History, geography bind their cultures, despite the wet foot/ dry foot policy.
McNell Francois is a 17-year-old senior from North Miami Beach Senior High School who is Haitian American.
He doesn’t eat cats.
“If I tell someone I’m Haitian, the first thing they ask me is what I eat,” Francois said.
He eats rice and beans, a common food in Haiti. It is also a common food in Cuba.
His story is personal, but it reflects some Haitian-Americans’ larger feelings that their country is treated differently from Cuba by the United States, even though the two are Caribbean neighbors close to the U.S. coast.
While President Barack Obama has made headlines by reaching out to Havana, some Haitian-Americans feel that Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, deserves more attention.
Some say the United States doesn’t pay closer attention because Haiti doesn’t, like Cuba, have a long-time stake in a geopolitical struggle, nor does it have valuable natural resources like oil.
“Haiti has been exploited by the U.S. so long that there is nothing to take,” said Venelle Jasmin, a 16-year-old Haitian-American junior at Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr. School of the Arts. “The U.S. doesn’t do anything without a [reason]. Cuba will give the U.S. more to gain.”
According to the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, the United States has been involved in Haiti “for more than 200 years, engaging in the very worst of discrimination, intervention, violence and exploitation, as well as very positive and life-giving actions at times.”
Despite the “positive and life-giving actions” and the recent appointment of former President Bill Clinton as the U.N. representative to Haiti, some young Haitian-Americans are angry at the way the United States treats Haiti.
“There is never any relief effort for Haiti,” Francois said. “There is always some Cuban rally.”
Many Haitian-Americans feel that the so-called wet foot/dry foot policy is at the root of the problem, because it allows Cubans to enter the United States more easily. Under the policy, Cubans can enter the United States if they touch American soil. However, Haitians who arrive without proper visa are deported.
The Obama administration recently indicated that the United States would continue to deport Haitians caught at land or sea.
“The policy is really not fair,” said Michelle Simon, a 17-year-old Haitian-American senior at North Miami Beach Senior High School.
“If I grew up in Haiti and faced hardships, I would be kind of envious and upset.”
Gregory Louis, a Haitian-American junior from William T. Dwyer High School, said the reasons behind the wet foot/dry foot policy are complex.
“It’s a two-fold thing,” the 15-year-old said. “First of all, communism is America’s enemy.”
The second factor, he said, is race.
Haitian activists say the American government treats undocumented Haitians and Cubans differently because Cubans are considered political refugees and Haitians are considered people fleeing economic distress.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service of the Department of Homeland Security decides whether Cubans who have reached American soil have “a well founded fear of persecution” and are eligible for asylum in the United States or a third country. No such policy exists for Haitians; all Haitians who enter the United States illegally are forcibly returned.
Joe Garcia, Obama’s nominee for director of the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity for the U.S. Department of Energy, says the policy doesn’t force Cubans to prove that they’re refugees if they have been in America for a year and a day.
One reason that some Haitians are unsympathetic toward Cuba has to do with the state of Haiti’s education and healthcare system. It remains inferior to Cuba’s system, which is now deteriorating.
“Cubans are often better educated than Haitians,” historian Frances Peace Sullivan said in an e-mail interview.
“[Cubans] come to the U.S. with more ‘social capital’ than Haitians…the distinctions there might cause a tremendous discrepancy between employability” and other matters.
In Miami, Haitians don’t have much social capital, which means they don’t necessarily have the relationships needed to affect change for their community.
“Anywhere Haitians go they feel that they’re undesirable,” said Gerald Jean-Baptiste, a 19-year-old sophomore at New York University who is Haitian-American. “A large percentage of Haitians that go to [other] countries are poor. They have nothing to bring to the table.”
Some young Haitian-Americans, like Simon, recognize that both Haitians and Cubans are disadvantaged. She has sympathy for the plight of Cubans.
“No one should be treated the way they are,” Simon said. “In Cuba you have no say. I think it’s sad.”
Francesca de Castro, a 17-year-old freshman at St. John’s University in New York, has a unique perspective. She is of Haitian and Cuban descent, and says both groups face long odds in their respective countries.
“It’s just as hard to be Cuban as it is Haitian.”