Four years ago during the 2004 presidential campaigns, storefront businesses on practically every block in South Florida’s traditional enclaves were plastered with red-white-blue campaign posters. In Little Haiti, Jacques Despinosse’s civic and voter center at the corner of Northeast 2nd Avenue and 81st Street epitomized the look, and captured the fever of Haitian-Americans participating as a recognized bloc. These days, that Little Haiti building is shuttered.
The Haitian-American Republicans, raised the ire of their mostly Democratic countrymen by campaigning fervently for George W. Bush and seeking to have others switch parties, are also M.I.A.
The absence of such visible activities may have left the impression the community’s fallen off the radar.
But, going by the number of Haitian-American groups online– mostly supporting Sen. Barack Obama– it seems the activities have only changed space and target audience. MySpace and Facebook groups, blogs and various websites run by Haitian-Americans staunchly proclaim their support for the Illinois senator and urge others to support him.
Florida State Rep. Ronald Brisé has watched the evolution of Haitian-American civic participation and engagement in the process. Brisé replaced pioneer Phillip Brutus in the House, representing the district that encompasses several Haitian enclaves in Miami-Dade County.
“The dynamics have changed in terms of the way this campaign’s evolved, and there’s a generational shift,” Brisé, a Democrat, said. “It’s more of a grassroots, technologically, organization.
“People have their own Obama pages,” he said. “Some are officially connected to the campaign. Others are not. There’s a whole movement to take back the White House.”
And what of those not computer savvy, or even literate? The Haitian radio stations from northern Palm Beach to Florida City are still there, with commentary by pastors, journalists and long-time activists. Politicians still make the obligatory church visits. Organizations – like Véyé Yo—still educate their members on the issues.
Those supporters able to hop online and donate have also taken some of that action back into the community, in the form of fundraising events and rallies. In certain circles, affluent Haitian-Americans organize fundraising events at their homes to benefit the candidates.
In recent weeks, more people have begun donning car stickers and t-shirts bearing Obama’s face and the “Yes, We Can” slogan in Creole: “Wi, Nou Kapab.”
A Haitians for Obama rally of at the Palm Beach Civic Center near Delray Beach last week drew about 80 Haitian-Americans. Organizers brought a mock voting machine; a laptop to collect and submit donations online from attendees; and their candidate’s literature.
Some activists’ priorities have also changed, said Jean Monestime, former North Miami councilman and unsuccessful mayoral candidate. From the mortgage brokerage company he now runs, Monestime said last week that many are like him: concentrating on their professional goals and family. He also works closely with leaders of his native Saint-Louis-du-Nord town in Haiti to help develop the town.
Monestime says still, he and other professionals do partake in those fundraising receptions, stay aware developments in Haiti and communities in the U.S. Perhaps, most significantly, they have access to both major parties, he said.
“You have Haitian-Americans supporting the Republican candidates, you have Haitian-Americans supporting the Democrats,” said Monestime, an Obama supporter. “And that’s healthy, because we don’t have all our eggs in one basket.
“We’ve reached such maturity that some of the Republicans feel comfortable enough to invite some of the Democrats to some of their events,” he added.
If civic education centers like Despinosse’s are no longer active, it may be a reflection of grantors funding priorities shifting in a tight economy. That’s what Jean-Robert Lafortune, of the Haitian Grassroots Coalition, believes has occurred.
Despinosse did not return calls seeking comment.
Macollvie Jean-François is news reporter at the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale.