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#160: Haitian-American Politics (fwd)
From: Patrick Slavin <email@example.com>
>From the June issue of Caribbean Today, a Miami monthly paper.
HAITIAN AMERICANS AN EMERGING POLITICAL POWER
BY PATRICK SMIKLE
In one of his first moves after being formally installed as mayor of
North Miami on May 25, attorney at law Frank Wolland reached out to the
city's Haitian community.
"The Haitian community needs to come and participate in our city
government by coming to town hall meetings," Wolland told journalists.
It was the third time in less than a fortnight that Wolland was openly
seeking to build bridges with Haitian Americans.
On May 19, the day after he narrowly defeated Haitian-American
businessman Josaphat "Joe" Celestin in the election for mayor of North
Miami, Wolland was on Creole radio. "I will welcome Haitians to the city
boards," he said. His reaching out even extended to Joe Celestin. "I
publicly offer him to come to work together with me in the city," he
The day before the poll Wolland spent more than an hour on Haitian talk
That appearance had marked a change in Wolland's campaign strategy; a
change that some commentators said was dictated by pragmatism. "It is an
acknowledgment of the growing political assertiveness of Florida's
Haitian community," one observer, asking not to be named, told Caribbean
It is an assertiveness that Guyanese-born political scientist Ivelaw
Griffith says arises from socioeconomic necessity. He says Haitians are
relatively worse off than other immigrant groups in South Florida and
thus feel a compulsion to do something about their situation.
In addition, says the Florida International University lecturer,
"you've got the stark racist attitudes of not only Southern Florida
people but even the federal government, reflected in the treatment of
Haitians over immigration."
He was referring to the exclusion of Haitians from immigration relief
measures passed by Congress to assist thousands of Central Americans and
Their initial exclusion from immigration relief had galvanized Haitians
in the United States to do something about their situation, Griffith
said. "One way of doing this is to get representation."
Perhaps the first concrete sign of this new political assertiveness was
seen in last November's state and municipal elections when six
Haitian-Americans ran for seats on school boards, the state
House of Representatives and the state Senate. While none of these
candidates was successful, each got enough votes to attract the
attention of the media and political observers.
One of these candidates was Joe Celestin.
It was no surprise when Celestin filed papers to run for mayor of North Miami.
As mayor of this "dormitory city" of 50,000 residents, he would be the most
important Haitian-American elected official in Florida, indeed the most
powerful Caribbean- American politician in the Sunshine State.
It is estimated that at least 3,000 of North Miami's 18,000 registered
voters are Haitian Americans. While specifically targeting the Haitian
community through Creole talk radio, Celestin also went after the black
American and Hispanic votes, estimated to be about 7,000 and 3,000,
He declared himself "The candidate with a plan."
"I am the only one with a vision," he said as he campaigned on a
platform of economic empowerment and a pledge to end alleged
discrimination in city hiring.
Referring to Celestin's unsuccessful run for the state Senate last
year, opponents dismissed him as a "carpetbagger" who wanted political
power wherever he could get it.
In polling on May 11, Celestin had received 2,263 votes (45.3 percent);
ahead of Frank Wolland, who got 1, 623 (32.5 percent); Anthony Caserta,
who got 855; and Ted Ravelo who polled only 254 votes.
However, having failed to get the 50 percent-plus-one needed to become
mayor, Celestin was forced into a runoff with Wolland. "I wanted to take
it outright," Celestin told reporters. He expressed confidence he would
win the runoff.
With many commentators all but declaring Celestin the winner, believing
the large bloc of Haitian-American residents would make this a reality,
Wolland complained: "People need to decide now if ethnic bloc voting is
the city's future."
The comment drew sharp responses from several quarters.
Jamaican-born broadcast journalist Winston Barnes said
Haitian-Americans were doing only what Cuban Americans had done to gain
and consolidate their political power in South Florida.
He cited Celestin's initial success as an example of what
Caribbean-American people in Florida could achieve through organization
and unity. He also referred to "a tendency among Jamaicans in particular
to put down Haitian immigrants rather that unite with them around common
Barnes' comments led to a spirited debate on his Open Line radio call
in program, with most of the callers agreeing with his position.
Wolland, in the meanwhile, embarked on a new strategy. He reached out
to the Haitian community.
