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#1913: Haitian Slum-Dwellers Dream of U.S (fwd)
Thursday January 20 1:22 AM ET Haitian Slum-Dwellers Dream of U.S.
By DAN PERRY Associated Press Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - In a rocky ravine painted orange by the
setting sun, children scoop water from an open sewer for a bath.
Vendors make a halfhearted effort at a last sale. And eight members of
the Charles family huddle inside a one-room cinderblock shack that is
their home. On this day the family has scraped together enough for a pot
of corn mush that, lacking charcoal, they have heated over a
fire of sticks and plastic bottles. ``I dream of going to the United
States,'' Willy Charles says wistfully. The gaunt former sugar mill
worker has been unemployed for years. ``I want my kids to go to school,
and to have enough to eat,'' he says. Millions of Haitians share Willy's
dream. In recent years, many thousands have tried to make it to the
United States - illegally - only to be caught and sent back.
Their plight was underscored by the case of two Haitian children who
were separated from their mother, Yvena Rhinvil, after a boat smuggling
411 Haitians ran aground off Florida on Jan. 1. Rhinvil was brought
ashore for medical treatment. Her daughter and son, ages 8 and 9, were
returned to Haiti. Only after a storm of protest by Haitian-Americans
did U.S. officials agree to reunite the children with their mother, who
is seeking asylum. Willy Charles' family had no such luck. In 1994,
using family connections, they boarded a U.S.-bound boat without paying
smugglers' fees. Within hours the overloaded vessel was spotted by the
U.S. Coast Guard. The six months of detention that followed at the U.S.
Navy base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are remembered as a wondrous time of
thrice-daily meals and hopes for asylum - before the sad trip back home.
``If I could, I'd try again,'' says Willy.
``The United States doesn't owe us anything,'' he says. ``But here
there's no hope for me and my kids.'' His six children don't go to
school; the only ones nearby are privately run and unaffordable on the
$1-a-day his wife, Ginette, earns sweeping streets. Over years of
wishful thinking, Willy and Ginette gave the children American-seeming
names: Witchy, and Jeff, and five-year-old John, born during the
detention at Guantanamo Bay. ``Here is not my country,'' insists the
boy, wearing only a shirt, his arm badly infected from sleeping on a
dirty floor. ``I have no food. I am always hungry.'' A world away, in
Miami, Haitian-Americans are in an uproar over the immigration standards
applied by the United States. Cubans, aided by a 1966 law, are usually
allowed to stay if they reach U.S. shores. Haitians and others, however
desperate, usually get the boot. Accusations of racism have been aired.
Here in Haiti, most have never heard of the protests or of Elian
Gonzalez, the Cuban boy whose saga sparked them. That's because there
are only four TVs and 41 radios per 1,000 Haitians. Only a third of
adults can read. In a country of 8 million, only a few thousand
newspaper copies are distributed daily - and few can afford them.
Haiti's annual per capita income of $250 is the lowest in the
hemisphere; an estimated 60 percent of the workforce is unemployed.
Misery cascades into every aspect of life, and death. Infant mortality
is a whopping 74 per 1,000 births. Life expectancy is around 55.
``If, today, the United States opened wide its borders to Haitians, I'm
sure 50 percent of the adult population would leave immediately,'' says
Carol Joseph, director of the Haitian National Migration Office.
Already, there are some 400,000 naturalized Haitians living in the
United States. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates
another 105,000 Haitians reside in the United States illegally.
Haitian-Americans send home more than $300 million a year, according to
U.S. Embassy estimates - fueling much of Haiti's economy and adding to
the mystique of the United States. Haitian boat people began heading
north some 20 years ago, fleeing the rule of Jean Claude Duvalier, the
notorious second-generation dictator also known as Baby Doc. Duvalier's
regime was toppled in 1986, and the country's first free vote, in 1990,
elected former Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A year later
Aristide was overthrown, replaced by a bloodthirsty military regime.
The United States forced out that regime in 1994, reinstalled Aristide,
and backed up Haitian democracy with 20,000 troops. The remains of that
force - several hundred troops on a humanitarian mission - depart this
month, to be replaced by temporary reservist missions. Parliamentary and
presidential elections are scheduled for later this year, but most
Haitians seem to no longer care. Although random violence has been
reduced, poverty and corruption endure. Willy Charles doesn't plan to
vote. ``Our politicians are evil,'' he says flatly.