A small majority of Haitian Americans believe Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide should remain in office despite an armed uprising and opposition protests demanding his resignation, a new poll shows.
Fifty-two percent of U.S. Haitians believed Aristide should remain in office. More than half of Haitian Americans also said Aristide should not step down because he was elected by an overwhelming majority in the Caribbean country’s last presidential election in 2000.
“They think he won the election fair and square,” says Sergio Bendixen, whose Miami-based firm Bendixen & Associates conducted the poll for NCM, a nationwide association of ethnic media. “They feel that if he resigns it will weaken the democracy.”
Gary Pierre-Pierre, a Haitian American, publishes the Haitian Times weekly in New York City and is a former New York Times reporter. He says he believes this is the first national poll ever of Haitian American opinion.
“It’s about time that people start asking us what we think,” says Pierre-Pierre. He acknowledges that Haitian Americans may “not have definitive answers” to Haiti’s crisis, but says that as a thriving immigrant community with strong ties to Haiti and intimate knowledge of its problems, they should be consulted.
Pierre-Pierre says that when President Clinton ordered 20,000 U.S. troops into Haiti in 1994 to restore democracy, one weakness of the U.S. plan was that Haitian émigrés were not properly included in strategizing. “You should be tapping into us,” he says.
The bilingual poll, conducted between Feb. 12 and Feb. 18, questioned 600 Haitian Americans in Florida and the Northeast in either English or Haitian-Creole, depending on the respondent’s preference. The poll has a margin of error of four percentage points.
Haitian Americans, the poll showed, are ambivalent about U.S. military intervention in the current crisis.
Forty-five percent of respondents said the United States should get involved militarily, and most, 32 percent, said that support should be offered to Aristide. But the remaining 13 percent said the opposition should get the military support.
The day of the poll’s release, Feb. 19, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a small military team would be dispatched to Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, to assess security at the U.S. embassy. But Powell says the White House still wants a political solution and hinted the United States was open to Aristide’s resignation as a possible way out of the crisis.
Even among Haitian Americans, support for Aristide is lukewarm at best: 35 percent of respondents said that he should resign. When asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Aristide should resign from office because he does not respect the human rights of Haitians,” 39 percent agreed, 37 percent disagreed, and 24 percent did not know or declined to answer.
One question asked respondents whether they thought the economic and political situation was better now under Aristide or under the dictatorships of Francois Duvalier, and his son, Jean-Claude, who ruled from the late 1950s until 1986. Fifty-six percent chose the Duvalier governments, compared to only 14 percent for Aristide.
The governments of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” are remembered for their brutal stifling of dissent, but Bendixen says there may be “Duvalier nostalgia” because that era is now being remembered for its relative economic and political stability.
U.S. Haitians are also not happy with U.S. policy toward their country. Only nine percent say they approve of President Bush’s policy toward Haiti. And a clear majority, 61 percent, said they did not agree with the economic sanctions the United States imposed on Haiti alleging irregularities in May 2000 legislative elections.
The Haitian American community has swelled to at least 600,000 over the last few decades as successive political instability and economic woes have pushed Haitians from their homeland, a nation of 7.5 million. In 1994, U.S. troops put an exiled Aristide back in the presidency.
Now, a decade later, the U.S. military is returning to Haiti, though the plans call for only a small “security assessment team.” But neither side in the conflict is backing down, and pressure is building on the international community, particularly the United States and Haiti’s former colonizer, France, to intervene to prevent a humanitarian disaster should fighting escalate.
In the historic northern Artibonite region, the center of the late 18th century slave revolt that launched a successful independence struggle, armed rebels have taken towns and roads and are demanding Aristide’s removal. In Port-au-Prince the mainstream opposition—including Democratic Convergence, an alliance of Aristide’s political opponents—says it wants a peaceful solution but is also asking for Aristide’s resignation.
Haitian Americans, though, are skeptical about the various opposition movements and their objectives. Overall, only six percent of those polled said they supported the activities of the armed rebels, known as the Revolutionary Artibonite Resistance Front and 17 percent said they supported the mainstream opposition groups.
Over half of Haitian Americans, 55 percent, believe that the opposition movements are just interested in power; only 22 percent said those groups are fighting for democracy.
Haitian Americans’ evaluation of Haiti’s political context is important for at least one reason: cash.
A 2000 study by Tatiana Wah of Rutgers University Department of Public Policy found that expatriates’ remittances supplement per-capita income by $32 per person in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. Haiti has “no choice” she says, but to use expatriates and their skills in development efforts.
“Right now, they’re basically financing the country,” says Bendixen.
Marcelo Ballve is a PNS editor and a former Associated Press reporter and editor in the Caribbean and Brazil.