MIAMI – On a dark, balmy Friday night, with whispers of a tropical storm in the air, more than three hundred Haitians packed onto Northeast 54th Street in Miami’s Little Haiti. Watching as several technicians set up a theatre-sized screen in the street, they chattered away about the upcoming elections. A peanut vendor weaved her way through the elbow-to-elbow crowd, the aroma of the freshly grilled one-dollar snack and her screeching voice alerting people to her presence.
Strains of Konpa and religious music got lost in the ensuing noise, as people jostled for a spot near the towering 8-foot-by-12-foot screen or scrambled for the chairs available.
The scene could’ve been from any small “bouk,” or town, in Haiti on a soccer night—when residents would gather at the town center to watch a championship game or maybe an episode of Languichatte, the iconic Haitian comedian.
But on Sept. 26, the main event that drew the masses to the artery of this Haitian enclave was the first U.S. Presidential Debate between White House bidders Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.
“It shows they respect us, for them to come here and set this up and talk to us,” said Jean Jean-Baptiste, 51, of Miami. “This is my first time voting in an election. It’s a big deal for me. I’m voting for Obama, with a very happy heart.”
When Patrick Gaspard, a Haitian-American Obama campaign representative, stood on a chair and spoke of the Haitian-American community’s potentially pivotal role in the election, wild cheers and applause rang out into the night. “Wi, Nou Kapab” was a favorite, “Yes we Can”
“Florida, Little Haiti, all Haitians, you have to know: we are not going to win this election unless you determine the outcome. It’s on you,” Gaspard said. “It’s on this community.
“When we wake up on November 5th, there has to be two stories,” Gaspard added. “One— that Barack Obama won. But the second story is as important. We need to make sure that everybody looks and they say not only did Barack Obama win the election, but [that] he won Florida and the only reason he won Florida is because he got historic turnouts in precincts where Haitian-Americans live.”
The Haitian advocacy group, “Wi Veye Yo,” had organized the street debate-watching party in front of its offices, featuring representatives of the Obama camp, Haitian-American elected officials and several activists. Though it was on short-notice, those who turned out said they wanted to show their support for Obama. In an election expected to be very close, in a county infamous for the 2000 Election voting debacle, Veye Yo saw the debate as a way to educate voters about the issues and energize them about the process.
Instead of holding its regular Friday night organization meeting last week, Veye Yo staff quickly obtained the appropriate permit to shut down part of the road for the debate. Veye Yo executive director Lavarice Gaudin said the debate watching is “a celebration” of Obama and his stance on such issues as the economy and immigration.
“We believe Obama is the one who can just help this country at the moment,” Gaudin said. “Most of the Haitians are democrats. Therefore, those that are Democrats, and a few that are Republican are coming together for all the love we have for Obama.”
It wasn’t the first such street debate-watching party Veye Yo has organized. It hosted them during the 2004 and 2000 presidential race as well, Gaudin said. Despite the last-minute preparations this year, hundreds turned out for the debate block party. The energy around Obama is to be credited.
“My blood— my whole body—feels Obama,” said Joseph Juste, a 59-year-old housekeeping employee who immigrated to Miami 16 years ago. “I rushed to become a citizen just to vote for him. I can’t sleep, I’m just waiting for the day.”
Friday, Juste and hundreds of others waited impatiently for a crew to lift the steel bars that would support the giant screen. The equipment, when upright, towered over rows and rows of seats placed along the eastbound side of the street. It resembled a movie theatre, but outdoors.
Most of the attendees were from the immediate neighborhood. To keep them hyped, singer/activist Farah Juste and a cohort of other women sang a religious song meant to ward off evil spirits from their candidate. The refrain in Creole “pa manyen Barack la” means “Don’t touch Barack.”
A “rara” band emerged from an alley some minutes before the clock struck 9 p.m., prompting some attendees to leave their seats, jump and whine to the roots beats.
And when the TV crew still had trouble getting the screen up and running in the street after 9 p.m., dozens squeezed inside Veye Yo. They craned their necks to view the regular television set atop a file cabinet, where the candidates appeared just fine, hashing it out.
MIAMI (AP) — No deportations to storm-crippled Haiti are planned, federal immigration officials said Friday, an encouraging sign to advocates who say the Caribbean country needs more time to recover before it can deal with fresh arrivals.
No removals from the U.S. are scheduled, and federal officials were evaluating conditions in the country, said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez. Haiti is trying to rise from the wreckage left behind by three hurricanes and a tropical storm within a month.
“When we feel it’s appropriate to resume, we’ll notify members of Congress. There are no imminent removals to Haiti,” said ICE spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez.
Ralph Latortue, the Haitian consul general in Miami, said he stopped issuing travel documents for detainees, but deportations had continued.
The halt, even temporary, cheered Haitian advocates.
“We’re encouraged by reports that our government is reviewing the issue of Haitian deportations and assessing conditions on the ground,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Detainees’ relatives told Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami that a group was expected to be sent back to Haiti Friday. That group didn’t go, said Randy McGrorty, chief executive officer of the agency.
“The fact that they considered doing it is chilling,” McGrorty said. “The fact that they might resume this is frightening.”
The conditions in impoverished Haiti are horrendous, leaders say. At least 425 people were killed and thousands left homeless by severe flooding after the storms.
Relief efforts have been hindered by Haiti’s neglected infrastructure. Aid agencies and diplomats say mass hunger is a risk because the storms wiped out Haiti’s crops and damaged irrigation systems and pumping stations.
Before the storms, skyrocketing food prices sparked violent protests across the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country this spring. Haiti’s chronic political and economic instability have prompted a U.S. State Department warning against travel to the country of 8.5 million people.
Some South Florida congressional members, who represent the largest Haitian community in the U.S., said they were disappointed that Haitians have not been granted temporary protected status.
The status allows immigrants from countries experiencing armed conflict or environmental disasters to stay and work in the U.S. for a limited time. It has been granted to a handful of African and Central American countries.