Haitians Building Boats to Flee to South Florida
But most say they’re running away from poverty, not rebellion
Mark Stevenson, AP, Sun-Sentinel (South Florida), Feb. 19
ACUL DU NORD, Haiti — The men painstakingly shaping the wooden stay of a boat with a homemade tool reckon it’ll be ready in two months to take to the seas and, hopefully, reach the shores of Florida.
These would-be migrants are preparing their escape from Haiti at a time of rebellion that poses the greatest threat yet to the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But their reason for fleeing has been the same for many years _ the lack of jobs and a future.
“There is no work here, no money, nothing to do,” 26-year-old Dorelus Franco said Wednesday, standing guard over two half-finished boats as another man worked on the wooden stay with a sharpened piece of steel.
“I want to go,” Franco said. “I’m planning to go.”
“You have to understand there is such a big difference between here and there,” said Jean Baptiste, 31.
The 30-foot and 40-foot vessels were begun months ago at this hamlet called Camp Louise on Acul Bay, about 10 miles west of Cap-Haitien, where Aristide militants barricaded themselves against a feared rebel incursion.
The boats already have their ribs and keels laid out and just await their planking and tarring.
Aid agencies, Caribbean nations and the United States fear the bloody uprising that began Feb. 5 and has taken 60 lives could spark a mass exodus of Haitians.
One sign that a refugee crisis is imminent would be a large-scale construction of boats like these. In Washington on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there are no signs of such activity, but the administration wants to “make sure that we’re prepared should something happen.”
Amnesty International warned the emergence among rebel leaders of ex-soldiers and death squad leaders means “fears of a mass population outflow from Haiti are bound to increase.”
Tens of thousands of Haitian boatpeople fled to U.S. shores to escape brutal military leaders who ousted Aristide in 1991. Hundreds of Aristide supporters were killed, maimed and tortured before President Clinton sent 20,000 U.S. troops to restore Aristide and halt the exodus.
But boatpeople have begun leaving again since donors froze aid over flawed legislative elections, aggravating already difficult living conditions in the country.
U.S. Coast Guard patrols have caught some 1,126 Haitians at sea since October, compared to 2,013 in the previous 12 months. Those who don’t make it to shore are returned home.
A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Joung-ah Ghedini, warned Tuesday that Haiti’s situation “could go from precarious to a full-blown emergency” on short notice.
At Acul Bay, the idyllic setting _ the crystalline waters of the Caribbean, the banana trees, the beaches _ belies the utter hopelessness of the residents.
“Everyday is a holiday because there is never any work here,” said Altiery Saintil, 31.
Asked if they would leave for Miami, about a dozen of the 15 townspeople gathered at a crossroad nodded their heads. “Everyone one of us would go. Every one,” said Pierre Robinson, 23, who hopes to become an engineer but can’t afford to attend college.
However, many said they would not risk the voyage on the rickety boats being built in the bay, into which 50 or 60 people could cram for the dangerous crossing.
It’s not known how many Haitians die trying to reach the United States. Stories surface only when a boat capsizes close to Bahamian or U.S. shores. And then there are the constant patrols of the U.S. Coast Guard.
“We won’t go that way, because the Americans catch you at sea and they just send you back,” Saintil said.
But given the more attractive price of a boat trip _ about $800 versus the $5,000 needed for fake documents and a plane ticket _ most who leave do so by sea.
As the adults worked on the craft, a young girl in a ragged T-shirt that read “Miami” frolicked amid the half-built vessels, and adults were left to wonder.
The U.S. Coast Guard last stopped Haitian boatpeople on Feb. 1, when 148 people were caught at sea.
“Why? Why do they not want us there?” Baptiste asked.
Americans Begin to Leave Haiti
Paul Wagenseil, FoxNews, Feb. 20
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Americans began to pour out of Haiti Friday, heeding the U.S. State Department’s warning that the nation is becoming too dangerous as rebels continue their bloody offensive against President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In the latest violence, insurgents set police outposts on fire and threatened new attacks against the government. In the country’s west, supporters of Aristide burned homes to the ground and fired their weapons over the heads of residents, who jumped into the sea for safety.
There were no casualties reported.
Aristide has said he’s willing to fight to the death before fleeing from the rebellion. The defrocked priest, who was elected in 1990, overthrown by a military coup, restored via U.S. intervention and then, according to the opposition, became as bad a dictator as his predecessors, has been appealing for international help to defend his government.