In the May 18 runoff, Wolland won with 3,483 votes (53 percent) to
Celestin's 3,045 votes (47 per cent).
The additional week of campaigning between the two polls was vitriolic
and often racial.
Celestin's campaign workers said they were told by persons in the
Wolland camp that they were not "real Americans" and "should get back on
Wolland's campaign workers said they too were subjected to racial slurs
by Celestin campaign workers.
There were also allegations of voter harassment and planned electoral
chicanery. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the State
Attorney's Office and the Miami-Dade County Elections Department sent
officers to monitor proceedings at the runoff.
In the end Wolland's ability to raise money made the difference,
pro-Celestin observers say, noting that Wolland was operating with a
campaign fund of $66,000, compared to Celestin's $4,000.
But they say they are encouraged by several aspects of the two polls.
In some eyes, Celestin is to be commended for "waking up North Miami
politics." These observers note that 28.2 percent of registered voters
cast ballots on May 11 and 36 percent on May 18. The traditional turnout
is around 15 percent.
They say his campaign crossed ethnic lines, winning support among black
Americans and Hispanics and secured the endorsement of no less a
political figure than Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
Part of the emergence of Haitian-American political power is Haitians'
constituting the fastest-growing ethnic group in North Miami, and they
are increasingly becoming naturalized citizens (10,036 in 1996) and thus
Observers point to one development that went almost unnoticed: While
the media focused overwhelmingly on the Celestin/Wolland mayoral
contest, another Haitian-American, Ossmann Desir, was elected to the
five-member North Miami city council. Councilman Desir is the only black
member of that body.
To them, all this bodes well for Haitian-American involvement in
multilayered political system.
2 races may be decided in court
BY PATRICK SMIKLE
The two Haitian-American candidates who contested last months municipal
elections in North Miami may be heading to court; one suing the opponent
who defeated him, the other being sued by the opponent he defeated.
Businessman Josaphat 'Joe' Celestin, who narrowly lost to attorney
Frank Wolland in a May 18 runoff election for mayor of North Miami, has
filed suit charging that there was voter fraud in two precincts. Wolland
won the election by an overall margin of 438 votes (3,483 to 3,045). In
the two contested precincts, he won by 1,195 votes (1,293 to 98).
Celestin is also charging that Wolland violated campaign finance
He told Caribbean Today that Wolland had deposited money designated to
his law practice into his campaign account and while saying this had
been done in error, had waited four months to correct the error. This,
Celestin says, was an illegal loan from Wolland's law practice to his
Celestin charges also that Wolland raised money without filing the
The Wolland campaign outdistanced the Celestin camp in fund-raising, by
$66,000, to $4,000.
Wolland's attorney, Joseph S. Paglino, said the campaign finance
allegations were based on technicalities that did not rise to violations
of any laws. He said the voter fraud charges were not supported by
"We believe that the lawsuit Mr. Celestin filed is frivolous, and we
are going to ask the courts to dismiss it," Paglino told The Miami
In the other case, Ossman Desir is being sued by Arthur "Duke" Sorey,
the man he defeated for the District 4 council seat.
Sorey, who four years ago became the first black candidate to be
elected to the North Miami City Council, failed in his bid for a second
term, polling only 587 votes to Desir's 840.
He charges that Desir won by getting people who live outside the
district to change their addresses and vote for him.
Sorey's attorney, Joseph Geller, says the charge is supported by
interviews with several North Miami residents.
Desir has dismissed the charge as "bogus."
The defendants in both cases have up to 90 days to file their
Meanwhile the State Attorney's office is said to be looking into the
voter-fraud allegations made in both cases.
That office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Office
of the Miami-Dade Election Supervisor had paid particular attention to
the May 18 mayoral runoff poll after allegations of voter harassment
made by both the Celestin and Wolland camps in the May 11 election.
look to unity, alliances for impact
BY PATRICK SMIKLE
Opinion leaders in South Florida's Caribbean community seem to agree
that the community needs to increase the level of its political
There also is an apparent consensus that this can be achieved only
through unity among people from the different Caribbean countries.
But there is no consensus - indeed there is a shortage of concrete
proposals - on how to bring this about.
