Haitians: Heading to U.S. Worth Risk

.c The Associated Press

ACUL DU NORD, Haiti (AP) – Everyone in this Haitian farming town knows someone who risked boarding the ship that ran aground off Miami. Most would go too, if they could scrape together the money to abandon a country mired in economic and political troubles.

Poor residents in Acul recite a list of ills that includes 90 percent unemployment and a struggle to find food. The last straw, they say, was political harassment after they stopped supporting President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“Most people don’t make enough to survive … Some days you eat, some days you don’t,” said Phito Florestal, explaining the desperation that prompted dozens of people to board the overcrowded boat.

Florestal was a neighbor and friend of Jean-Vilien Thomas and his wife Geraldine, a couple in their 20s who he said got on the boat when she became pregnant with their third child and he still had not found work.

“They were very, very poor, and they had to borrow the money from loan sharks who charged them 20 percent interest,” Florestal said. The Thomas family paid smugglers about $1,000 for their passage.

The couple sneaked their two children onto the boat because the childrens’ grandparents objected, saying the voyage was too dangerous, said Florestal, a laboratory technician at a clinic.

The Thomases probably are among 211 Haitians detained after they made a dramatic dash to reach U.S. soil on Thursday, jumping from the grounded boat and spilling onto a major highway.

U.S. authorities have resisted protests demanding the Haitians be allowed to stay in the country; those who cannot prove political persecution likely will be sent back home.

“Now they’re in a lot of trouble,” Florestal said of his friends, “Not only will they be sent back but they’ll also have to repay the money.”

He said Jean-Vilien Thomas had trained to use computers in Cap-Haitien, a northern port about 1 1/2 hours’ drive from Acul. But like many, he never found work.

Ten or 15 years ago, Acul’s soil was rich enough for people to earn a living as farmers, growing plantains, coffee and groundnuts. Bananas and breadfruit still grow wild here.

But with no electricity, people began stripping the area of trees to make charcoal for cooking, bringing on erosion that has polluted the water supply.

Hopes for a better life were renewed in 1994, when 20,000 U.S. troops ousted a three-year military regime to reinstate Aristide, the Caribbean nation’s first democratically elected president.

But elections since then have been rigged, and international aid was frozen after a flawed 2000 vote was swept by Aristide’s Lavalas Family party.

Most people in Acul voted for Lavalas. But since then, the economy has slumped into negative growth, political gangs have gained strength and crime has risen, some related to Haiti’s position as a growing transit point for Colombian cocaine destined for the United States.

Many Haitians have turned their backs on Aristide, and that has brought harassment from the police and from Lavalas supporters, said Margarite Jean-Pierre, 40, who was selling rock salt, candles and peppers in the street.

“There’s no security here and we can’t eat. Why should we stay?” she asked.

Florestal said a regional opposition politician, Brunnel Demostone, had jumped on the boat to Florida with his family last week, complaining that Lavalas militants had shot at his house and were constantly harassing him.

Residents said most of the people who took the boat were young, in their 20s. But Marcel Marcelin, 68, said last week’s departure got him thinking and now, exhausted by watching his community deteriorate, he too is considering trying to reach the United States.

“It’s misery here. The kids can’t go to school. They can’t find jobs, so they just disappear any way they can and try to get to the States.”

More than two-thirds of the workers among Haiti’s 8.2 million people are unemployed or get by with odd jobs, and a U.S. Embassy poll last year found the vast majority of Haitians would prefer to live in the United States.

A United Nations report says more than three out of five Haitians suffers from malnutrition and, at birth, a Haitian’s chances of not living to 40 are 31.6 percent. Florestal indicated those short-lived lives were almost a mercy.

“Only drug dealers and politicians have hope in this country,” he said. “It’s understandable that dying would be a relief to many people. That’s exactly what these migrants (who arrived in Florida) were thinking.”