At restaurants, barbershops, bus stops and — as usual— over the airwaves, Haitian-Americans are talking about Barack Obama and Sarah Palin as though the pair were running for office in Haiti.
From behind the counter of his dry cleaning business in Lauderhill— a city near Fort Lauderdale, owner Jean Nicolas sees the clipboard-wielding workers come around the strip mall, registering people in the Caribbean enclave to vote. To him, they’re yet another sign of the historic race to the White House between Obama and John McCain.
“Everyone’s talking about this race, but it’s with ‘coeur en main,” Nicolas said, using the Creole expression equivalent to ‘with bated breath.’ “No one wants to see another four years like we’ve had. But it won’t be easy for him [Obama].”
Obama, because that’s whom most Haitians say they support. Haitian-American voters say they too just want a change from the past eight years—in the economy, the War, education, healthcare and other areas that impact all Americans. They also want to see immigration addressed, favorable U.S. policy toward Haiti and perhaps trade agreements with all Caribbean countries to help stabilize the region.
Leone Hermantin, a long-time community activist, said the level of interest is comparable only to the way Haitians debate soccer. For her and others, Obama’s appeal as a young, black man whose father was an immigrant resonates. His “hyphenated identity,” as she calls it, and his work as a community organizer would inform his policies toward immigrants and low-income areas if he were to be elected.
One Boynton Beach retired executive secretary at the Delray Beach event did not want her name used in the media. But her reason for participating in U.S. elections is revealing.
“If things are better here,” the former New Jersey resident said, “Things in Haiti will be better.”
She’s among a throng of Haitian women from all walks of life also energized. It may be because his demeanor tugs at their maternal instincts, she said. Around Miami, she’s heard Haitian women at bus stops talk about his wife style of dress being too casual.
Groups of Haitian-American professionals and some of the affluent have also taken to the Internet to advocate for Obama being elected. Invites to fundraising receptions, rallies, registration drives and forums in South Florida have been on the upswing in recent weeks.
Living in a swing state whose notorious elections system has brought on international attention adds to the excitement.
This unprecedented interest and involvement in a U.S presidential race is yet another example that Haitians in this country have steadily made the transformation from being an exile group to an immigrant one. Issues that were once debated from an intellectual standpoint now resonate more viscerally.
At a “Haitians for Obama” rally in Delray Beach recently, Florida State Rep. Ronald Brisé told attendees to make sure they register every eligible citizen in their circles to vote.
“All roads to the White House go through Florida,” Brisé, 34, said from the podium.
He then chuckled, paused, and continued, “Somebody said, ‘if we don’t screw it up.’
“But we won’t,” he said, putting emphasis on the last word. “Not if we register people to vote.”
On the Republican side, the race, for sure, has generated conversations, if not necessarily action. Marvin Dejean, a Republican and past president of the party’s black outreach group here, said Obama’s story has left many of them “in a crisis” as young, entrepreneurial conservatives.
“There’s an impressive, young black male with a very good shot at the White House – what do you do,” said Dejean, 39, owner of a marketing and public relations firm. “A lot of the ideas we pushed has moved away from what we advocated. It really makes the selling of the party really difficult.
“It could go either way, especially in communities of color,” Dejean said. “Right now, it’s up for grabs.”
People are often reminded of those 537 ballots that threw Florida to Bush in 2000, to encourage them to register and vote.
Recent polls show Obama and John McCain in a statistical dead heat. Volunteers from all ethnic groups are popping up in unexpected places, like Fort Lauderdale’s busy Riverfront entertainment district after-hours. They’ve mingled with mostly intoxicated young adults, to register those still sober. Nail salons, the realm of peddlers hocking miscellaneous wares, have also drawn campaign workers or voter drive volunteers.
About 20 percent of Florida’s 18 million people were born elsewhere, according to Census figures. The Bureau found roughly 234,000 Haitians living in the state, but community advocates say that many live in South Florida alone. There are no hard figures showing how many voters are Haitian-born or are of Haitian ancestry. in 2007 alone, about 40 percent of the 11,552 Haitians that became U.S. citizens lived in Florida, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Overall, between 1998 and 2007, about 116,600 Haitians became U.S citizens.
While the group is relatively small, it’s still a significant bloc of black voters, which overall make up about 12 percent of Florida’s 10.6 million registered voters. Immigrant voters also tend to vote consistently once they’re eligible.
That’s why Karl Heintz, a small business owner in Fort Lauderdale, meets with a group of other Haitians to discuss the elections regularly. On a recent Thursday, over a heap of bronzed chicken and mounds of rice and beans, Heintz gave a 15-minute synopsis of the presidential race and candidates that would rival any cable news network political analyst’s. He went from Obama’s 2004 speech at the DNC to Sarah Palin’s interview with Charles Gibson.
Heintz said he’s not part of any formal groups, but he stays informed, has donated nearly $500 in increments over several months, and he understands how close the election could get. And when people come to his barbershop and music store, their visits turn into full-blown discussions of the kind political science students might have in college classrooms.
“If those people come out,” Heintz said, referring to his countrymen on election day. “[The politicians] will remember them.”
Jocelyne Cameau, a member of Palm Beach’s pro-Obama Haitian group, said it’s already happened. She and a few friends went to the see the candidate at the Women of Obama campaign stop in Coral Gables Sept. 19. Cameau, a registered nurse, said as Obama left the arena, he saw one of their Haitians for Obama/”Wi Nou Kapab” t-shirts.
“When he saw that he said something to the effect of, ‘Oh my God, I need you guys,’” Cameau, of Jupiter, said.
Cameau said her friend then replied, ‘You have to win it for us’ and Obama said, “’Yes, I will. Yes, I will.’”
Macollvie Jean-François is news reporter at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.