Add To Favorites

Instead of celebrating Haitian Flag Day, some in Miami, New York plan to protest

Miami Herald - 5/17/2023

For some Haitians, it will be a day to rally around their pride by waving their bi-color, horizontal blue-and-red flag through South Florida’s streets while basking in everything from the culture to the cuisine.

But for scores of others, this Haitian Flag Day on Thursday, May 18, will be a day of protests against the debilitating and deadly gang violence sweeping through their homeland amid political turmoil, soaring kidnappings, vigilante killings and questions about U.S. foreign and domestic policies that critics say are contributing to the instability.

In New York, Haitians will be taking to the streets to march, joined by people from Florida, New Jersey and other states with sizable Haitian populations. In Miami, the Family Action Network Movement will sponsor “A day of solidarity with Haiti.” Starting at 10 a.m. the organization will be posting different social media messages demanding a stop to the incessant gang violence, killings and daily human rights abuses in Haiti.

“The people are suffering. Our children are suffering. We are asking the world to stand with us as we fight for security, as we fight for better for our people so that they can finally be able to live in their homeland as any human beings deserve to do,” said Marleine Bastien, the founder of the network and a recently elected Miami-Dade county commissioner. “Enough is enough.”

Bastien said that in addition to using social media platforms to get the word out about the suffering, supporters of the campaign will also be trying to focus attention to their stance on foreign intervention — a proposition that still divides Haitians in the United States and in Haiti, where recent polls show more are in favor of outside help to combat gangs.

“We’ve suffered for years under foreign intervention and things have gotten worse, so we are trying to attract the world’s attention to that also,” she said, adding that if the United States, in particular, wants to help Haiti it needs to crack down on the arms smuggling that is pumping heavy weaponry into the country.

“There is an arms embargo on Haiti but 90% of the weaponry comes from Florida, right here,” said Bastien.

A coalition of a dozen professional and community-based organizations in the New York area plan to demand a stop to the arms trafficking. As a result of the march, a Haitian Flag Day celebration scheduled for Times Square has been postponed.

At 9 a.m. Thursday, Haitians will march through the streets of New York to the Brooklyn Bridge where in 1990 they challenged — and changed — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation that Haitians be restricted from donating blood because they were supposedly a high-risk group for AIDS.

“This bridge is particularly very meaningful to us in New York because of what we were able to do,” said Yolette Williams, a licensed clinical social worker who heads the non-profit Haitian American Alliance of New York.

Williams said while she knows that one march will not be sufficient, she is hoping it will be a start. Haitians in the diaspora, she said, have to start to show empathy with what is happening in their homeland and begin pressuring for change.

READ MORE: How U.S. gun laws and South Florida ports help fuel Haiti’s escalating gang violence

When she looks at what is unfolding in Haiti, Williams, who has lived in the U.S. for the past 50 years, said she feels “very demoralized, sad, angry.”

“If we are going to celebrate the flag, which we should, we should also take this same day to stand up and bring attention to what is going on in Haiti because we are all Haitian Americans, we are American citizens and... we have a voice.

“We could ask America, the country where we pay taxes and where we know the arms are coming from, to intervene and stop the gun trafficking,” Williams added. “We know this is one area where everyone agrees.”

More than 1,400 Haitians have died in gang-related conflicts this year. Fed up, many Haitians have taken matters into their own hands, by aiding the police and killing suspected gang members. The Haitian police, which has welcomed the population’s assistance, has nevertheless warned that vigilante killings are not the way to deal with gangs.

After appearing to have ceded control to gangs, which now control at least 80% of Port-au-Prince as well as the Artibonite Valley just to the north, the Haiti National Police force has stepped up its anti-gang operations. Since last week, they’ve concentrated on gangs controlling the southern end of the capital, trying to free the community of Martissant, which has spent the last two years under gang control.

A number of Haiti National Police officers were deployed this week to the city of Cap-Haïtien, where the government, led by Prime Minister Ariel Henry, plans to celebrate Haitian Flag Day on Thursday and has invited members of the diplomatic corps to join.

Concerned about demonstrations and questioning the decision given the ongoing security challenges in Port-au-Prince, some diplomats are declining to go. On Wednesday, the U.S. State Department reissued its Level 4 Do Not Travel warning for Haiti.

“Violent crime, such as armed robbery, carjackings, and kidnappings for ransom that include American citizens are common. Mob killings against presumed criminals have been on the rise since late April,” the warning said. “Protests, demonstrations, tire burning, and roadblocks are frequent, unpredictable, and can turn violent. The U.S. government is extremely limited in its ability to provide emergency services to U.S. citizens in Haiti..”

The warning also says that U.S. government personnel are discouraged from walking in Port-au-Prince and only family members over the age of 18 are permitted to accompany U.S. government employees assigned to the U.S. embassy. U.S. government personnel in Haiti are also prohibited from using public transportation or taxis, visiting banks or using ATMs, driving at night, traveling anywhere between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m,; and visiting certain parts of the city without prior approval:

Dr. Louis J. Auguste, a surgical oncologist with the Association of Haitian Physicians Abroad in New York, said while it hasn’t been easy getting a coalition of Haitian organizations together for Thursday’s march, it was necessary. Since last July, Auguste said, he’s been talking about the need for Haitians in the diaspora to be more empathetic with what’s happening in Haiti and the need for Haitians abroad to mobilize.

“They love listening to Haitians marching in Haiti but the diaspora also has to march to make an impact, to draw the attention of the government and the media,” Auguste said. “I cannot bear the thought that people can be bleeding, suffering and nobody’s paying attention.”

Auguste said Haiti’s current crisis has made it impossible for him to visit, or to continue the medical mission trips he has taken part in for years. Those who suffer the most because of this, he said, are the hospitals and patients who benefited from the supplies and equipment that were being shipped and the professionals who visited and provided their service voluntarily.

“I’m waiting for the occasion to be able to go there safely because I wouldn’t want to expose anybody to any kind of injury or any fatality,” Auguste said.

In the meantime, he and others are hoping Thursday’s march will lead to change.

The cry for help from Haiti’s population, which is increasingly becoming victims of the gang rapes, kidnappings and killings, has remained unheeded either by the United States, Canada or the international community in general, he said.

Among what the group is demanding is that the U.S. government make every effort to stop the illegal trafficking of guns to Haiti; stop the money laundering that allows the financing of large arm purchases, and track down and bring to justice the sellers and buyers of weapons and those transporting weapons from the US to the country.

The coalition is also also asking that Haiti be allowed to form its own military force, “since neither the U.S. nor Canada have heeded the desperate calls for help from the Haitians.” Requests by Henry and the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres for the deployment of a multinational force to help the Haitian police have gone unanswered after seven months.

Also listed among the coalition’s demands: to limit the power of the countries known as the Core group to make decisions about Haiti.

“We need a partner and a friend, but not a master,” Auguste said.

©2023 Miami Herald. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.