For years, Haitians in the United States have founded organizations to lobby for issues that are close to their hearts. So far, their success has been limited. But now as Barack Obama appears closer to winning the White House, Haitians are hoping to go at it once again by launching another organization, the Haitian American National Alliance.
The new organization has borrowed Obama’s rallying cry “Yes we can” or “Wi nou kapab”, as its own slogan.
Those three words feature prominently on the banner of the Haitian American National Alliance’s website alongside a picture of the presidential candidate. The lobby group seeks to be a voice for Haitians in Washington, but its first task is to help get Obama elected president.
The close association with the Democratic candidate is no surprise. The very idea for the Alliance sprang from the hiring in June of a Haitian American labor leader, Patrick Gaspard, as national political director of the Obama campaign.
“Haitians were very proud of the appointment,” said Dr. George Casimir, a founding member of the organization. “It mobilized some of us.”
Gaspard honed his political skills as an organizer while serving as executive vice president for politics and legislation of Local 1199 which is part of the Service Employees International Union. The local, which represents 300,000 health sector workers, includes thousands of Haitian members.
Gaspard’s Haitian colleagues in the union joined with a number of Haitian professionals to form the Alliance. They are fuelled by a desire to help a fellow Haitian, says John Alexis, who works for Local 1199 and is a national co-chair of the Haitian American National Alliance. But with a Haitian filling a senior role in Obama’s campaign, Alexis says they also sense a historic opportunity. “We believe that that will give the Haitian-American community and Haitians living in Haiti access to an administration that we have never had before.”
Jocelyn McCalla who led the National Coalition for Haitian Rights until that organization closed its doors in 2006, believes Gaspard’s appointment is significant, but cautioned that it will take a lot more than access to Obama for the Alliance to be a successful lobby. “The idea still prevails that it’s who you know,” McCalla said. “They can’t rely on Gaspard to do that.”
The Alliance’s coming out party happened over Labor Day Weekend at a Haitian concert in Eisenhower Park in Hempstead, Long Island. On a Sunday night, with thousands of spectators revved from a performance by Sweet Micky, Alexis took the stage with Yves “fanfan ti bot” Joseph, a founding member of Tabou Combo. They delivered rousing speeches in Creole urging the audience to get behind Obama.
As they led the crowd in a chorus of “wi nou kapab”, Joseph’s wife, Nadia, sold Obama paraphernalia and registered voters at a tent near the entrance of the park. The Josephs say they have been campaigning hard for Obama, holding fundraisers and traveling to Pennsylvania to persuade undecided voters.
Joseph is moved by Obama’s story. “Believe it or not, these things can only happen in one country and one country alone, the United States of America, where the son of an immigrant can be nominated to be president of this great country. I have a son who was born here and I’m doing it for my son.”
Joseph says a big part of his work with the Haitian community is voter education. “A lot of people think that because they have an American passport or they were born here, they can automatically vote.
He adds that there are cultural hurdles to overcome that stem from Haiti’s history of unaccountable regimes. “Politics is a very taboo subject for a lot of people,” Joseph said. “We don’t have that kind of education of being involved in politics in Haiti. In Haiti, people do politics for you.” But he’s hopeful that things are changing. “I think with a new generation of Haitians, that’s who we have to educate to get involved in politics.”
The birth of this new organization reflects a shift in the political strategies of the Haitian American community which for years was largely focused on politics in Haiti. After decades of trying to affect change with little success, some are calling for a different approach.
Still, it remains unclear how the Alliance will be able to distinguish itself from others that have been unable to fulfill their lofty goals of making the Haitian-American diaspora a savvy, sophisticated lot. In the early 1990’s Haitian professional organizations sprung up across South Florida, New York and Maryland. So far, many of them have folded and those that are still around, exist primarily on paper.
“By being involved in Haitian politics you are not going to change things,” Dr. Casimir said. “If you are here in this country, the way to change things is to be extremely involved in American politics and then make the American government change its position towards the Haitian government. This is what the Jewish people have done, what the Cuban people have done.”
By demonstrating that it can rally the support of Haitians across the country for a particular candidate, the Alliance hopes to establish itself as an influential voice in Washington, just as other ethnic groups have succeeded in shaping policies that affect both their communities and countries of origin.
McCalla who lobbied Washington for many years says for the new group to be successful, the key will be to focus on domestic issues which will allow it to build alliances with other communities. “By focusing their work on foreign policy issues,” previous Haitian lobby groups “failed to motivate or influence anybody,” MCalla said. Concentrating on domestic policy, McCalla stresses, would not only forge crucial partnerships but is essential to alleviating the poverty that prevents many Haitian Americans from greater civic participation. “If people remain impoverished they won’t be able to focus on politics,” he said.
As Obama’s poll numbers have been climbing, Alexis said the Alliance is starting to turn its attention to how it will lobby on behalf of Haitian interests with Obama in power. But until November the focus remains on getting Obama elected.
In the final stretch of the election campaign, the Alliance is focusing its resources on Florida; the battleground state is home to almost half of all Haitians living in the U.S. Gerard Cadet, a founding member of the Alliance and a vice president of Local 1199 was dispatched to South Florida in September where he appeared on Haitian radio programs and met with community leaders to urge Haitians to turn out in big numbers for Obama. Cadet’s efforts got a boost when Gaspard came to Miami’s Little Haiti and spoke at an outdoor broadcast of the first presidential debate.
Alexis says from what he’s seen, he’s optimistic an Obama administration would be more receptive to the concerns of Haitian Americans. He cites a statement by the candidate in July in which he said U.S.’ immigration policy which discriminates against Haitians should be re-examined. Alexis was also impressed by Obama’s quick response to the recent Hurricanes that devastated Haiti in which he called for more U.S. aid. “This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had a major candidate whose visibly shown interest,” Alexis said.
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