The blocks around Church and Nostrand have two stories to tell about Haitians in New York these days. There’s the stuff that’s easy to see and celebrate: Record shops stocked with zouk and compas, and posters everywhere for booming nightclub shows. A scattering of day care centers speaks to the heavy participation of women in the workforce and their high numbers in some of the city’s biggest labor unions.
Yet for many Haitians, Brooklyn is worlds away from the convivial street life of Haiti. Survivors of violent coups, thug attacks and scary sea voyages live in painful privation. There’s just not enough housing–nearly 30 percent of apartments in central Flatbush are overcrowded, the worst in Brooklyn–and what does exist is generally in really bad shape, often because small landlords can’t afford repairs. Though Louima plus Dorismond has added up to some breakthroughs in local precincts’ relations with Haitians, cops are still feared. Schools suck.
Many people spend their dollars not on businesses here but to support relatives in Haiti, where the latest wave of political chaos has nearly shut down the economy. A lot of workers are barely hanging on. “These people have no health insurance, no pension plans, just get paid as they work,” says Georges Boursiquot, a city housing official and local activist. “Our community is young, very poor, politically powerless.”
Lola Poisson remembers when the adversity was a little less overwhelming. For 15 years, her Haitian Community Health Information and Referral Center provided a range of counseling services in Creole. “She provided a wonderful service,” says Tatiana Wah, chair of the Haitian-American Alliance, an economic development organization. But two years ago, Poisson had to shut the center down after losing nearly half a million dollars in funding from the city’s Department of Mental Health. “It was a damn good program,” mourns Poisson, shaking her head. “It was what we were waiting for in the Haitian community.” Now, doctors have nowhere to refer their Creole-speaking clients for mental health services.
Poisson’s critics suggest that she could have managed the business end better, but even they believe she could have worked things out with the city–if only she had the cooperation of City Councilmember Una Clarke.
She didn’t. Now, Poisson wants Clarke’s City Council seat, and with it the power to command the dollars for services. “I heard about term limits,’ says Poisson, “and thought it was a great way to take my work to a different level.” To do that, Poisson will have to fight as hard as she ever has: Clarke’s daughter, Yvette, is also running for the seat, with name recognition and Jamaican support on her side. Whoever wins this race will have to appeal to the whole archipelago of Caribbean Flatbush, to Trinidadians and Guyanese too.
But Poisson’s biggest obstacle to becoming the city’s first Haitian elected official comes from within her own community. A group of Haitian leaders–including doctors, radio producers and business and social service honchos–wants a Haitian to win no matter what. And so they want to make sure that, come the September primary, only one Haitian candidate remains in the running for the council seat. Already, they’ve convinced Boursiquot to abandon his own plans to run.
That leaves Jean Vernet, whose activist cred rival Poisson’s. During the 1980s wave of Haitian refugees, he started a task force to demand decent housing for them. On staff at the Community Service Society, he fought mergers of financial institutions and pushed banks to invest in city neighborhoods. Now he’s tackling police-community relations for the National Coalition for Haitian Rights, training police and residents in Haitian-heavy precincts to avoid conflict.
Flatbush, insists Jean-Claude Compas, a doctor who runs a practice on Eastern Parkway, isn’t big enough for the both of them. “We have to talk to Vernet and Poisson and make sure that one of them leaves the race,” says Compas. “There’s only room for one.”
Who survives may have a lot to do with politics hundreds of miles from New York. Always in precarious political health, Haiti is in seriously bad shape these days, not least because the country’s reigning Lavalas party is embroiled in a nasty war with opposition parties. Last year, all of them ended up boycotting the general elections after Lavalas refused to hold runoffs for 10 disputed Senate seats.
In 1998, Pastor Samuel Nicolas of Good Shepherd Church found out how Haitian politics can translate into trouble in New York. He ran for State Assembly against incumbent Rhoda Jacobs, only to be plagued by allegations of family connections to Haiti’s Tontons Macoutes terror squads. “That will affect people in this race too,” says Ulrick Gaillard, a former aide to Jacobs as well as Assemblymember Mel Miller. “If there’s one thing that will affect the race here, it won’t be American politics–it will be Haitian politics.”
As Vernet himself likes to point out, Haitians in New York remember him well as a player on that scene. He was a local leader in support of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the iconic Haitian democratic leader who emerged from the fall of the right-wing Duvalier regime more than a decade ago. During Aristide’s rise to power and subsequent exile after a coup, Vernet organized demonstrations–and behind him marched the rank and file of unions, hospital local 1199 in particular, where Haitians are a mighty presence. For years, the unions have tapped into populist passions for Aristide as a rallying cause.
Vernet has maintained those labor ties, and they could pay off big. One in six registered Democrats in the 40th district is a union member, and activist unions have targeted the district as one where they could win an ally on the council. The union-tied Working Families Party picked Vernet in its first round of endorsements. He has a good chance of getting health care Local 1199, UNITE, 32B-J and other powerful unions to follow with individual endorsements.
Vernet doesn’t sound worried about the effort to narrow the field to one Haitian candidate. “I think it’s a necessary process. People like [Brooklyn Democratic chair] Clarence Norman will not necessarily support someone who doesn’t have a chance to win,” he says calmly from his Manhattan office. “In view of the support I have pointing to the Working Families endorsement, he playfully sticks out his tongue–“people are saying I’m most likely to win.”
Poisson’s own political ties certainly don’t hurt Vernet. Poisson is married to Raymond Joseph, one of New York’s most outspoken critics of Aristide. His newspaper, Haiti-Observateur, for which Poisson writes a column, relentlessly criticizes Aristide’s Lavalas party, detailing the crimes of associated extremists and rooting for the anti-Lavalas insurgents who assert that Lavalas rigged last year’s elections in Haiti. (“He does his thing and I do mine,” says Poisson, but can’t resist adding that “more and more, people are seeing he’s been right about Aristide.”)
Poisson says that years of running a neighborhood organization have earned her grassroots support Vernet can’t dream of getting–and that she’s staying in no matter who asks her to step aside. If someone has to drop out, she asks, as if there is no conceivable answer, “Why should it be me?”
New York is probably the only city in the democratic world where 500,000 people from a politically active nation can barely get someone elected to schoolboard. Both Miami and Boston have Haitian state legislators.
This year, New York’s Haitians have the numbers to win, and they have more than enough reasons to go to the polls. When it comes down to it, both Poisson and Vernet want the same things for Flatbush–better housing and schools (Vernet favors nonprofit charters, Poisson is opposed), more child care and after-school programs, services for the elderly, meaningful job training and, of course, the possibility of greater power in the long run. Each campaign claims to have raised about $20,000 so far, money that will blossom when public matching funds arrive in August.
But perhaps most importantly, they need to convince voters that their future is in New York. Last year’s Haitian elections spawned nasty, often violent political sabotage, and the United States and other powers have withheld badly needed aid to Haiti until the election dispute is resolved.
“The economic conditions there are really bad,” says Francois Pierre-Louis, whose Community Action Project is coordinating a voter registration and education campaign among Haitian New Yorkers. “The insecurity. The killings. It’s different from before.”
The climate has prompted a new exodus from the country; Compas reports that his successful Haitian-American patients who built vacation homes in Haiti are now selling them and getting out. “We’re in the process of community-building,” says Wah. “Haitians are now realizing there’s no going back.”