MIAMI — In “Little Haiti” here, demonstrators gather nightly to chant anti-Bush rhymes and voice their support for deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“George Bush, kidnapper, blood sucker, liar, liar,” reads one sign with a black-and-white photo of the president at the top.
Some nights there are a hundred demonstrators; others, there are a dozen. But, regardless of the turnout, they are relentless in their criticism of President Bush and are part of the coveted black vote that Democrats already are courting as they try to capture this presidential battleground state in November.
Since revolutionaries marched across the country to remove Mr. Aristide from office last week, Democrats have portrayed Mr. Bush’s handling of the situation as a foreign policy disaster that ended with the removal of a black elected leader.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry last week accused Mr. Bush of fomenting conflict in Haiti out of ideological opposition to Mr. Aristide, who has claimed U.S. forces kidnapped him. He has vowed to return to the Caribbean island.
“This administration has been engaged in very manipulative and wrongful ways,” said Mr. Kerry. “They have a theological and an ideological hatred for Aristide. They always have. They approached this so the insurgents were empowered by this administration.”
Mr. Kerry has called for an investigation into the “kidnapping” accusation, which has been rebutted by the administration and France, both of whom say Mr. Aristide signed paperwork relinquishing his power.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served under President Clinton, this week during a business forum in Florida said: “We should help the people of Haiti replace the rule of the rifle and machete with the rule of law.”
While Mr. Bush’s handling of Haiti is being questioned, a local leader yesterday said that the trouble in the world’s oldest black republic did not begin this year.
“[President] Clinton was criticized, this administration is criticized,” said Jean Robert Lafortune, head of the Haitian-American Crossroads Coalition. “But the crisis has to do with the fact that when the U.N. and U.S. exited out of Haiti in 1996, they left behind unfinished business.”
He added that only two years ago the Haitian community was united in its support of Mr. Aristide.
“Those people protesting are stuck in yesterday,” Mr. Lafortune said. “It is time to move forward.”
Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, a Florida Democrat whose district includes Miami, yesterday said both pro- and anti-Aristide Haitians just want a peaceful resolution, but he did blame Mr. Bush’s leadership for the current situation and said questions remain about the removal of Mr. Aristide.
“The Haitian situation is going to have an effect on [Mr. Bush’s] lack of leadership on international affairs,” Mr. Meek said. “His lack of diplomacy has put us in this situation where we’ve had to deploy armed forces.”
It is hard to define Haitians as a voting bloc because they are listed as blacks in the census, but in a state where 537 votes separated Mr. Bush from Al Gore in the 2000 election, both parties are interested in their concerns. The U.S. Census estimates there are 267,834 Haitians in Florida.
“The president is addressing the challenges he faces in Haiti while Senator Kerry is spreading rumors he hears from his friends in Massachusetts,” said Mary Ellen Grant, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.
The man in charge of the protests here, Tony Jean-Thenor, has a well-organized front, which gets plenty of local press and has an impressive reach, all the way to Haiti.
And, he expects, to Washington. He counts as his allies “the Congressional Black Caucus,” two of whom, Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters of California and Charles B. Rangel of New York, were the first to level the kidnapping charge after cell-phone conversations with Mr. Aristide.
“We’ve been here for a long time, we work for the refugees; anytime Haiti has a problem that’s when we get it,” said Mr. Jean-Thenor, 47, who runs the immigrant advocacy center Veye Yo — which means “watch them” in Creole.