Marleine Bastien is unfazed by most things. She fled Port-au-Prince for Miami in 1981 after growing up under the brutal dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier. The 62-year-old thought she’d seen it all in her four decades as a social worker and paralegal in the city’s Haitian community—until now.
Bastien’s situation in the yellow stucco building that houses her advocacy organization in Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood feels like a new low every day. “It’s as if the community is suffering from a collective trauma, to the point where members come into our center and say, ‘I can’t sleep, I can’t even stand watching the news,'” she says. Families who were already struggling financially due to the pandemic told her that they were now having to set aside money in case family members in Haiti were kidnapped and needed to pay ransom. “That’s something I’ve never heard before,” she says.
The Haitian-American diaspora is accustomed to hearing disturbing news from the island. However, in the last six months, Haiti has not only experienced the assassination of a sitting president, a constitutional crisis, and multiple attempts on the life of the acting prime minister, but also a devastating earthquake that killed thousands, followed by a tropical storm and prolonged fuel crises. Powerful gangs have stepped into the void, and some estimate that they now control more than half of the country. They raise funds by holding both prominent and ordinary citizens hostage for exorbitant sums of money, including a recent group of American missionaries. The country now has the highest rate of kidnapping in the world.
Haitian-Americans have been watching these horrors unfold on their phones’ screens, connected by WhatsApp and social media but powerless in the face of daily pleas for assistance from friends and family. “There’s constant pressure from family members who are scared to death and call people here for help,” Bastien says. “And you just feel suffocated.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden was a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump’s policies in Haiti. During his 2020 presidential campaign in Miami, he accused Trump of “abandoning the Haitian people while the country’s political crisis paralyzes that nation.” However, critics both here and in Washington say Biden has done little differently so far. His administration has continued to use a Trump-era public health law that uses the coronavirus pandemic to justify deporting Haitians back to a country that many consider to be a war zone.
Following President Jovenel Mose’s assassination last July, efforts to transition the country to a new government have stalled amid a fierce power struggle exacerbated by widespread gang violence. According to Haitian groups and international observers, the ongoing deportations are exacerbating the country’s insecurity and violence. According to a December letter signed by Amnesty International and seven other human rights organizations protesting the deportations, more than 17,000 Haitians have been deported under Biden, straining limited resources amid food insecurity, a health care system “on the verge of collapse” in a country with the world’s third lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate, and a collapsed economy.
Haitian-American activists and community leaders in Miami are frustrated by Tallahassee and Washington leaders’ apparent ambivalence toward the worsening crisis. They say they are tired of empty statements of support from US officials and exhortations for “democratic elections” instead of concrete actions, such as stopping the illegal flow of weapons from the US that are arming the gangs or changing long-standing discriminatory immigration policies toward Haitians.
“If it were any other country, Haiti would be on the news every day, when you consider a country where children are not going to school in many places, stores are closed, businesses close every day, and the streets are empty,” Bastien says. “This is a country under siege, but you don’t read about it in the newspaper every day.” It’s also right here. It’s 90 minutes away.”