With All Eyes On Haiti, Its Diaspora In Florida Could Swing A Close Election

A traditionally pro-Democratic voting bloc still needs some wooing.

President Barack Obama is planning to head to Miami this week for a rally at Florida Memorial University, working to shore up votes in a key state for the Hillary Clinton campaign.

The Clinton campaign is growing increasingly nervous that a lack of enthusiasm among Florida’s black community could cost them the state. Against this backdrop, skepticism toward the Democratic presidential nominee within Florida’s Haitian-American community threatens to exacerbate that problem.

Among Haitians, Clinton has at least two obstacles to overcome: there is deep skepticism about the work the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has done on the island after a devastating earthquake there in 2010, according to interviews with community leaders. Compounding the problem for Clinton, the Obama administration last month suddenly lifted a six-year pause on deportations to Haiti it had implemented in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

“We’re smack dab 30 days from the election and you’re saying deportations can begin?” said Francesca Menes, an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, who is rallying for Clinton but finding it hard to persuade people to vote.

“People are scared out of their minds” of being sent back to Haiti at the height of election season there, when violence can be heightened. “What was your reason for announcing that now? It was the worst thing they could’ve done. We’re dealing with more skepticism around the Democratic Party as a result,” she added.

The Department of Homeland Security’s decision to lift the stay on deportations to Haiti could be a short-lived one. Hurricane Matthew, a deadly Category 4 storm that damaged homes before heading out to sea Tuesday.

The Obama administration decided to resume deporting Haitians because an exponentially increasing number of Haitians were tempted to make the dangerous journey up through Mexico, a government official said. For all of fiscal year 2015, Customs and Border Patrol handled 339 Haitians at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, according to the source. Fiscal year 2016 saw more than 5,000.

Even if the order is reversed, the skepticism toward the Clinton Foundation will remain. And, indeed, it could ultimately increase anger in the aftermath of the storm in vulnerable communities that were hobbled by the earthquake and never rebuilt as promised.

Eddie Edwards, a Caribbean radio host in Miami, said that the foundation is often the subject of “veranda talk.” (”We talk about it under the veranda,” he explained.)

“There is a lot of skepticism with how [the Foundation’s finances were] handled,” he said. “It’s out there. It’s an undercurrent.” Millions of dollars in pledges of aid poured into Haiti after the earthquake, yet the island is still in miserable shape. High-profile charities like the Clinton Foundation and the Red Cross have taken the brunt of the blame, while the United Nations brought cholera to the island, killing some 10,000 people.

“The Clinton family’s charitable work in Haiti has been a mix of success, disappointment and controversy,” The Washington Post concluded when it looked into charges GOP nominee Donald Trump’s campaign had made. (Read reporter Jonathan Katz’s in-depth article on the roles of the Clintons and their foundation in Haiti here.)

That history mixes with former President Bill Clinton’s mixed record in Haiti, which included his destruction of domestic rice growing in the pursuit of free trade and a new market for American rice farmers. He apologized for the policy in 2010.

“It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to,” he said in retrospect. “I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.”

All of it is, however, unlikely to translate into many affirmative votes for Trump. He’s polling at roughly 1 percent among black people in Florida. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign’s internal polling shows Trump winning 4 percent of Haitian-Americans’ votes, according to a source who was briefed on it.

The bigger fear is that people will instead stay home, activists and leaders of the Haitian-American community say. While vocal, the population of Haitians in Florida isn’t overwhelming. The Census bureau puts the number at slightly under half a million, and only about half of those have the citizenship required to vote. More than half of those who are citizens are under 18, meaning that Trump and Clinton are fighting over a voting pool that could be as low as 100,000 people. Haitian attitudes, though, can influence perceptions among other Caribbean-Americans. There are around 1.5 million non-Cuban Caribbean-Americans in Florida. (Cuban-Americans are far more likely to vote Republican than other Caribbean-Americans.)

The vote is “still going to lean toward supporting Clinton, but if more work is not done within the next 30 days on mending fences, they may pay a price,” said Marlon Hill, an attorney in South Florida and a past president of the Caribbean Bar Association. Hill argued that the Clintons have done a tremendous amount of good for Haiti over the years, but they’ve been bad at communicating it.

“There’s insufficient engagement with the Haitian community from all political angles,” Hill said.

Trump, for all of his inability to run a real campaign, has tried to take advantage of the opening, meeting last month in Miami’s Little Haiti with a group of Haitian-Americans. That meeting, as short as contrived as it may have been, was resonating under the veranda, activists said.

Clinton, meanwhile, has yet to meet with leaders of the Haitian community, but her campaign has made major efforts. Hillary For America has hired a Haitian outreach director, recently opened an office in Little Haiti and has been advertising in Caribbean-American and Haitian-American newspapers and radio stations, including in Creole. Many community leaders double as Clinton surrogates.

“He wasn’t in that space for no more than 5 or 10 minutes. He’s basically taking advantage of the feelings we have toward Clinton to prop himself up,” Menes said of Trump. Asked what advice she’d have for Clinton, she kept it simple. “She needs to show up.”

Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.

This article has been updated to include the latest information on Hurricane Matthew.

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