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9536: Haitians charting political growth (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Haitians charting political growth
By Madeline Baró Diaz
Miami Bureau

November 11, 2001

In 1997, about 50 prominent Haitian-Americans gathered for dinner on the 
dockside terrace of a waterfront North Miami Beach restaurant. About three 
hours later, several had volunteered to be part of a strategy that would 
redefine the role of Haitians in South Florida politics.

Only one Haitian had been elected to public office in South Florida, and 
those who gathered looked at district maps of Haitian strongholds and saw 
they had a chance to break new political ground.

"I said, `I'm looking for candidates,'" recalls Joe Celestin, who had done 
the research and organized the meeting.

Some at the table that night weren't ready. Others decided among themselves 
who would run for which state House seat and who would run for state Senate. 
A few wanted to run in the same races, but stepped aside so they wouldn't go 
up against each other.

Success was not immediate, and many failed in their initial candidacies. 
But, soon enough, the village of El Portal was the first municipality in the 
country with a majority Haitian-American council and the country's first 
Haitian-born mayor. Phillip Brutus was elected Florida's first Haitian state 
legislator in 2000, and earlier this year Joe Celestin became mayor of North 
Miami, the biggest city in the country with a Haitian majority city council.

"We've come of age," Celestin said.

Now, with some political power under their belt, Haitians are setting their 
sights on other offices -- they have already fielded a candidate for 
Miami-Dade County Commission, and are looking for representation on the Dade 
School Board and Miami City Commission, as well as seeking additional 
representation at the state level in both Dade and Broward. Broward and Palm 
Beach County voters have yet to elect a Haitian-American to office.

Issues to air

"We are trying to participate in the process," said Ossmann Desir, North 
Miami's first Haitian-American councilman and a candidate for the Miami-Dade 
commission. "For 30 years, we have had no official voice. Our concerns have 
not been heard. The only way to do that is through participation."

The Haitian community's struggle for political representation in South 
Florida has been and continues to be full of obstacles.

When Desir and Celestin ran in North Miami in 1999, they faced ethnic 
tensions from white and African-American residents. When Celestin won the 
2001 mayoral race he did it despite the fact that the affluent, 
predominantly white parts of town overwhelmingly voted for his opponent.

Beneficial districting

Meanwhile, Desir is the first Haitian-American to run for county 
commissioner in Miami-Dade, but he will likely have a tough time unseating 
African-American incumbent Dorrin Rolle in a predominantly black district. 
Efforts by a Haitian-American coalition to gain predominantly Haitian 
districts in county and state redistricting -- something that would benefit 
Desir -- have gotten a cool reception so far from some politicians. The 
group is ready to take the fight to court.

El Portal lost its Haitian majority when councilwoman Islande Salomon, first 
elected in 1998, lost her re-election bid in 2000. Salomon blames ethnic 
politics for her downfall. Once the five-person El Portal council became 
majority Haitian, some in the village spoke about El Portal as "another 
Haiti," Salomon said.

"People could not accept a village governed by Haitians," she says.

Even in defeat, Salomon said she found support from fellow Haitian leaders, 
who encouraged her to run again. Among the options she has considered is a 
run for the Dade School Board.

Community united

Haitian-American elected officials in South Florida, including members of 
the Democratic and Republican executive committees, have formed an 
association. The group, which has 10 members, participates in community 
projects for both South Florida and Haiti and serves as a source of support 
for Haitian politicians.

Like other immigrant groups, Haitians have gone from being refugees when 
they arrived in the 1960s and 1970s to gaining citizenship and becoming 
involved in the political process.

"It finally came to fruition, all the sacrifice, all the hurt, all the 
problems, all the tribulations, when people started realizing that they're 
not going back to Haiti," Brutus said. "Haitian politics is going to remain 
Haitian politics, and the longer we spend here the less we know or can 
influence down there."

South Florida example

The success of Haitians in South Florida has been an example for Haitian 
politicians elsewhere in the United States, said Joseph Baptiste, chairman 
of the Washington, D.C.-based National Organization for the Advancement of 

There are a handful of Haitians outside of South Florida also in public 
office, Baptiste said. Having Haitian representatives for Haitian 
constituents is important, he said.

"The advantage is tremendous," Baptiste said. "Obviously you have someone 
who knows the needs of the community. It will also give us a voice."

Make a difference

The close 2000 presidential race also empowered Haitians across the country, 
Baptiste said. Estimates put the U.S. Haitian population at more than 2 
million, with at least half a million living in Florida.

"This is nothing you can sneeze at when you talk about an election that was 
won by 200 votes," he said.

Francois Leconte, president and CEO of Minority Development & Empowerment 
Inc./Haitian Community Center in Fort Lauderdale, said Haitian leaders in 
Dade, Broward and Palm Beach help each other. There will be Haitian-American 
candidates in upcoming Broward elections at the city level and for the state 
legislature, he said, but declined to reveal names.

"You are going to see Haitians from Dade come up to campaign with the 
Haitian candidates," he said. "One Haitian, at least, will be elected this 

Creole in political ring

Robert Arrieux, executive director of the Haitian Center for Family Services 
in West Palm Beach, has noticed more politicians taking notice of Palm Beach 
County's Haitian community. During the last set of elections, some 
candidates took to the Creole-language airwaves.

"They are beginning to see us as a group of immigrants that are here, and we 
do want a voice," he said.

News of Haitian political success in South Florida has reached as far as 
Canada. Asma Heurtelou, who is Haitian, has a radio program in Montreal and 
was trying to secure Fred Seraphin as a guest as soon as she heard he'd been 
made Miami-Dade's first Haitian judge. Canada has about 70,000 Haitians, the 
majority of whom live in Montreal, Heurtelou said.

In Montreal, Heurtelou says, there is one Haitian in local office. The 
success of Haitian-Americans in South Florida is an inspiration, she said.

"If the young people [in Canada] know that people can have success in 
Florida, that could give them hope," she said. "I think they could believe 
in themselves and think they could do the same."

Of course, the success of Haitians in South Florida has probably had the 
most effect on Haitian pride in South Florida itself. The night Celestin 
won, a raucous celebration broke out on the streets near City Hall. During 
Haitian flag day celebrations over the next few days, Haitian flags were 
seen all around South Florida. Many teenagers wore flag bandanas and 

"I remember when it was a shameful thing to let people know you were 
Haitian," Celestin said. "Now it's a hip thing."

Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at mbaro@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5007.

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