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9536: Haitians charting political growth (fwd)
From: leonie hermantin <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Haitians charting political growth
By Madeline Baró Diaz
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.
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.
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 email@example.com or 305-810-5007.
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