Bush's Haiti nightmare

U.S. mishandling of the Caribbean coup could cost the president votes not only in Miami's "Little Haiti," but among Florida blacks and Cuban Americans, too.

By Tim Grieve
Published March 5, 2004 1:23AM (EST)

On the stoop of an open-air laundromat in Little Haiti, a half-dozen men sit gathered around a cheap radio, listening to a Creole-language news broadcast and talking loudly among themselves about the crisis in their native land.

They've been there all morning -- they look like they've been there all their lives -- but they disperse quickly when a reporter approaches. As his compatriots head for their cars, one man waves the back of his hand at the reporter as if brushing away a mosquito. "We don't want to talk," he says in nervous, halting English. The man pauses for a moment, thinking, then blurts out: "God bless USA!"

It's not clear what he means, exactly, except that the interview is over.

There's a palpable sense of fear in this poor Haitian-American neighborhood. Haiti, only 600 miles away from the Florida coast, has exploded in a bloody uprising. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been evacuated -- some say kidnapped -- to the Central African Republic, and the new interim president hasn't been seen publicly for days. Rebels -- among them, killers, drug dealers and thugs of every sort -- claim control of the country, the United States is sending more troops, and a state of emergency was declared in Haiti Wednesday.

No one knows what will happen next, and no one wants to be on the wrong side of the future. It's true in Little Haiti, where shopkeepers glued to their radios feigned ignorance Wednesday about the Haitian crisis, and it's true in Washington, too. As President Bush launches his reelection bid with calls for a "steady hand" in foreign affairs, his administration suddenly has to face fears that its handling of the Haiti crisis could cost him crucial votes in Florida in November.

While Haiti may not be a critical issue for many voters, it is daily front-page news in Florida, a state Bush won -- at least according to former Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris -- by just over 500 votes in 2000. Even if just a few hundred votes turn on Haiti, Bush and John Kerry will be fighting for each one of them.

For Bush, the landmines await in every direction -- and he has already stepped on some of them. Because of the complexities of Florida's relationship to the Caribbean, the administration's Haiti moves could affect not only the votes of Haitian-Americans, analysts here say, but also the votes of African-Americans and Cuban-Americans. Democrats initially attacked Bush for moving too slowly to stop the bloodshed in Haiti. Now the administration is under siege from Democrats and reporters demanding that Bush come clean on whether Aristide left voluntarily, as the administration claims, or was kidnapped by American forces who wanted to see him gone.

Haitian-Americans, who make up a small but growing voting bloc in Florida, want a safe welcome for refugees who might flee the country. African-American Floridians, already angry with Bush and with voting-rights abuses that blocked many of them from the polls in 2000, won't be happy to see TV news footage of U.S. Coast Guard troops sending black kids on rafts back to a war zone. White Floridians don't want to see another wave of boat people on their shores.

And if it turns out that the United States played an active role in removing Aristide from Haiti -- at the very least, the administration's public pronouncements made it hard for him to stay -- Bush will face questions about how he could oust an Iraqi dictator in the name of promoting democracy while allowing the ouster of a democratically elected leader closer to home.

"Here we have a selected president overthrowing a duly elected president," said Jacques Despinosse, a Haitian-American who serves on the City Council of North Miami. "If Bush really wanted to promote democracy like he said he did in Iraq and other places, the way he handled this was really, really bad."

Like many of the more than 250,000 Haitian-Americans in Florida, Despinosse is a Democrat. The walls of his office in Little Haiti are covered with Democratic Party memorabilia, including a photograph of Despinosse posing with late Democratic Party chairman Ron Brown. He believes that Bush's handling of the Haiti crisis will further galvanize Haitian-Americans in November, and that it may even cause some Cuban-Americans to reconsider their traditional support for the Republicans.

"Ever since Ronald Reagan, Republicans have been promising Cubans a Free Cuba," Despinosse said. "If they see that Bush kidnapped Aristide, they're going to want to know why he hasn't done anything about Castro."

Terry McCoy, a professor of Latin American studies at the University of Florida, listens to Despinosse's theory and calls it a perfect example of the "craziness of Florida politics." Particularly where Cuba and Haiti are involved, he said, there's little room for Bush to maneuver on one without crashing into the other.

Although Haitian-Americans do not represent the political force that Cuban-Americans do, they are growing in number and in power, and the Republicans have begun to reach out to them in hopes of finding some black voters who will vote with them. In Florida, the Republicans have had at least a little success; the Haitian-American who serves as the mayor of North Miami switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP because he thought the Republicans were more interested in helping a black candidate.

But most of the Haitian-Americans who hold public office in Florida are Democrats, including Phillip Brutus, who represents the North Miami area in the state Legislature. Brutus predicted Wednesday that Bush's handling of the Haitian crisis will become an issue in the presidential race. The Congressional Black Caucus has already pushed hard on the issue, forcing a meeting with Bush at the White House. Brutus said he believes the Haitian crisis will become a more widespread concern for voters if refugees begin showing up in Florida or if the military situation gets "messy."

A spokesman for Florida's Republican Party said Wednesday that the only thing certain about the political fallout from Haiti is that Democrats will try to capitalize on it. "It's just so hard to predict what will result from that," said Republican Party spokesman Joseph Agostini. "We've had conversations about this. And with not just the Haitian situation but situations generally, it's safe to say that the Democrats will use any tool available to them, any situation, any group of people, to further their agenda."

At the moment, most Americans are either clueless or confused about Haiti. Indeed, Brutus said even Haitian-Americans appear to be divided "50-50 as to whether Aristide should have left." Personally, Brutus says he believes that Aristide should have left on his own, but that he would be angry if he learned that the United States had in fact forced Aristide out. "That would be a violation of international law and of Haitian law," he said. "But for now, I'm giving [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell the benefit of the doubt."

Other Haitian-Americans in Florida are so scarred -- and scared -- by the Aristide government that they are glad that he is gone, no matter how he left. A 25-year-old Haitian-American woman from Ft. Lauderdale said that she was tired of hearing complaints that Aristide was kidnapped. "It would have been fine with me if they had just killed him," she said.

The woman didn't want to give her name; her grandmother still lives in Haiti, and she was afraid to be linked to either side of the revolution. McCoy, the University of Florida professor, said such fear was understandable. The violence of Haiti has spilled over into the United States before. In the early 1990s, three pro-Aristide broadcasters were killed, presumably for being too public with their views. "There have been revenge killings and threats against people who were supporters of Aristide," McCoy said. "Among people who might want to go back to Haiti someday, there may naturally be some hesitancy to speak out as a supporter of Aristide."

Despinosse clearly has no such fear. At a table at the busy Caribbean Spot Restaurant next to his office in Little Haiti, he held forth in basso profundo about the legitimacy of the Aristide government and the chaos that has come.

Despinosse has neither the Bush administration nor the armed rebels on his side, but in the end he may have something more powerful. He runs a U.S. citizenship center in Little Haiti, where every day classes full of Haitian-Americans study to take the citizenship test and to win the right to vote. Under a ribbon of American flags Wednesday, a half dozen Haitian-American women were practicing their answer to the question, "Who is the president of the United States?"

They got it right after a few tries. Soon, they'll have a say in the answer.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2004 Elections Aftershock George W. Bush Haiti Paul Shirley