Old loyalties, bitter infighting and even ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide stand in the way of South Florida’s Haitian community expanding its political clout.
The divisions were once again evident last week as Miami-Dade County commissioners zeroed in on a replacement for retiring commissioner Barbara Carey-Shuler. Across town several Haitian-American leaders met inside a cavernous Little Haiti community center seemingly ready to announce their choice and flaunt their political weight.
Instead, an hour after their press conference was set to begin, the leaders called the whole thing off. They could not agree on which Haitian-American candidate to support.
The battle over Carey-Shuler’s seat stands as a harbinger of the schism within the Haitian-American community that threatens to derail bids by Haitian Americans to extend their political reach beyond Miami and Tallahassee to Washington. And Aristide has become the spoiler from afar—with pro-Aristide local radio personalities and other power brokers using political candidates’ support for Aristide as a litmus test for backing local campaigns.
Compounding that dynamic are growing tensions between Miami-Dade’s African-American political machinery—which doesn’t want to give up any of its hard-fought gains—and up-and-coming Haitian-American leaders.
‘THE BIGGER PICTURE’
“The disloyal and unnecessary competition among Haitians makes it impossible for us to come together,” said Dr. Laurinus Pierre, director of the Center for Haitian Studies in Little Haiti. “We fight among each other, and we don’t look at the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture involves Haitian Americans seeking to keep two legislative seats, and eyeing at least two county commission seats—plus U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek’s congressional district, which covers one of the largest concentrations of Haitian Americans in the country.
Haitian Americans have been extending their political grip ever since Philippe Derose, now a North Miami Beach councilman, became the first Haitian American elected to public office in 1993, when he won a seat on the El Portal Village Council, becoming its mayor seven years later.
In 2000, Phillip Brutus became the first Haitian American elected to the Florida Legislature. In 2001, Brutus’ political rival, former North Miami Mayor Josaphat “Joe” Celestin became the first Haitian-American mayor of a large Miami-Dade city.
Surpassing 245,000 in Miami-Dade, Haitian Americans are leading South Florida’s black growth and building a middle class. But now, reeling from Aristide’s February 2004 forced departure from a chaotic Haiti, Haitian Americans have become increasingly divided.
“The stability of Haiti is extremely important for the advancement of Haitian-American politics in Miami,” said Jacques Despinosse, one of two Haitians on the North Miami City Council. “Good or bad, Duvalier did one thing for us. He united us.”
Just as Cuban leader Fidel Castro serves as a catalyst for Miami’s Cuban-American community to unite against him, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s regime kept Haitian exiles unified.
Realizing that citizenship translated into power at the ballot box, Haitian refugees became U.S. citizens. Today, there are eight Haitian Americans in local public office.
“Now, we need each other more than ever,” said Despinosse, noting past efforts to bring elected Haitian Americans together have been stymied by rivalries and distrust. “We’ve become self-destructive.”
Nowhere was this more evident than in this year’s mayor’s race in North Miami where Haitians outnumber other ethnic groups.
In a campaign fought on Creole-language radio, a group of Aristide supporters led a divide-and-conquer attack against North Miami mayoral candidate Jean Monestime, portraying the former boat refugee and Aristide opponent as an uppity politician disconnected from average, working people. Monestime lost the race, and the Haitian community lost its majority on the council.