'It's a lack of respect.' Why some Haitians felt spurned by Kamala Harris' Miami visit

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Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS

MIAMI — Sen. Kamala Harris courted Venezuelan, Black-American and Jewish voters during her first visit to Miami on behalf of her running mate, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

But other than a “Sak pase “ by Harris — Creole for “what’s happening” — Haitian American representation was mostly absent from Thursday’s campaign stop, reinforcing feelings of neglect by a large contingent of the South Florida Black community that has long felt overlooked by Democratic politicians.

“When I turn on my TV, you hear everything in the Hispanic community about (President) Trump or about Biden. Biden’s team is always in the Hispanic community but they forget about the Haitian community,” said Christie Chenier, 35, a community organizer and voter who lives in the heavily Haitian city of North Miami. “We feel left out.”

That feeling of being slighted again swept through South Florida’s Haitian-American community Thursday when Harris, after surprising potential Venezuelan-American voters in a Doral restaurant, sat down with Black community leaders at a live-streamed forum held at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens.

At the table: Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., FMU President Jaffus Hardrick, Miami-Dade Chamber of Commerce President Eric Knowles, Miami Shores Mayor Crystal Wagar, Miami-Dade NAACP President Ruban Roberts and Faith in Florida Executive Director Rhonda Thomas.

All are Black leaders but none are from the South Florida Haitian community, even though as recently as June, two prominent Haitian-American physicians, Larry Pierre and Jean-Philippe Austin, held a fundraiser on Harris’ behalf. Several Haitian-American leaders contacted by the Miami Herald said they were not invited, including Philippe Bien-Aime, the mayor of North Miami; Alix Desulme, vice mayor of North Miami and president of the National Haitian American Elected Officials Network, and Vanessa Joseph, North Miami city clerk and chairwoman of the Haitian-American Voter Empowerment Coalition.

Haitian activist Marleine Bastien was invited to participate in the roundtable, but declined because of travel and the last-minute invite.

“It would have been a great time to announce that there is a future meeting with the Haitian community,” said Vanessa Joseph. “Or explain that on this particular stop there would have been time to only have two stops, however, they are in the process of organizing something else.”

Frantz Michel, a North Miami real estate agent and voter put it more bluntly: “It’s a lack of respect.”

“The Democrats are always thinking, ‘I already got the vote,’ because all Haitians are Democrats and no matter what, we’re going to vote Democrat. But it doesn’t work like that,” said Michel, 46.

The Haitian community wasn’t entirely overlooked. Two Haitian-American politicians — state Rep. Dotie Joseph and Miami-Dade County Commissioner Jean Monestime — were invited to meet with Harris privately after the FMU roundtable. During Joseph’s meeting, the recently reelected Florida legislator asked Harris, whose father is Jamaican, to record video shout-outs to Haitians and Caribbean Blacks for digital release.

And later that evening, Harris’ chief of staff, Karine Jean-Pierre, made a brief cameo during a virtual town hall featuring Biden Florida adviser Karen Andre. Both women are Haitian American, and the event — meant to rally Haitian-American influencers across the country — was sponsored by a newly organized grassroots group called “Ayisyen pou Biden, which means Haitians for Biden in Creole.

During the video conference, the 100 or so attendees were told by the campaign’s representatives that the Haitian vote was critical, especially in a battleground like Florida. As part of the party’s Black outreach, the campaign said it planned to bring on two more staffers: one to focus on voters from the English-speaking Caribbean and another, the Creole-speaking Caribbean.

“We want every sector of the larger Black, African-American community, diaspora to feel like they have representation from inside the campaign,” Andre said during the video conference.

The campaign is finalizing spots for Creole-language radio and cable stations in places like South Florida and Orlando, where there are large swaths of Haitian voters.

“This campaign knows that to win Florida, we must build a broad, diverse coalition of support, which requires investments in everything from our organizing to our paid media program conveying Joe Biden’s commitment to the Haitian-American community,” Andre said in a statement provided Friday to The Miami Herald by the Biden campaign.

