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updated 4/5/2004 4:57:47 PM ET 2004-04-05T20:57:47

For Max L. Jean-Louis, a 36-year-old attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y. who helps Haitians immigrate just as he did years ago, the turmoil in his native land has led to a torrent of mixed emotions. On the one hand, like many Haitian-Americans, Jean-Louis sees the ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide as a good thing since, “he did not do many things to change the country for the better.”

Yet he and others are uncomfortable with the way democratically-elected Aristide appears to have been forced into exile by Washington.

There is also a widespread sense that Haitian-Americans, who wielded clout beyond their numbers during the Clinton administration, have been reduced to spectator status as their homeland again hangs in the balance. As Secretary of State Colin Powell visited the island nation Monday for talks on the political transition there, many Haitian-Americans feel cut out of the process.

Mouse that roared
Haitian-Americans and Haitians living in the U.S. with green cards amount to a relatively small 1.1 million, according to U.S. Census figures. Yet they have made their political voice heard more quickly than many others.

In part, the crisis-prone nature of their homeland and its proximity to Florida has given them unusual, often unwanted attention. Waves of "boat-people" streaming toward Florida after the 1994 coup that ousted Aristide the first time left an indelible mark on America’s memory. A decade earlier, Haitians were branded, unfairly, as the source of HIV-AIDS infections as ignorant public officials cast around for scapegoats early in the epidemic.

Friends of Bill
During the Clinton administration, however, Haitian-Americans gained an important ally in the Congressional Black Caucus which had an influential relationship with the White House. Washington insiders with liberal views also took up the cause, including long-time anti-apartheid campaigner Randall Robinson of TransAfrica, who began a hunger strike to bring attention to island’s misery and U.S. inaction. Before long, the Clinton White House had assembled an invasion force that ultimately returned Aristide to power.

This political linkage ended, for the most part, when the Bush administration took over. Today, some Haitian-Americans say, the island’s concerns have fallen back down the ladder to negligence and only when crisis peaks does the U.S. pay attention. This has led some to be harshly critical of the Bush administration’s handling of Haiti’s latest crisis.

As rebels advanced toward the capital Port-au-Prince in early March, U.S. officials began urging Aristide to resign. When he did conflicting stories emerged about the circumstances, with the U.S. claiming the move was voluntary and Aristide and some other Caribbean leaders insisting it was a U.S.-backed coup d’etat.

“I did not like the U.S. kidnapping Aristide:” says Strossner Gede, a 38-year-old New York City cab driver. “How can you take someone like that? Is that democratic? ”

Henry, a musician and French teacher who declined to give his last name, says of Aristide: “Before him, it has been always dictatorship. You cannot take out the president like that... We need jobs, education and more medicine. Some are starving, some are dying,” he says. “It’s hard for Haitian people. More educated people leave country and go to the U.S. or Canada. If Haiti gets better, those people would go back.”

Poor man of Americas
Although Haiti has 200-year history as an independent country, it remains a very unstable and destitute nation. World Bank 2002 statistics show that Haiti’s life expectancy is 52 years; its illiteracy rate is 48.14 percent; its per capita income about $440.

Sony, 36 year-old assistant manager at a bakery shop in Manhattan and declined to give his last name, says that Washington needs help to build Haiti as a democratic country.

“Democracy is not to give guns to people to terrorize rich people,” he says, referring to rumors that the Bush administration helped to arm the rebels who ousted Aristide. “I don’t like big countries playing politics for my country. But we need countries to help us to build our country with democracy.”

For Haitian-Americans who agree with him, access to the halls of power in Washington appear to be barred. But many believe they can fall back on local politics and carry on. Unlike many immigrant groups, Haitians have concentrated in the largest cities in several politically important states: Miami in Florida, Boston, Massachusetts, Newark in New Jersey and in New York City.

In New York, for instance, which the Census Bureau says is home to more people of Haitian decent than any other state (513,000), no local campaign is complete these days without an outreach to the local Creole-speaking community.

Haitian influence in the cities of South Florida, which rank second in raw numbers, is even more significant than in New York because the 385,000-strong Haitian community there is more concentrated in Miami and forms a clear Democratic voting block. Add to that the fact that Miami tends to be the nexus of Haiti’s exile political scene, and it is no surprise that Haitian-Americans now rank with voters of Cuban descent as major players in Florida’s volatile politics.

Kaori Kaneko in an intern at MSNBC.com.

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