The Miami Herald
Mon, Nov. 14, 2005

Haitians risk lives, savings to reach S. Fla.

Haitians trying to take boats away from their impoverished homeland often just lose what little money they have.


CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti - A wind is blowing the night Marie Joseé Germain hears that the boat will make a run for Miami. She hugs her children goodbye, and sobs all the way to the port.

At the abandoned dock where the boat is tied up, she takes a seat on an old battery case and softly sings a song while she waits for the captain and other passengers.

"The wind blows, the lightning strikes, the boat is rocking on the sea. . . . But God is watching over us. Captain, don't panic, just take us there.''

Captain Ricardeau Felix pulls up in a borrowed Isuzu Trooper and assures everyone that the voyage is on. But Germain is beginning to doubt it, assuming he wouldn't want to embark on the 700-mile trip in rough seas and leave his friend's SUV on the docks.

Then some U.N. peacekeeping troops from Nepal step out of their post, curious at the activity along the water. They walk around for a few minutes, and go back inside.

''We can't leave now,'' Felix announces. "They'll stop us. We're going to have to move the boat and go later.''

Germain sighs, wondering what his real motives are. Even before Haitian migrants ever sail into the Windward Passage, they must navigate a murky underworld of boat owners, sailors, middlemen, hustlers and bandits. They rarely know who is calling the shots. Most don't even know whether a boat is leaving until they board it, or its destination until they get there. At sea, they risk drowning or dying of thirst. On land, they risk losing the money they pay to smugglers and falling deeper into the abyss of poverty they are trying to escape.

''I tried many times on these boats, and I just lost all my money,'' said Alexandre Renet, 34. "We'd pay them [$800 U.S.] and they'd get halfway there and turn back and keep our money.''

Renet is nonetheless trying again -- waiting with Germain in the dark parking lot. He said goodbye to his wife and children in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and took the spine-jarring, six-hour bus trip to this city on the north coast of Haiti.

''I couldn't do anything for them there, and I don't like begging,'' he says.

His uncle in New Jersey is paying his fare. Renet is not wasting the money on the leaky sailboats that might or might not get him to the Turks and Caicos Islands 150 miles away -- the shortest and first leg of a long, costly journey that winds through the Bahamas to South Florida.

Renet and Germain hope to go on a straight run to Florida on a homemade plywood and fiberglass speedboat named Air Florida 2. In his pocket, Renet keeps a piece of paper with the critical phone numbers on it. He can't wait to make the call -- I am here, come pick me up. His uncle says he'll wire some money and drive down from New Jersey to get him.


Jude Bernardin, 21, is not so blessed, with no family to help him get out. For three years, he has been trying to leave Haiti the cheapest way possible, on one of the sloops that sail to Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos.

He sold his inheritance for his last attempt in July: a pig, two goats and 10 chickens.

Two days out at sea, he began to hear muttering that they were turning back. He could only guess what was happening from his confined space -- wedged into the sloop's dark belly with more than 200 people, disoriented by the heat, the stench of vomit and the groans of ragged planks holding back the sea.

When the hatch opened the next day, he was exactly where he had started. The sailors claimed that the compass had broken and that it was too risky to proceed.

Bernardin suspects that they never planned to go to Providenciales. They already had everyone's money. Had they gone farther into international waters, they would have risked the U.S. Coast Guard catching them and destroying the boat.

But Bernardin is undeterred. ''Even if it's a fake trip, I'll be on it,'' he says.


By August, Bernardin hears of another trip to Providenciales with the same captain. He hopes he will get free passage this time. But he is small and boyish and doesn't carry much clout in the slum.

The boat is tied to a wall at the opening of the inlet. It's a 60-foot sloop, made of rough-hewn timber and painted blue and white. There is no motor. A sail is made from a vinyl billboard banner for the 2005 Nissan Altima. Vodou flags hang from the bow, in the belief that they will make the boat invisible to the Coast Guard. One sailor, Alain Silves, says they are ready to go even though they don't have much food or water.

''We're going anyway,'' he says. "Do or die.''


On Aug. 26, passengers begin to gather along the muddy bank of the inlet, swollen from rains the day before. Uprooted lilies and weeds drift by. Bernardin hears that the boat might leave that night. He has nothing to pack -- his possessions could fit in a grocery bag. He visits someone who might know more about the captain's plans.

In a 10-foot-by-6-foot shack, Fritz Nel lives with four other adults and five children. He is thin and sinewy as a bundle of wires, with the watery eyes of malnutrition.

He doesn't know anything more than Bernardin, but he is ready. He bought new pants and a shirt to look respectable when he arrives. He plans to take his two young sons.

"I worry about them dying. But when you get to Provo with children, they give you more attention. Maybe they'll let us stay.''

Their friend Theodore Fritz is grim with fear at the thought of the passage. He never thought he would have to leave his country like this.

