The Miami Herald
Sun, Feb. 29, 2004
In South Florida, Haitian Americans wonder and worry


As chaos enveloped Haiti Sunday, South Florida's Haitians wondered -- and worried about -- what President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's departure means for them and relatives back home.

Gathered in churches, restaurants and barbershops, and sometimes on the streets, they were harshly divided over whether Aristide's exodus was warranted. Some disputes became heated.

But most Haitians are united in concern over what comes next. Those worries echoed Sunday from Little Haiti to Haitian-American strongholds in central Broward and Delray Beach.

''Hopefully the international forces will come help so that there will be peace, otherwise there will be chaos,'' said Davidson Pierre, a University of Miami graduate student, walking toward the Siloe Pentecostal Church of God, where services are conducted in Creole.

Pierre said his parents remain in Port-au-Prince. ``Right now there is no police. The police are trying to hide themselves.''

Hours after Aristide resigned, a group of his supporters listened to news in the Veyoyo Little Haiti Restaurant near the corner of North Miami Avenue and 54th Street.

''It's the principle. He went through elections. It's a matter of choosing between Aristide or these thugs,'' said Ernest Gabo, 40, who sells insurance.

Gabo and a handful of Haitians watched television reports from Port-au-Prince -- images of burning piles of garbage in the streets. ''The international community hasn't done anything to help our country,'' he said. ``If it was a white country, this administration would have done anything they could to help.''

Yet reaction to Aristide's exit was often overshadowed by uncertainty among South Florida's Haitian population, which was conservatively listed as 214,893 in the 2000 Census.

Who will rule? Will order be restored? Will Haiti be stronger?

''You don't know whether to celebrate or what to expect, because now there is no commander in chief,'' said Robert Duverny, 30, an accountant.

From the pulpit at Notre Dame d'Haiti, in the heart of Little Haiti, the Rev. Reginald Jean-Mary said in Creole: ``The problem is not solved. We can't call this a victory for one group or another group. It is a defeat for us, the Haitian people.''

''It's a moment of healing. Haitians should not be taking sides right now. They need to come together and help Haiti move forward,'' Jean-Mary said.

Little Haiti's Tony Antoine, 49, was among those happy for change. ``We don't need Aristide in Haiti. There have been too many killings.''

Said St. Thomas University student Andy Pierre, 21: ``Now we can finally have peace in Haiti.''

Yet many expressed anger that Haiti's first democratically elected president was ousted before he could finish his term. As parishioners spilled out of the church at the end of service, some shouted at journalists that Aristide should not have been forced from power.

''Now what's going to happen? There is no better person to replace him. It's only going to be worse for Haiti,'' said Baliston Elidor, 49, of Little Haiti.

Tensions flared at times. Local TV cameras captured Aristide supporters shattering the car window of a woman said to favor his departure.

At one point Sunday morning, the crowd at a rally of the pro-Aristide Veye Yo group in Little Haiti became agitated when Aristide opponent Louis Menard drove past them twice.

Some tried to chase him, shouting ``Menard macoute!'' -- a reference to the Duvalier era secret police, the Tonton Macoutes. Menard, a radio commentator and former friend of Aristide, was not a member of the Macoutes.

Menard drove off, and police pushed back the crowd.

Haitian flags fluttered at a rally at 52nd Street and North Miami Avenue, where about 200 pro-Aristide protesters gathered to denounce President Bush because they believe the U.S. forced Aristide's ouster. They shouted to passing motorists, held up blown-up photos of Aristide, and clutched placards supporting the former Haitian president.

The chants: ''No more Bush,'' and ``Coup d'état, no! Democracy, yes!''

''The world should know today that democracy is killed in Haiti,'' said Pierre Jean.

In Broward, some Haitian-Americans were hesitant to cheer until more is known. ''Will the new government -- whoever that is -- be able to forget and forgive the past ... or will there be more fighting?'' asked minister Lasse Joseph outside Fort Lauderdale's Bethel Evangelical Baptist Church.

At a Caribbean-themed festival near Bayside Marketplace in downtown Miami, talk of Aristede's ouster was subtle, overshadowed by the thumping music, the smell of barbecue and people draped in Haitian, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican flags.

The tension melted for some anti-Aristede Haitian-Americans who came to enjoy the elaborate parade floats and griot fried pork. ''We came here with more joy,'' said Jean Gedon, 50, who helped organize the event.

For Greg Blaise, who came from Haiti in 1985 and on Sunday wore the country's flag wrapped around his head, the tension between pro-and-anti-Aristede factions was bound to fade.

''Today, you'll see how Haitians unite,'' Blaise said. ``When it comes to partying, all that other stuff goes out the window.''

Haiti's turmoil also reverberated with local politicians here.

North Miami City Councilman Jean Monestime, one of three Haitian-Americans who comprise the nation's only Haitian-American majority city council, has appeared on Creole-language radio recently to ask North Miami's Haitian-American community to send food and medical supplies to the chaos-torn island.

He renewed that call Sunday, even as he tried to reach his brothers back home. ''The community here is truly the lifeline for those who live in Haiti,'' Monestime said.

Herald staff writers Carolyn Salazar, David Ovalle and Ashley Fantz contributed to this report.