"More intelligent, astute people than I have been grappling with this
problem and have not been able to solve it," says entrepreneur and
educator Patricia Donawa-Alexis. "But it needs to be done," she told
Trinidad-born Donawa-Alexis reportedly faced hostility from Miramar
Jamaicans in January when she entered the race for the city council. She
later withdrew from the race after a still unexplained multiagency
law-enforcement raid at her home and at the Beacon Career Institute that
she runs in Carol City with her husband, Kelvin Alexis.
Consulting engineer Eric Hammond, who last March made what most
observers acknowledge was a creditable though unsuccessful run for the
Plantation City Council, acknowledges the disunity among South Florida's
Caribbean nationals but doesn't think the problem is as bad as it was.
He says the work of organizations such as the Caribbean Cultural
Coalition (which hosts an annual festival), the Caribbean Democratic
Club (to which many aspiring Caribbean-American politicians are
affiliated) and the Caribbean-American Chamber of Commerce (which
Hammond leads) has helped promote understanding and cooperation among
Caribbean nationals. But Hammond acknowledges that "there is still much
work to be done.
The only way this unity is going to be achieved is to work at it
consistently, says Guyana-born political scientist Ivelaw Griffith, who
teaches at Florida International University.
Griffith says there are both pragmatic and symbolic reasons for South
Florida's Caribbean Americans to become more involved in the politics of
"There is something to be said for wanting to have English-speaking
Caribbean people in there, to give the reality that this is not just a
Hispanic town, not necessarily running for state or county office but to
get involved with school boards, community councils and the other areas
of governance," Griffith told Caribbean Today.
"When you are there you can help to make a difference for your own
community, steering contracts their way - of course doing it legally -
improving the conditions of roads, helping to inject money into school
districts. There's a value, there's a payoff in substantive terms to
being there. And we don't have to make apologies. Others don't make
apologies for helping their communities."
But, Griffith warned: "It's not going to be automatic. Nobody is going
to give us a break. We've got to argue and fight for it."
And this task can best be undertaken, the opinion leaders agree, if
there is unity among people from the Anglophone Caribbean, if there is
cooperation with people from Haiti and if alliances can be built with
native-born African Americans.
Haitian-American businessman Joe Celestin, who narrowly lost the North
Miami mayoral race last month, says some Jamaican residents of the city
said openly they would not vote for a Haitian candidate.
Celestin's difficulties in winning the support of Anglophone Caribbean
people is complicated by his Republican affiliation and his openly
challenging the wisdom of Caribbean-American people's supporting the
"Black people have been almost fanatical in their support for the
Democratic Party but have received nothing from the party in return," he
told Caribbean Today. "The Democrats controlled the House and the lower
chamber [in Florida] for 123 years. They had the opportunity to do
something for us if they wanted to. The Democrats controlled the U.S.
House and Senate for 40 years before 1994. We didn't start suffering in
1994. We receive a lot of lip service from the Democratic Party, and the
Republican Party ignores us because we have no one at their table."
Such statements have not endeared Celestin to voters from the
Anglophone Caribbean, most of whom traditionally support the Democrats.
Celestin's response? "Sometimes we are so narrow-minded that we fail to
see what is in our best interests and as a result are manipulated by
people using age-old divide-and-rule strategies. They tell the
Jamaicans, 'You are better than the Haitians.' They keep us divided so
they can control us."
A real power
If the different groups of black people in Florida worked together,
they would be a real power, Celestin says.
Jamaica-born Hazelle Rogers, a city of Lauderdale Lakes commissioner,
notes the relatively small size of the Caribbean-American community in
South Florida and the fact that many in the community are not citizens.
"We need crossover votes to make an impact," she says of
Caribbean-American politicians, "and a lot of us get these cross- over
votes." But she nevertheless acknowledges a need to build alliances,
especially with native born African Americans, she told Caribbean Today.
In a study he wrote late last year for the Washington-based Center for
Strategic and International Studies, journalist and political scientist
Douglas Payne noted the need for and potential of pan-Caribbean unity.
He said joint action on issues such as immigrants rights could give the
pan-Caribbean community more clout.
But, he noted, "Differences in terms of language, ethnicity, history
and culture have precluded all but the most minimal interaction, and
most West Indians, Dominicans and Haitians in the United States may know
as little about each other as the rest of America knows about them."
Payne made an observation that should exercise the minds of voters and
candidates alike in the Caribbean-American community: "In the long term,
such pan-Caribbean cooperation could be the key to getting someone
elected to Washington.