But with the Biden-Harris ticket aggressively seeking Latino voters through Spanish-language radio and television ads and Harris’ stop in Doral, Haitian community leaders and voters fear that any delay in reaching out to their community could cost the party votes at a time when a global pandemic will already make casting ballots difficult.

“It’s probably coming when it always does — completely last-minute, when it’s not going to make a difference,” said Francesca Menes, co-host of Konekte, a political program about Haiti and the U.S. that airs Mondays and Wednesdays on Island TV. “Mail ballots will start dropping Sept 24. People will be starting to vote. My concern is the Democratic Party, both in the state and nationally, aren’t prioritizing a group of people they think they already have — but they don’t.”

Haitian Americans make up a unique and politically influential segment of South Florida’s elections. There are upwards of 500,000 people of Haitian ancestry living in the state, according to the U.S. Census. Accurate estimates on how many are active voters are difficult to come by, but University of Florida political science department Chairman Daniel Smith has said a low-ball estimate is 115,000. During recent elections, several Haitians either won political office or made it to runoffs, demonstrating the power of Haitian-American votes.

The Republican Party has actively courted Haitian voters for years.

Trump, despite reportedly referring to Haiti as a “shithole country” and his administration’s efforts to end Temporary Protected Status for undocumented Haitians, is still trying to reel in Haitian-American support. In 2016, he visited Little Haiti hoping to capitalize on Haitians’ frustrations with the Clinton Foundation and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s work over the years in Haiti. And activists say his campaign is reaching out ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

Djenane St. Fleur Gourgue, the vice president of the Haitian American Chamber of Commerce in Broward, said she is among several Haitian community leaders, including pastors, who have been contacted by Trump’s reelection campaign for meetings next week.

“From what I am seeing, Trump already won if — in Broward and Miami — the weight is on the Haitian vote,” said Gourgue, who describes herself as non-partisan. “The Democrats don’t know what they are doing.”

Gourgue said she logged into the virtual “Ayisyen pou Biden” town hall on Thursday at the end of Harris’ visit. The idea of trying to rally Haitian-American influencers across the United States is a good one, she said. But from her observations, the group of mostly young Haitian Americans didn’t show that they understood the demographics of the community and what will get out the vote.

“It’s OK for Karen Andre and Karine Jean-Pierre to come and do their photo opp and say, ‘I’m a senior adviser,’” said Gourgue. But without visible respect for the community, she said, including a seat at the table when Harris or Biden come to town, the Democratic Party may need to prepare for a repeat of 2016 when Democrats failed to mobilize Haitian voters in support of Clinton.

Monestime, the Miami-Dade Commissioner, disagrees. Haitians, he said, are more engaged today than they were four years ago.

“The vast majority of Haitian voters are Democratic voters and I believe they will come out,” he said. “I am not as skeptical as others.”

One thing Haitians do agree on is that this year’s presidential election is being closely watched by the community, if for no other reason than the issue of U.S. policy toward Haiti.

As with other ethnic minorities in South Florida, foreign policy can be a deciding factor in U.S. elections. With Haiti steeped in protests and gang violence, and a president — Jovenel Moise — who has stayed in power with the silent backing of the international community led by the United States, many Haitian Americans are anxiously waiting to see what happens in the U.S. election.

“The diaspora loves Haiti no matter what. But we cannot go to Haiti right now and everybody is looking at Trump because, whatever Jovenel is doing, he’s got the support … because of Trump,” said Chenier, the community organizer from North Miami. “The Haitian community sees that and they can give the Democratic party another chance because of what’s going on now in Haiti. But they are going to have to work for it.”

But does this mean some Haitians will once again give their vote to Trump?

“I don’t think they are going to go vote for Trump. They are just going to stay quiet,” she added. “Some Haitians voted for Trump the first time — just because Trump came to Little Haiti. That’s how Haitians are. But if they feel like you don’t respect them, and they are nobody, they are going to stay home.”

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©2020 Miami Herald

Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
Pedro Portal/Miami Herald/TNS
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