Aristide’s Refugee Politics

October 31, 2002


Wall Street Journal

The pictures were vivid, and even bounced Minnesota off our screens for a while. A rickety boat ran aground on Tuesday afternoon, right in the heart of Miami. About 200 would-be refugees began to wade ashore — mostly men, but some women and children, all unmistakably Haitian.

My questions: Has a Haitian refugee “invasion” started? Or did the timing of the landing have anything to do with an attempt to inject Haiti into the election debate in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush is in a tight race for re-election?

The U.S. was put on notice some time back. Last July, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti gave a lengthy interview to the New York Times, in which he noted that the dire economic situation in his country might force thousands of Haitians to flood the beaches of southern Florida. “Governor Bush wouldn’t want that,” he said, especially in an election year. Mr. Aristide even said, “Jeb and I are in the same boat,” meaning that a Haitian exodus could jeopardize the president’s brother’s prospects.

A weekly publication close to Mr. Aristide, Haiti-en-Marche, brought up the “invasion” threat in its Oct. 16 issue. “A bankrupt Haiti,” it wrote, “would mean thousands of refugees heading for the Bahamas and Florida.” The U.S. Coast Guard, it wrote, could not “deter [the boat people]. How does one control a tragedy of such magnitude?” Was the Miami and Port-au-Prince-based weekly being prophetic, or just a transmission belt? Over to Haiti-en-Marche again: “The first to arrive would be top news in the large circulation American dailies and thousands would invade Biscayne Boulevard every Saturday. It is not Iraq, but it is not insignificant.”

Indeed, the first landing has raised many questions, among them the origin of the refugees. Several Haitian political experts doubt that the well-dressed boat people — mostly young men — traveled all the way from Haiti. They note that thousands of Haitians live in the Bahamas and could have been recruited to make the trip this time. That draws attention to President Bush’s administration policy against Haitians in contrast to its embrace of Cuban refugees.

Since December, Haitian asylum seekers are detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service while their cases are processed. All others are sent back to Haiti. Cubans, on the other hand, are welcome once they set foot on American soil.

The experts say that the wily Mr. Aristide and his Democratic allies, especially in the Congressional Black Caucus, stand to reap some political benefits from the display of what appears to be a double standard. The spectacle of Black Haitians being hauled to jail could energize the black constituency in Florida to vote en masse against Gov. Bush and make for an upset in favor of Bill McBride, his Democratic challenger. Yesterday, Democratic Rep. Carrie Meek waded in, urging Gov. Bush to call his brother on behalf of the refugees.

The Haitian refugee question was a major issue in 1992, when thousands of Haitian refugees were held at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base on orders of the other President George Bush. Candidate Bill Clinton hammered at the inhumane policy. He said he would change it if elected. Also, he said that he would reinstate President Aristide in power, because the ousted “democratically elected” president could keep the refugees at home.

Once elected, President Clinton kept the Bush policy in place until a well-rehearsed hunger strike by Randall Robinson of TransAfrica forced a change in the summer of 1994. Eventually President Clinton dispatched more than 20,000 American soldiers to Haiti in September 1994 to prepare the way for Mr. Aristide’s return on Oct. 15 of that year.

However, the experiment in “restoring democracy” by the U.S. military has been a total failure. Mr. Aristide, a defrocked radical Catholic priest, has turned into a would-be dictator. He is compared now with Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, who set up his Tontons-Macoute Gestapo-like police to harass, jail and kill his opponents. Mr. Aristide’s goons are called chimeres (chimeras) and have turned Haiti into a killing field.

The situation is such that the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States approved a resolution on Sept. 4 giving the Aristide regime 60 days to comply with several demands. He should, among others, arrest and bring to trial the goons who destroyed and burned the properties of opposition leaders last Dec. 17 in the wake of a bogus coup d’état. He should also pay reparations to the victims of the mayhem and set up a broadly representative electoral council to organize elections next year under the sponsorship of the international community.

Based on compliance with these demands, the international lending institutions are urged to open a dialogue with the Haitian authorities to resume the flow of badly needed foreign aid. As reported, some $500 million in loans and grants have been withheld by the international community, pending a resolution of the crisis that has buffeted Haiti for more than two years.

The political crisis has now become a financial one, threatening the Haitian banking system. Earlier this year, several money cooperatives collapsed in Haiti, swallowing more than $200 million in deposits by investors who were promised interest of 10% to 15% per month. Mr. Aristide had urged the citizens to invest in the ventures, which were pyramid scams, to launder drug proceeds. An investigation by international banking officials into the legitimacy of the cooperatives caused the scheme to unravel. Mr. Aristide said all depositors would be reimbursed. But he has failed to keep his promise.

Now the government is facing its worst crisis because of rumors that dollar accounts would be nationalized. In one week, the Haitian gourde fell nearly a third, from 27 gourdes to the dollar to 40. Gladys M. Coupet, president of the Professional Bank Association in Port-au-Prince, said on Oct. 22 that $20 million was transferred out of the country in one day. Almost risibly, this Monday, President Aristide issued a declaration urging citizens to “keep your calm.”

In an advertisement appearing in Haitian newspapers abroad, expatriates have been asked to “keep the faith in the monetary authorities and the banking system.” But most people are soured by what happened with the “cooperatives.” And the money hemorrhage continues.

Thus, the exodus out of Haiti could be a real one. But who would be financing it this time around? From 1991 to 1994, the exiled President Aristide, flush with cash, had been the main instigator of the flight, alleging political persecution by the military who overthrew him. But as the embodiment of democracy, Mr. Aristide is in an awkward position to admit that Haitian citizens are fleeing his rule.

Unless, that is, they bear a message for Gov. Bush.

Mr. Joseph is the editor of the Haiti Observateur, a weekly paper published in Brooklyn, N.Y.