a target of criticism during his reelection campaign for not doing enough to help Haitian migrants -- spent Monday morning brainstorming with Haitian-American leaders about rebuilding their homeland.
The meeting follows the Republican governor's surprise visit earlier this month to the troubled Caribbean nation at the invitation of interim Haitian Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.
It also comes in a presidential election year when the GOP, working aggressively to reelect the governor's brother, President George W. Bush, is heavily courting Haitian-American voters in a state where every vote counts.
''This is not about politics,'' Bush said in a brief interview after his meeting at the University of Miami, where he announced the formation of a new Haitian commission. ``This is about making a difference in a country that is our neighbor.''
Sidney Charles, chairman of the Caribbean and Haitian Americans for Bush Coalition, said the governor is addressing a constituency in need.
''He is sincere and he is trying to do the right thing,'' said Charles, a North Miami businessman who was among those invited by Bush. ``If anything, he wants to make sure Haiti is successful so that he doesn't have to worry about a problem in the state of Florida.''
Still, even Charles could not dismiss the potential of the Haitian-American vote -- or the impact another Haitian crisis could have -- in a state where both the president and Democratic contender John Kerry are close in the polls and Bush won the 2000 presidency by just 537 votes.
Charles said while he does not know how many of Florida's 230,000 Haitian Americans are registered Republicans, he believes the numbers are growing every day. He credits the increase to Washington's involvement in the latest Haitian political saga, which eventually led to former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Feb. 29 departure.
''I am getting calls from all over the country,'' Charles said. ``There are huge demands for Haitians who want information about the Republican Party and campaign.''
But absent any polls, no one can say for sure what role the Aristide factor will play in the November elections.
Interest from a governor who has not always been regarded as sympathetic to the Haitian cause could potentially make a difference.
On the eve of the 2002 gubernatorial election, Bush lost substantial credibility in the Haitian-American community when he rejected then-Congresswoman Carrie Meek's request to lobby his brother on behalf of more than 200 migrants who came ashore in Key Biscayne.
Bush now appears to be extending a helping hand.
Bush invited a diverse group of 20 Haitian-Americans to Monday's task force meeting at the governor's office on the UM campus. Some were Republicans; others Democrats. Some were supporters of Aristide's Lavalas Family Party; others, opponents who marched against it.
''This community can make a major contribution not only to enhance the quality of life here and in South Florida but also in Haiti,'' Bush said. ``I don't think they've been asked before and I want to be a catalyst for that to happen.''
Bush, who will announce more details about the commission's makeup and members in the coming weeks, said it will be limited in scope. He envisions it as a clearinghouse for Haitian-Americans and others looking to get involved in rebuilding Haiti.
It will most likely avoid controversial issues, such as the current push by some Haitian-American and immigration activists for Temporary Protected Status for all Haitians living here illegally. That status temporarily shields Haitians from immediate deportation.
Bush has gone on record as saying he would be inclined to support the reprieve, but needs to know more about it.
''We are not trying to reinvent the wheel,'' he said of his commission. ``There are a lot of great organizations in the state that are interested in this subject.''