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8118: Haitian Clout (fwd)
From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>
By KEN THOMAS
NORTH MIAMI, Fla., May 30 (AP) -- In the past 30 years, Jacques
Despinosse has watched Jewish-Americans achieve political power in New York
and Cuban-Americans carve out a similar foothold in Florida.
The Haitian-born activist moved to Miami from New York in the 1970s and
became a radio host -- "The Voice of the Haitian-American," urging
listeners to become politically active.
"Why not copy from them? If it worked for them, it could work for us,"
Despinosse said. "Now we're beginning to see the fruit."
Last week, Despinosse was sworn in as a North Miami city council member,
part of a coming-out party that has placed Haitian-Americans on Miami-Dade
County's political stage.
The 55-year-old Despinosse doesn't want to stop there: He says the work
of Haitians here can carry weight back home, just as Jewish-Americans help
shape Middle East policy and Cubans in Miami influence the federal stance
"This is a solution to our problem: become a citizen and then you can
influence lawmakers," he said.
Despinosse took office in front of 600 mostly Haitian onlookers, some
carrying red-white-and-blue Haitian flags and singing the national anthem,
"La Dessalinienne." Nearby was the first Haitian-American mayor in the city
of 60,000, Josaphat "Joe" Celestin.
Council member Ossmann Desir is also Haitian, giving the group a
majority on the five-person council -- a significant step for an immigrant
group that fled political turmoil during the past two decades.
Many Haitians said they once focused on problems back home and eyed the
possibility of returning. Now, they say, the North Miami election
symbolizes their budding interest in raising families, buying homes and
"This is a result of a decade of hard work," said Garry Pierre-Pierre,
editor and publisher of The Haitian Times, a 15,000-circulation weekly
newspaper based in New York. "Haitians have made the statement loud and
clear that they're here to stay."
"I don't think they're going to call us 'boat people' anymore," said
Fritz Montinard, 31, a Miami car dealer who left Port-au-Prince nearly 20
years ago. "They're going to call us 'vote people.' We're voters."
Even those who forego local politics derive a sense of pride from the
"In high school, you didn't want to be known as Haitian," said Betty
Cerenord, 26, who helps manage her family's two Creole restaurants. "Now
it's like I'm proud to be Haitian. Look at what I've got. I got a
North Miami, which calls itself the "City of Progress," once welcomed
Polish, Italian and Greek immigrants. But since 1990,the white population
has dropped by one-third to 35 percent, while its black population more
than doubled to 55 percent, according to 2000 census figures.
The Haitian population in south Florida is estimated at 150,000, and
many live in northeastern Miami-Dade County. In the past two years, voters
there have sent a Haitian-American to the state Legislature and put a
Haitian-American majority on the village council of tiny El Portal.
"Those sitting in elected office can no longer afford to take our vote
for granted," said Celestin, the 44-year-old mayor.
Celestin, a builder who emigrated from Haiti in 1979, won his title by
defeating Arthur "Duke" Sorey, North Miami's first black council member.
Speaking in both English and Creole, Celestin acknowledged the need to
bring a postelection unity following a campaign that locals described as
Only hours after his election, Celestin told police he received more
than 15 harassing calls on his cell phone, prompting a police escort as he
made postelection rounds.
Mike McDearmaid, 52, a lifelong resident, stresses that "we're all
rowers in the same boat" and says the Haitian influence is just the latest
to come through town.
"Ten years from now, there might be another ethnic flow through North
Miami," McDearmaid said. "Won't it be funny when the Haitian people say,
'Who are those people?'"
On the Net:
The Haitian Times: http://www.haitiantimes.com