The rise in the number of Haitians being detained at sea, at airports and at border crossings this year has the international community scratching as well as turning its head. More than 70 picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard in the waters off Puerto Rico; 33 by authorities off Jamaica; almost 3,500 in or off the Dominican Republic; 65 as far away as Peru.
New Haitian government data may help explain the trend. According to the National Coordination of Food Security, two of every three Haitians don’t have enough food to eat, thanks largely to tropical storms that devastated the impoverished country’s agriculture last year and made rebuilding from the epic 2010 earthquake all the more difficult. About 1.5 million people, more than a tenth of the population, suffer malnutrition.
But if we are seeing the beginnings of a new exodus -- and it is still too early to call it that -- Haitian refugees can at least expect fairer and more humane treatment from the U.S. and other nations today than they could a generation ago.
And that’s due in no small part to what happened 20 years ago this week, when a U.S. federal judge shut down a controversial camp at the Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba, where almost 300 Haitians who tested positive for the H.I.V. virus had been held for two years in what the judge called “unacceptable” conditions.
The court order was nothing short of a “vindication” for Haitians and Haitian-Americans, recalls Miami Haitian community leader Leonie Hermantin.
During the detention episode, Haitian-Americans in Miami and other U.S. cities “were relegated to the cesspool of humanity because we too were labeled as H.I.V. carriers,” says Hermantin. The June 18, 1993, closure of Camp Bulkeley and the release of the detained Haitians, many of them to relatives in the U.S., affirmed “that we were indeed human beings and that we should not be treated as contagious lepers.”
In late 1991, tens of thousands of Haitians had begun escaping political terror in their country after a brutal military coup ousted then President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Many of the so-called Haitian boat people were intercepted by the Coast Guard and housed at Guantánamo. Because of the global paranoia about AIDS at that time, the refugees who tested positive were quarantined inside Bulkeley indefinitely.
In 1993, however, many of them conducted protest hunger strikes that drew international attention to their miserable plight. “Those [Haitians] who were wasting away made the decision to stop eating because they were so outraged by their treatment,” says Hermantin. “I think it drove home the gross injustice of this [detention] policy.”
Aside from waking the world up to the suffering of H.I.V. patients in general, it also helped Americans appreciate the political and economic reality in Haiti. A year later, in fact, the U.S. military would drive coup leader Raoul Cédras out of Haiti and restore Aristide to the presidency.
It was also a moment when Americans realized that Haitians too could be political refugees, like Cuban exiles, and not just economic refugees. Hermantin, for example, points to studies that showed a sharp decrease in the number of people leaving Haiti after Aristide’s return in 1994.
“The outflow of refugees was definitely related to political upheaval,” she says.
Today Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, is facing natural and economic more than political upheaval, but it could end up driving Haitians to abandon the country nonetheless. Should that happen, though, longtime Haitian-American organizers like Hermantin, who is also a Haitian development consultant, say enough has changed since 1993 that it should be a less traumatic experience.
For one thing, Hermantin points out, more countries in the hemisphere besides the U.S., including Brazil, which is the largest economy in Latin America and the Caribbean, are stepping forward now to receive Haitian emigrants. And in the U.S., benefits such as temporary protected status, or TPS, have been extended in recent years to Haitian immigrants, especially after the earthquake.
Just as important, Hermantin adds, “In Miami-Dade County they’ve learned a lot... There is a system in place to address our needs and concerns with the cultural competency and sensitivity that our Haitian-American community here has advocated for the past 20 years.”
And that advocacy, it turns out, was greatly inspired by a few hundred detainees who two decades ago caught the world’s attention most powerfully at the moment they felt themselves wasting away.
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