Haitian Headache

The Haitian crisis presents George — and Jeb — Bush with a big political challenge.


Florida is suddenly back in the political news — this time because of the mayhem engulfing Haiti, 600 miles off its shores. The state is home to the largest Haitian population in the United States, and the manner in which George W. Bush handles the current crisis could either pull Haitian-Amerian votes into his column in November, or else drive them toward his Democratic challenger. As we know, it doesn’t take a whole lot of votes to turn an election in Florida; Bush “won” there in 2000 by 537 votes.

Haitians are the second-largest immigrant group in Florida after Cubans, and while they might not wield the same political clout as Cuban exiles there, hundreds of thousands of Haitians in Florida and New York are crucial to the election. In fact, the largest boom in Florida’s Haitian population lately has been in Broward County, ground- zero for the contested vote counts four years ago.

Haitians in Florida, as in Haiti, seem divided along multiple lines. There are those who are glad to see the back of Aristide — Haiti is the poorest nation in the Americas, and its people have endured increasing poverty and hunger under his increasingly authoritarian rule — and are grateful that the U.S. is taking constructive action; those who feel Bush’s involvement is too little, too late; and those who supported Aristide and consider what happened to him a U.S.-backed coup; those who fear an influx of Haitians to Florida, and those who welcome an influx, and worry the U.S. will be less than welcoming to Haitian refugees.

The Miami Herald outlines the importance of the Haitian vote:

While Haitian Americans remain a relatively small voting bloc in the state, the images of black people escaping the chaos of the impoverished Caribbean nation and then being returned by the U.S. Coast Guard could inflame racial tensions at a time civil rights groups are marshaling forces for a big turnout against Bush in the November election, Democratic strategists and leaders said Sunday.

Still, an election-year refugee crisis in Florida is particularly dangerous for the GOP because it would embroil the president’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, in touchy decisions over how to treat people entering the state — and whether Haitians fleeing chaos would be entitled to similar special treatment granted Cubans who flee communism. Haitian Americans tend to vote Democratic, while Cuban Americans are one of the Republican Party’s most important voting blocs in the state.

The issue is certain to arise during a major civil rights march planned for Tuesday in Tallahassee to coincide with the governor’s State of the State speech — the same day Kerry arrives for a set of major rallies in Florida essentially to kick off his primary and general-election campaigns in the state.

Haitian immigrants alone might not have the special power in Florida as the Cuban community, but they can draw on the voice of national African American civil rights leaders to echo Kerry’s accusation that a “double standard” favors refugees from Cuba over those from its neighbor.

A thin, 60-mile strip of water separates Haiti and Cuba and comparisons with U.S. treatment of Cuban boat refugees are inevitable. The United States granted asylum to 36 percent of the 8,400 Haitian refugees floating ashore in 2002, according to the nonprofit U.S. Committee for Refugees. Yet the Immigration and Naturalization Service accepted 69 percent of nearly 25,000 Cuban refugees in the same year.

The New York Times‘ Christoher Marquis
indicates a motivation to keep refugees out of the spotlight:

The final stage of Mr. Aristide’s rule opened when the White House reacted strongly to the report of an attack on Friday on a Haitian Coast Guard installation by a pro-Aristide mob. After a firefight at the Killick base, five miles from the main port, the Haitian Coast Guard workers were forced to take to boats and flee the site, the official said. That incident persuaded White House officials that Mr. Aristide and his armed loyalists sought to shut down the process by which refugees were being intercepted by the United States Coast Guard and returned home.

Bush’s handling of this situation is, inevitably, drawing criticism from Democrats. Presidential hopefuls John Kerry and John Edwards are blasting the administration for not acting sooner to quell the riots that have destabilized Haiti and left more than 100 dead. They aim to undermine the president’s professed national security prowess by exposing his failure to use diplomacy to prevent violence in Haiti.

The Miami Herald spells out some concerns:

Democrats believe the issue presents an increasingly complicated political problem for Bush and his national security team — especially as the administration justifies ousting a dictator in Iraq in the name of fostering democracy, while it stood by as armed rebels forced out a democratically elected president only hundreds of miles off Florida’s shores.

Allegations that the administration is supporting and funding rebels Haiti, as it has done from Chile to the Congo, once again make the United States look like a two-faced bully meddling in other nations’ attempts at self-rule while trumpeting democratic values. Kerry and Edwards have stopped short of claiming that the U.S. had a direct hand in Aristide’s ouster. Others haven’t been so timid.

Nirit Ben-Ari and Bill Weinberg of Alternet level a startling charge:

This overthrow had been in the making since December 1990, when Haiti’s first free election was held.

In a Feb. 12 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, US Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) wrote: “Our failure to support the democratic process and help restore order looks like a covert effort to overthrow a government. There is a violent coup d’etat in the making, and it appears that the United States is aiding and abetting the attempt to violently topple the Aristide Government. With all due respect, this looks like ‘regime change.’ How can we call for democracy in Iraq and not say very clearly that we support democratic elections as the only option in Haiti?”

The Bush administration dismisses this as a conspiracy theory, but as the U.S. flies up to 2,000 more U.S. troops into Haiti, it will certainly face more questions about its newest nation-building efforts.

The Haitian Times, an English-language newspaper based in New York City, hopes that the rebuilding of Haiti will involve Haitians themselves:

The last time Haiti faced a similar crisis, the power makers in Washington turned to themselves, brokered a solution and patted themselves on the back. Everyone, from the Congressional Black Caucus to the State Department and other government agencies, felt good. They turned to their old American analysts who guided their policy. One key element missing in all of this was the Haitian American community. No one bothered to get the views of Haitian-American bankers, economists, political scientists, urban planners, physicians, engineers and others.

Now every one of those analysts seems at a loss as to what to do with Haiti. The Bush Administration, having spent most of its energy on Iraq and the Middle East, appears to have forgotten where Haiti lies. Now Haiti is back on the front pages and at the top of radio and television news. The administration is scrambling for a coherent policy.

Why take such risks with Haiti? The Christian Science Monitor ponders this question:

The issue of “importance” of a particular country leads to the question of why undertake nation-building projects at all. With Iraq and Afghanistan the threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction have been cited.

But what of little Haiti? The Caribbean country has emerged as a growing link in the hemisphere’s drug trade as law enforcement has collapsed and fallen to corruption. Threats of a mass exodus of Haitians to US shores have also been cited. The functioning democratic institutions a successful nation-building program would help create are remedies to both problems, experts say.

But domestic politics offers another explanation for the US focus – and failure – in Haiti. [James] Dobbins [Clinton’s envoy to Haiti for two years after 1994] notes that of all US nation-building efforts, “Haiti has been the most partisanly controversial.”

The Washington Post explainshow Bush is trying to manage the Haitian crisis within the Republican party:

Geoffrey Becker, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, said the party has begun reaching out to Haitian leaders as part of an effort to increase the 10 percent or so of the African American vote that the GOP typically garners in Florida. He said the affinity between the party and Cubans is a legacy of anti-communism but that the party is trying to move beyond that. “We’re not going to speak to one community at the expense of another,” he said.

One twist in the politics of the Haitian crisis is that it has produced a détente between the White House and the Congressional Black Caucus. After refusing for three years to grant an audience to the group, Bush met with the members — all Democrats — Wednesday after they were admitted to the White House to talk to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice about Haiti, and then insisted on seeing the president.

“We just want the president to synchronize his conscience with his conduct,” [Rep. Elijah] Cummings [D-Md.] said. Asked how Bush has done so far on the caucus’s wish list for Haiti, the chairman said, “The jury is still out.”

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