Md. Haitians debate nation's fate

Opinions: Some bemoan the ouster of Aristide. Others say the focus should be on helping the country move ahead.

March 04, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING - When a group of Haitian-American activists gathered in a swank penthouse the other night to discuss their homeland, they moved through the first couple of agenda items with ease.

Try to send aid to the war-torn country? Sure. Press U.S. officials to give refugee status to Haitians entering the United States? Great idea, members agreed as they munched cookies and sipped coffee.

Then Joseph E. Baptiste, the chairman of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians (NOAH), said the group should not immediately take a position on the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former Catholic priest who fled the country last week, or on the growing presence of U.S. troops.

"Everything is done, and there's nothing we can do about it," said Baptiste, of Silver Spring.

That's when the calm ended. Other members of the group quickly raised their voices and waved their arms, saying they should condemn the United States for not supporting Aristide, a democratically elected leader. "An honest pox on the U.S. and France, who allowed the situation to get where it is today. You just don't do something like that to a democracy," said Yvonne Estime of Reston, Va.

The disparate opinions highlight a debate taking place from high-rises in this Washington, D.C., suburb to churches in the "Little Haiti" neighborhood of Miami. Some Haitian-Americans want to move away from Aristide, who was increasingly blamed for government corruption and inciting violence, and concentrate on rebuilding their devastated country. But others think Haitian-Americans need to make a stand against what they perceive was the United States' unwillingness to back a democratically chosen president. This is the third U.S. military intervention in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country since 1915.

"The older part of the group are more interested in giving aid. The younger group is more interested in making a statement," said Daniel Lamaute, an Alexandria, Va., resident and board member of NOAH, which has about 3,000 members.

About 5,400 Haitians live in Maryland, mostly in Prince George's and Montgomery counties, according to the U.S. Census of 2000. The vast majority of the country's nearly 420,000 Haitians live in South Florida and New York City.

Watching from afar

Since fighting broke out between rebel troops and Aristide loyalists, immigrants have found it difficult to call home amid power outages, and many spend their time watching the news and poring over newspapers. "It's our only choice," said Emanuel Francois, a Columbia surgeon who has several cousins in Haiti.

Baptiste, a dentist who has lived in the United States for nearly 35 years, said that his family's coffee business in the capital of Port-au-Prince was burned down last week and that his family, including his brother Eric, almost never leave their homes. At least 25 people have died during the clashes, according to media reports.

"Everybody is in fear," Baptiste said. "They don't know how long they will have to live like this."

Though the United States sent hundreds of troops to Haiti this week, violence has continued. After Aristide fled the country, the chief justice of the Supreme Court became the interim president, but Tuesday the leader of the rebel forces declared that he was in charge of the country.

Catholic Relief Services, a Baltimore-based group, recently received a cash grant of nearly $410,000 from USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance to provide care and bring supplies to Haiti but has suspended aid work because of safety concerns. "It's got to be a secure situation first," said Brian Shields, a spokesman for the group.

Many immigrants said their families are used to the violence. "Life in Haiti has generally not been secure," Francois said.

Shaky democracy

More worrisome to many Haitian-Americans is the country's shaky democracy. Haiti endured years of despotic rule before 1990, when Aristide was elected. He was overthrown by the militia in 1992 but returned to power in 1994 with the help of the U.S. military. Aristide was re-elected in 2000.

Many Haitians rejoiced at Aristide's election because it was a sign that their country was progressing toward democracy.

The recent troubles are "especially painful because [Aristide] was their first elected president," said Lynn Bolles, a women's studies professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who specializes in the Caribbean region.

Many felt that the Bush administration deserted Aristide by not sending in troops early. "They should have got to the problem earlier. To send U.S. troops in on the morning of his ouster looks like you're aiding and abetting the other party," said Veronique Pluviose-Fenton of Fort Washington.

Some U.S. leaders agree. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus asked for an inquiry into U.S. actions. "We really do have to look at this because this is a terrible precedent for the U.S. to work with thugs and gangsters to get rid of an elected president," said Emile Milney, a spokeswoman for Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New York Democrat and a member of the caucus.

Others say the group needs to focus its efforts on trying to send aid to Haiti and worry about political investigations later. "Now is not the time," Baptiste told the group at the recent meeting. "We need to take care of the country first."

After more than 30 minutes of impassioned discussion, the group's members reached a compromise. They would concentrate on getting aid to Haiti but would also draft a statement outlining their reservations about U.S. actions.

Said Baptiste: "I'm sure the debate will continue."

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