South Florida Sun-Sentinel
February 29, 2004

For Haitians, only sure thing seems to be uncertainty

Michael Mayo
She works in the seafood department of the Publix out west on Sheridan Street, hardly makes enough to scrape by.

But Erlande Desanges sent $150 through the thick Plexiglas window in the back of Nick Michael's store in Miramar on Friday afternoon, because she knows her brother and sister in Haiti need it more.

Whether they actually see the food she arranged to buy is another story.

"It might be two or three days, might be a week, might be two months," Desanges said. "Nobody knows."

That's been the operative phrase for too long about Haiti, never more so than this weekend.

The uncertainty was written on everyone's face and on the cashier's window at the store on Miramar Parkway run by Michael, a Haitian expatriate.

He sells computers, CDs, cellular phones and phone cards, but the reason most people come here is the yellow banner out front that reads, "CAM Agent Autorisé."

CAM stands for Caribbean Air Mail. It's the way people wire money and goods to relatives in Haiti. It's been Michael's bread-and-butter since he opened the store two years ago.

On Friday, there was a notice taped to the cashier's window from the CAM corporate headquarters in Miami. It said that when it came to Haiti there were no more guarantees.

Here's how the CAM service worked until recently. You went to an outlet like Michael's and put money through the window. If you were wiring cash, it would be available at a CAM outlet in Haiti two hours later, minus the stiff transaction fee. If you were sending food, like the beans, rice and cooking oil Desanges bought, the order would be filled at a store in Haiti and be ready for pickup the next day.

With Haiti sinking and splintering in its latest political crisis, here's how the CAM service worked on Friday:

Customers would read the notice and ask Michael questions, and he would explain that the delivery times were no longer certain but that their money would be refundable if the people on the receiving end didn't get their cash or goods.

Then some customers would whip out their cell phones and try to figure out whether they should put their hard-earned twenties into limbo through the window.

Paul Henri of Miami was going to send a few hundred dollars to his brother and sister in Port-au-Prince, but he decided to hold onto it. He figured he would wait to see what happened over the weekend.

"I tried to talk to them last night, but I couldn't get through," Henri said. "I have to be scared, because the rebels are going to attack Port-au-Prince and if Aristide fights back anything can happen. ... They live in a circle over there. Everything keeps going around and around."

Bernard Morin, a social worker for the city of Hallandale, decided to send $100 to his elderly father in Cap-Haïtien. He said he hasn't been able to communicate with him for the last two weeks.

"He helps a lot of poor people, feeds 15 kids at his home all the time," Morin said. "A lot of people depend on him, so people will protect him. I hope the money gets to him. You always have to have hope."

But it's getting harder. Desanges, 30, doesn't know what the future will bring her brother, sister and father, who live in Léogâne. She spoke to them on Thursday. They said they are safe and their city is calm, but that stores and schools were closed and food prices were spiking.

"They're not working and I have to support them," said Desanges, who came to the United States in 1996 on a student visa. "In Haiti, you can learn a trade and finish school, but there's no jobs. You just wait in the street."

Desanges, who visited her family in January, said the conditions keep getting worse. "There's no electricity, no running water. They need help over there."

At the store on Miramar Parkway, it keeps trickling through the window in an uncertain stream of twenties. Nobody knows what will happen on the receiving end. All they can do is hope.

Michael Mayo can be reached at or 954-356-4508.

Copyright © 2004