U.S., Haiti Squabble Over Control of Tiny Island

Date: Fri, 25 Sep 1998

By YVES COLON Miami Herald Staff Writer

On street corners, in barber shops and on radio talk shows, Haitians in Miami are enraged by the battle over Navassa, a forgotten rocky outpost that has become an ecological jewel with the recent discovery of unique birds and wildlife. The United States and Haiti both claim to own the one-square-mile island, a rich source of guano for American farmers a century ago. The two nations briefly tussled over it back then, with U.S. warships chasing away Haitian gun boats. On the sidelines: A California entrepreneur's recent takeover bid for Navassa and its precious deposits of bird droppings.Dormant for more than a century, the dispute was resurrected last month when 14 scientists from the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington visited the island and identified 800 species of wildlife, many found nowhere else in the world. The U.S. Department of Interior, which manages Navassa, has threatened to use force to keep anyone away. Haitians, who say Navassa always has been part of Haiti, are furious. On radio talk shows, both here and in Haiti, angry callers have been denouncing the American government's posture as reminiscent of the ``big stick'' era in the Caribbean, and questioning U.S. claim on the island.``Haitian kids grow up learning in their history books that Navassa is part of Haiti,''said Alex St. Surin, host of the one-hour daily Creole-language program Radio Carrefour on WLQY (1320 AM) in Miami. ``People are very emotional about it.The majority of people who have been calling for the past two weeks are saying that Navassa is ours and that the Americans are using their power to take it away from us.'' Haitian Foreign Minister Fritz Longchamp jumped into the fray last week when he declared that ``Navassa is a part of the national territory of the Republic of Haiti. This is consecrated by the Constitution of Haiti.'' U.S. Ambassador Timothy Carney at a ribbon-cutting ceremony took a swipe at the Haitian claim. Refreshingly frank, according to an aide, Carney said, ``The United States has governed the island since 1858, thus it is American territory.'' He went on to say that Haitians would be better served by paying closer attention to their internal problems.``What nerve,'' said Elsie Etheart, co-editor of Haiti En Marche, a weekly published in Miami, and co-owner of radio station Melodie 103.3 FM in Port-au-Prince. ``He had a lot of gall telling us what we should or should not be paying attention to.'' She added that Haitians accustomed to U.S. power plays in the Caribbean are not surprised by Washington's display of muscle, but refuse to be pushovers over Navassa, which is about 35 miles west of the tip of Haiti.``Haitian fishermen have been fishing for lobsters on the reefs around that island for generations,'' Etheart said. ``Haitians in Miami are saying that the Americans must have discovered something more important on the island, something like uranium.'' Mary Ellen Gilroy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince, said three-quartersof the questions Haitian journalists ask at recent news conferences deal with Navassa.`It's very serious for Haitians,'' she noted. ``Every constitution except the one written by the Marines [which occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934] mention that Navassa is part of Haitian territory.''The U.S. State Department had no comment on the dispute. ``I don't think we're looking at turning it over,'' said a source in the department who asked not to be named. ``We've owned the island for 140 years, so there has been no discussions, no negotiations.'' Some Haitians, in postings on the Internet and conversations around Miami, said the way the dispute is being handled underlies ``a stepchild mentality that takes place in relationships between the U.S. and Haiti.'' The issue generated even more heat after Gilroy said that if the Haitian government decides to enter Navassa without authorization from the Department of Interior, the United States will take this as an act of provocation. Lafanmi Lavalas, the party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has called for a massive demonstration at the end of the month, on the anniversary of U.S. troops landing in Haiti four years ago to restore Aristide to power. The protest will be in favor of Haitian ownership of the island and against the Americans. American agriculture is partly to blame for sparking the original interest in Navassa. Back in the 1840s and 1850s, as American farmers went looking for guano to spread as fertilizer on their farms, Congress -- hoping to break Peru's monopoly on guano -- passed the Guano Islands Act of 1856 and authorized enterprising American seamen to claim any abandoned or unclaimed islands with guano on it. Peter Duncan, a ship captain, bumped into Navassa on July 1, 1857,and discovered that the island contained guano -- lots of it. ``Navassa is a barren isle shaped like an oyster shell, about a square mile in area, formed of volcanic limestone and so filled with holes as to have the appearance of a petrified sponge,'' he wrote. The U.S. argument for flying the Stars and Stripes there: Navassa was abandoned and derelict. When Emperor Faustin I of Haiti sent gun boats to Navassa to press claims to the island, after he was promised a third of the proceeds from the guano mining, the U.S. sent warships and Faustin backed off. Faustin had claimed that the island was first Spanish and then French, and that with the French recognition of Haitian independence in 1804 the island became Haitian. Haiti again tried to establish its claim in 1872, but once more failed.Another opportunity arose in 1889, after some workers in the guano mines killed a supervisor. The men, all black, were brought back to the United States for trial and convicted, which became a cause celebre among black people throughout the United States. Their lawyers appealed that Navassa was not U.S. property, which means that U.S. law did not apply.They lost. The U.S. Supreme Court declared that the island was U.S. property. Soon guano went the way of the buggy, and the island became uninhabited once more. As the first piece of land that ships heading north come upon after leaving the Panama Canal, the United States erected a warning light there and President Woodrow Wilson again declared the island a U.S. acquisition. It was under the supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard until 1997, when it was assigned to the Interior Department because of the rich trove of birds, along with two species of lizards previously thought to be extinct. According to the American scientists who visited the island in July, the waterssurrounding the rocky cliffs may hold some of the most pristine coral reefs in the Caribbean.But together with the islands of La Gonave, La Tortue, Les Cayemittes and l'Ile a Vache, Haitians say that La Navase, as they call it in French, is one of the most significant offshore territories of the Haitian mainland. In 1989, the former military government dispatched amateur radio operators there in an army helicopter. They planted a Haitian flag on the ground and erected a pillar asserting Haitian sovereignty. Then for a couple of hours, they broadcast messages from ``Radio Free Navassa.''Meanwhile, there's entrepreneur Bill Warren, who says the island belongs to neither Haiti nor the United States. Warren, who wants to mine the guano, says the U.S. government is trying to stop him from mining the bird droppings, as organic fertilizer is making a comeback in the United States. Warren, of Alpine, Calif., sued Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright in U.S. District Court after the federal government refused to set a bond price for the purchase of the island.Navassa is open to property claims, Warren said. He cites the case of W.S.Carter, who asked the State Department for permission to buy Navassa in 1905. The department at the time said it ``possesed no territorial sovereignty'' over the island. Warren, soured by the U.S. position, is looking for heirs of the original claimants, and searching maps and documents that might help him land the mother lode of guano on Navassa.No matter what treasures are found on Navassa, Nadine Patrice of Operation Greenleaves in Miami said the island should belong to Haiti, despite what the U.S.government or Bill Warren say about it.``They should help us maintain it,'' said Patrice, executive director of the group, which promotes and works on reforestation projects in Haiti. ``We might not know everything we need to know, but we live in a global world and we should help each other. You don't have to take it away from me to help me.''


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