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Trump And Haitians: He Said He'd Be Their Champ. Many Now Feel Like Chumps.

TrumpLittleHaiti.jpg
Courtesy Michael Bennett
DIASPORA DECEPTION? Then presidential candidate Donald Trump visiting Haitian-American voters at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami in September 2016.

Donald Trump won a surprising number of Haitian-American votes in 2016. But since then he's burned a lot of bridges to Little Haiti. Will it burn him next week?

In September 2016, then Republican presidential candidate came to Miami’s Little Haiti and made an unexpected pitch to Haitian-American voters, who have historically backed Democrats.

“I’m running to represent Haitian-Americans,” Trump told a supportive crowd at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. “I really want to be your greatest champion, and I will be your champion.”

And it worked. Surprisingly, an estimated fifth of Haitian voters in Florida, and many elsewhere in the U.S., cast ballots for Trump.

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But it didn’t take long for President Trump to start burning his bridges with Haitians.

Less than a year after he took office, Haitians were protesting in front of his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. They were angry that he’d moved to end the Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, that had been given to Haitians in the U.S. after Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake; that he’d accelerated deportations of Haitians — and that he’d called Haiti a “shithole” country.

“It hurt. It was a visceral hurt,” says Pierre Imbert, one of the Haitian-Americans who voted for Trump — and now regrets it.

“President Trump unfortunately has been horrible to Haitians.”

READ MORE: Biden Senior Adviser Says Economic Plan Targets Left- and Right-Leaning Haitian Voters

Imbert, who was born in Haiti and lives in Aventura, is a founding director of the Ayiti Community Trust, an NGO based in North Miami that promotes development in Haiti.

He’s a registered independent and — despite the anti-immigrant and race-baiting rhetoric that drenched Trump's 2016 campaign — he voted for Trump hoping he’d change decades of failed U.S. policy in Haiti.

Failure, Imbert adds, that was especially frustrating after the earthquake, when U.S.-led reconstruction projects seemed to ignore regular Haitians like his relatives there.

“Close family members put together, in Haiti, a supermarket serving an area that was deprived and then folded because small and mid-size business enterprises couldn’t get the assistance that they needed,” Imbert recalls.

“It made it more difficult to nourish hope. And Trump presented himself as a viable alternative, a champion of Haiti causes.”

I voted for Trump in great defiance of my friends, my colleagues and family expectations. And I have had four years to pay for it.
Pierre Imbert

But Imbert says Trump’s disdainful neglect of Haiti since then has only helped to worsen its poverty and political chaos. Trump’s vulgar remark about Haiti was the low point — a betrayal that hurt more, Imbert says, because he’d gone out on a personal limb to support Trump.

“It was in great defiance of my friends, my colleagues and family expectations,” he says. “And I have had four years to pay for it.”

Imbert says this time he’ll vote for Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. And that’s also a change from 2016. That year many Haitians, even if they didn’t support Trump, stayed home not to vote for Hillary Clinton.

CLINTON BACKLASH

Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, were particularly unpopular with the Haitian-American community. Their nonprofit Clinton Foundation was widely criticized for its work in post-earthquake Haiti.

The Clintons deny any wrongdoing, but Haitians felt there was a lack of transparency and accountability involving the spending of billions of dollars the international community pledged for Haiti’s reconstruction. And many, fairly or not, associated the Clintons with the U.S. and international mishandling of Haiti aid and crises like a cholera epidemic.

“There was a feeling of exploitation,” says Gilbert Saint-Jean, a Haitian-American scientist in Miami who works with the Haitian-American Voter Empowerment Coalition (HAVE).

“2016 represented a burgeoning movement within the Haitian-American community to hold their elected representatives accountable,” he says. “That backlash against the Clintons was a manifestation of that.”

Pierre Imbert.JPG
Courtesy Ayiti Community Trust
VISCERAL HURT Miami Haitian-American and 2016 Trump voter Pierre Imbert speaking to schoolchildren in Arcahaie, Haiti, about civic and environmental awareness in 2018.

Saint-Jean says it also reflected frustration that Washington rarely consults the Haitian diaspora.

“To have Donald Trump, a major U.S. presidential candidate, actually come visit the community was of significance.”

So Biden made a point of visiting Little Haiti himself this month — Trump, who is much less welcome in Little Haiti these days, has not visited during this campaign.

Haitian diaspora groups also sent Biden a letter this month laying out the issues they want him to address if he wins, such as TPS.

“I believe Biden has shown more support for Latin America and the Caribbean, and for Haiti too,” says Imbert. “But if we learned any lesson from 2016, it’s that we have to leverage our growing voter strength and hold whomever we support accountable.”

Even if far fewer Haitians are expected to vote for Trump this time, the Haitian expat who helped organize his visit here in 2016 has no regrets.

“We are facing two parties, Democrat and Republican, who don’t see us Haitians as allies,” says Ringo Cayard, a government lobbyist in North Miami.

Like many Haitians these days, Cayard feels if Haitians avoid becoming a monolithic bloc and instead split their vote, neither party will take them for granted or ignore them.

“We cannot put all our eggs in one basket,” he insists

Some Haitians do still plan to put their votes in Trump’s basket next week. WLRN reached out to at least half a dozen of them; but unlike four years ago, when Haitian-American Trump voters were usually vocal about their preference, none wanted to talk this time — including a Palm Beach Haitian expat who runs a Facebook page called “Haiti for Trump.”

In 2016 — when Trump won Florida by little more than 100,000 votes — his boost in the Haitian community might have helped put him over the top. In 2020, the apparent drop in enthusiasm could hurt Trump in a Florida race that looks to be as close — if not closer.