As Haiti waits for help, Haitians in Florida find it hard to stay hopeful of country's future
Ronald Dieujuste came to South Florida from Haiti at the age of 15, leaving his two sisters behind. Today, the women live in fear of the violence that is gripping the country. When Dieujuste, now 37, speaks to his sisters on the phone, they approach every conversation as if it may be their last.
Aware of just how dangerous of a situation his sisters are in, Dieujuste wants to help get them out of Haiti. He is one among many Haitians who feel powerless and hopeless, even with the news of impending international intervention. When speaking on the phone, his sisters say “I am going to die,” he recounts in an interview, and as a big brother it pains him that all he can say in response is “Just be patient, you never know.”
It has only been four years since a peacekeeping force pulled out of Haiti, but a new wave of gang violence prompted the UN to approve another multinational force to return in 2024. More than 300,000 Haitians in South Florida are now waiting and watching from afar, many without hope that this — or anything else — will bring peace to the country.
From January to July of this year alone, more than 2,000 people have been killed by criminal groups, and 1,014 were kidnapped, according to Human Rights Watch. However, the actual numbers are estimated to be much higher. Gangs have also been routinely burning and looting homes, as well as using what HRW calls “persuasive rape” in order to terrorize and demonstrate their control to citizens. The mayhem has left almost 195,000 people internally displaced.
These numbers represent a sharp increase, despite the fact that the country has been plagued with political instability and violence for decades, stemming back to the country’s fight for independence.
President Joe Biden and Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry have both argued that the response of the international community is needed to restore some semblance of democracy and peace. On Oct. 2 the UN voted to approve a peacekeeping force whose purpose will be to assist Haitian police in getting the gangs under control and to train officers with an eye towards preventing another situation as bad as this one.
While Kenya volunteered to send 1,000 officers to lead the multinational force, a Kenyan court temporarily blocked the deployment on Oct. 9 and again on Oct. 24. While the matter is expected to be voted on by the Kenyan Parliament at a later date, it leaves Haiti once again in limbo.
In the meantime, many Haitians in South Florida are fearful the mission will bring anything but peace and democracy to the country.
When Dieujuste got the news of the impending mission, his normally lighthearted demeanor instantly dropped as he sat on a metal chair behind a restaurant where he works in Boca Raton. His head and shoulders fell as he looked off into the distance, processing the news. When he turned back, his eyes were wide with fear and concern, and his youthful face suddenly looked aged and exhausted.
With his sisters' lives already on the line, Dieujuste worries outside forces could bring another source of weapons to the gangs. The weaponry the already powerful gangs have gotten their hands on are much more powerful than what is made in the country. This along with the country's history of corruption makes any powerful outside force just another threat, that Dieujuste believes outweighs any potential good.
“There will never be peace there,” Dieujuste said, shaking his head. “Unless they got all of the gangsters. Look at this. Look at it,” he said, holding up his phone to play videos of kidnappings, burning buildings and parades of gangs on motorcycles in the streets of Haiti.
“I’m lucky I have my papers,” said Dieujuste, who became a U.S. citizen when he arrived in 2001. Now, he works so that he can support his one-year-old daughter and send whatever he can spare to his sisters stuck in Haiti. The women are trying to leave but are struggling to get passports, as the already unstable government is now flooded with applications as Haitians try to get out.
There are also people like Max Guillaume, whose parents immigrated to Naples shortly before his birth. The family’s business, which sells electronics, remained in Port-au-Prince as his father traveled back and forth to keep it up and running. That was until 2022, when it was looted and burned by the gangs.
Since then, Guillaume’s father relocated the business to Fermate, an area of Haiti that is safer. However, the elder Guillaume must pass through the dangerous Port-au-Prince to get there when he returns for business trips which are becoming more and more lengthy to minimize this risky travel route. Despite this, his family in South Florida remain anxious every time he returns to their homeland.
“The gangs have some heavy weaponry. And they’re also affiliated with political officials and officers. So, you wonder where they get the guns from,” said Guillaume on how he sees the peacekeeping mission panning out. “And you wonder where our political officers get those guns from. So outside forces, they’re not the best.”
This sense of mistrust among Haitians in other people coming in is not unfounded, as the country has a long history of corruption, political instability and social unrest. Haiti has also been plagued by brutal natural disasters, which has attracted international aid, though not always with the best of outcomes. The seeming inability to create a longstanding democratic government can be attributed to the country’s former status as one of the wealthiest colonies in America, under the control of France and the US.
The last UN-led peacekeeping force lasted from 2004 to 2018, and while it did help restore law and order to the country, it also left lasting damage. More than a dozen UN independent rights experts came out saying the cholera epidemic in Haiti had been brought by peacekeepers after the 2010 earthquake, according to The Miami Herald.
In addition, there were widespread accusations of peacekeepers abusing and exploiting women and children. Researchers in 2019 found that peacekeepers had fathered hundreds of children in Haiti from girls as young as 11, according to The New York Times.
As for the locals who rose to power in attempted governments, corruption has been a continuing issue. Haiti’s last President, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in 2021 after refusing to hold an election when his term was supposed to end. Ariel Henry, the prime minister under Moïse, stepped into the position of power and followed in his footsteps, failing to peacefully transition back into a democratic government.
Facing violence and corruption, many Haitians are trying to get out of the county for their safety and for a better life, but finding somewhere else to go has proved to be difficult. In December 2022, the Department of Homeland Security redesignated Temporary Protection Status for Haitians, which means they are “not removable” or deportable. This status was once again extended in September.
Despite this status, since November 2022, nine deportation flights have been sent back to Haiti, according to Human Rights Watch. Americans were warned by the State Department in July to depart from Haiti as the situation deteriorated.
“Telling Americans to leave Haiti as soon as possible because it is too dangerous for them while simultaneously loading Haitians onto deportation flights reveals a mind-boggling double standard,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee and Migrant Rights Director of Human Rights Watch, according to the New York-based organization's website.
Considering the violence at home and the struggle to get out, it doesn’t seem like there are many options for Haitians. There is not much for the large Haitian population to do now, except to anxiously wait and see if this UN mission can help.
“They’re just trying to survive,” said Dieujuste, speaking about his sisters, whose reality is grimly similar to so many living in Haiti. While he lacks hope that there will be peace in Haiti, he continues to pray that he will be able to hug his sisters one day.
This story was produced by MediaLab@FAU, a project of Florida Atlantic University School of Communication and Multimedia Studies, as part of a content sharing partnership with the WLRN newsroom. The reporter can be reached here.