A little more than one year before, he was a part-time university student and radio journalist in Port-au-Prince. Then, on the air, he denounced the gangs that claim allegiance to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide as rapists and murderers. Three days later, when he was at school, several men beat his wife with an iron bar, breaking her back and both legs, and torched his house.

His family went into hiding. 'They're still looking for me, going to neighbors' houses, asking for me,'' he says.

And now the 31-year-old father has come here to catch a boat. He has never been on a boat before, never swam in the ocean.

"Now all I can think about is dying on the water.''


That afternoon, clouds bloom off the mountains and drench the city at dusk. Sailors have heard rumors of a hurricane out there somewhere; Katrina churned over Miami the day before and into the Gulf of Mexico. But they don't know the details. Many captains don't even use maps, describing their routes into the Bahamas as a succession of currents, winds and landmarks.

The smugglers call off their boat's departure.

For three more days, clear mornings give way to tropical squalls in the evenings. The journey is stalled. The out-of-town passengers have to beg for food and spots to sleep.

Finally, on Aug. 30, 169 people row into the black bay on canoes and dories and board the 60-foot sloop. Fritz the journalist, his friend Nel and Nel's two boys find their places inside.

The captain won't let Bernardin on unless he pays.

The boat sails without him.


A week later, Air Florida 2 motors off into the night on a trip that its passengers later recount: Two days out, they hit a violent head wind off the north coast of Cuba. As the boat crashes through a rising sea and driving spray, most of the 25 people aboard get wretchedly sick. Ricardeau Felix, the captain, doles out a small supply of Dramamine. He wants to go on -- as does his wife, hunkered down on the floorboards with their four children.

But Felix's half-brother doesn't think the boat can hold up, the passengers recount. He tells Felix that they will die if they go farther.

He is a huge, scowling man who commands respect.

The engines are groaning. One of them keeps stalling. The starter fails, and each time it does, the mechanic has to pull the rope-starter furiously to get it going, rubbing his hands to blisters.

They turn back. Many of the passengers are furious. When they get back to Cap-Haitien the next day, Felix's wife says she will not even talk to him. They sold everything for the trip -- their radio, dishes, the furniture.

Renet will have to call his uncle in New Jersey later. He takes the bus back to his family home in Port-au-Prince, dejected, wondering if he was taken again.

Germain goes home to the shame of returning to her three children with nothing. "Their money for school I used for the boat.''


Felix promises everyone that they will leave again as soon as he can refill the gasoline and fix the engine and starter.

But by mid-September, Air Florida 2 is still docked. Felix is trying to placate his increasingly frustrated passengers. He announces several times that the boat is ready to go. But his stated plans are always foiled, one day by a faulty battery, another by the winds.

One night, he and a dozen friends and would-be passengers meet in an abandoned port building to appease Aga-Ou, the Vodou spirit they believe rules the sea.

Candles light a sweltering back room as the men gather in a circle and pass a bottle of Barbancourt rum among them. One man lights a torch. Another with a honey-smooth voice slowly chants to bring Aga-Ou out. They spray a perfume called Florida in the air.

The chanting turns to singing. They beat drums and sticks in a gathering fury.

Suddenly, Felix, wearing jeans and no shirt, barges into the circle and demands, "Who called me? Who called me?''

Aga-Ou has taken over his body.

Felix quivers with angry energy. Everyone else backs up. He grabs the torch and scrubs his chest and armpit with the fire. He tries to shove it down his jeans, but other men jump forward and keep him from doing so.

The room reels with the heat and drums. The rum bottle shatters against the wall. A man crashes to the ground, possessed by a spirit. He writhes and kicks in violent spasms. The broken glass crunches beneath his bare back. The men try to restrain him, but his feet strike them away.

A chicken is sacrificed. The drums slow. Aga-Ou leaves.

The men slowly clear the room. They hope he is appeased.


The voyage of the 60-foot sloop is cursed by more human factors.

Three days out, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Sapelo spots the boat just 27 miles north of Haiti. A Coast Guard video shows it teeming with people. The American sailors tell the migrants that they are boarding. They launch inflatables and throw them life vests.

The Haitians are severely dehydrated and sick. They are out of fresh water and disoriented, thinking they are nearing Florida. They are taken aboard the cutter. Officers shoot the sloop with high-caliber rifles to sink it.

Theodore Fritz, the journalist, presents his press identification and says he is being persecuted in Haiti. He is taken to see an asylum officer at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The Sapelo drops the 168 other migrants at the Haitian Coast Guard station in Port-au-Prince.

Fritz Nel's 18-month-old son has been drinking saltwater, which can lead to a fatal kidney failure. His face and limbs are swollen.

When he gets back to Cap-Haitien, Nel has to beg for money for days so the child can see a doctor.