The United States on Thursday urged the more than 20,000 Americans in Haiti to leave while they could still find transportation. The Peace Corps also said it was pulling out about 70 volunteers.
The new leader of several rebel groups, Guy Philippe, announced plans to attack Cap-Haitien, the government’s last remaining stronghold in the north, during carnival celebrations starting Friday. Philippe was Aristide’s police chief in Cap-Haitien but fled in 2002 amid charges he was plotting a coup.
The Pentagon said it was sending a small military team to assess the security of the U.S. Embassy and its staff.
Radio stations reported that rebels torched the police station at the northeast border post of Ouanaminthe on Thursday, and witnesses said police fled in fear from their posts in northern Fort Liberte. No rebels were in sight.
The northern rebellion has killed dozens of people, including about 40 police officers, according to Jean-Gerard Dubreuil, undersecretary for public security.
During the night, truckloads of pro-Aristide gunmen descended on a neighborhood in western St. Marc and torched seven houses, American missionary Terry Snow said, adding that 15 Americans in his group of 20 missionaries fled Haiti this week.
As their houses burned, residents jumped into the sea to flee gunmen shooting into the air, said Snow, originally from Granbury, Texas.
“These are all innocent people - they are not involved in the political conflict,” said Snow, 39, who has lived in the neighborhood for 13 years.
“Innocent people are being killed and houses are burned down every day and night in St. Marc and the police are doing nothing.”
Snow said the city has been terrorized by the pro-Aristide “Clean Sweep” gang since police wrested control of the city from about 100 rebels last week.
Aristide, wildly popular when he became Haiti’s first freely elected leader in 1990, lost support after flawed legislative elections in 2000 led international donors to freeze millions of dollars in aid.
Even before the rebellion, about half of Haiti’s 8 million people went hungry daily, according to aid groups.
The latest violence came as the United States and other nations prepared to present Aristide and opposition officials with a political plan as early as Friday.
The plan calls for an interim governing council to advise Aristide, the disarmament of politically allied street gangs and the appointment of a prime minister agreeable to both sides.
The armed street gangs, many of them former Aristide supporters who have switched sides, have taken over most of Haiti’s smaller cities in the past two weeks. Members of the police force, created by Aristide after he abolished the army, have been killed and mutilated in the streets by angry mobs.
The American flag has become a rallying symbol for the rebels, with many of them carrying or wearing the Stars and Stripes as they march in the streets, but its exact significance has yet to become clear.
The capital is firmly in government hands, but Cap-Haitien, the country’s second city, has been awaiting rebel attack for a few days.
The rebellion broke out shortly after ceremonies marking the 200th anniversary of Haiti’s independence, won after a bloody slave uprising against French colonial masters.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. plan does not call for Aristide’s resignation, but the United States would not object if he agreed during negotiations to leave office early. Aristide’s term ends February 2006.
Aristide - who has survived three assassination attempts and a coup d’etat - was defiant Thursday, saying, “I am ready to give my life if that is what it takes to defend my country.”
Aristide has said he could not negotiate with “terrorists,” though opposition leaders deny his charges that they back the rebels.
“If you are talking about the opposition that is publicly supporting terrorists, don’t think I will have the irresponsibility of handing them over such a (prime ministerial) post,” Aristide told Radio Canada.
Opposition leader Evans Paul countered by saying, “It will be difficult for us to accept any proposal that doesn’t include Aristide’s resignation.”
At Cap-Haitien, armed supporters of Aristide patrolled and vowed to fight any rebel attack. Frightened police remained barricaded in their station, saying they were too few and poorly armed to repel the rebels.
Haiti’s police force numbers less than 4,000 and demoralized officers this week deserted at least four provincial posts. Eight officers have sought asylum in Jamaica and the Dominican military said it arrested four fleeing officers this week.
Hungry people in rebel-held Gonaives looted food aid from a rebel storage facility Thursday after being turned away from an aid distribution. Thousands of people, some brandishing machetes and guns, marched through the city supporting the rebellion.
Meanwhile, 20 Haitian refugees arrived by boat in Jamaica - the second group in less than a week - saying they were fleeing the violence, Jamaican police said.
Haiti’s rebellion has raised fears of a mass exodus on the scale of the tens of thousands who fled to Florida when Haiti was under brutal military dictatorships from 1991 to 1994.
President Clinton sent 20,000 troops in 1994 to restore Aristide, end the killings of his supporters and halt the flood of refugees.