Eager to make political inroads in crucial South Florida, Donald Trump’s campaign has arranged a private meeting with prominent Haitian Americans ahead of Trump’s Miami campaign rally Friday.
But the Haitian diaspora remains wary.
“I don’t think I can vote for him,” said former North Miami Mayor Josaphat “Joe” Celestin, a Republican and son of immigrants who has been invited to the meeting. “When I heard the rhetoric and some of the responses he gave during some of the debates, I was extremely disappointed.”
Trump supporters are well aware of Haitian Americans’ reluctance, which is why they’re trying to get community leaders in front of the candidate himself to change their minds.
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“He needs to address the Haitian people directly,” said Michael Barnett, the Palm Beach County Republican Party chairman putting the meeting together. “He knows how to listen to people and find out what the problems are.”
Haitian Americans are already skeptical about Hillary Clinton. Many still feel seething anger toward Clinton and her husband over their political and philanthropic involvement in Haiti. In 2010, Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, flew to Haiti and pressured then-President René Préval to remove his party’s candidate, Jude Célestin, from the runoff. Some Haitians believe that the interference eventually led to the election of Michel Martelly, a controversial president who left office in May without an elected successor.
“Voters have a very tough plate in front of them,” said Joe Celestin, who in 2001 became the first Haitian American elected mayor of a sizable U.S. city. “I think this election cycle, most Haitians are going to stay home. They don’t want to vote for Trump, and they don’t want to vote for Hillary — and we don’t have an alternative.”
Celestin and others have been invited to meet Trump at the Little Haiti Cultural Center.
Barnett, who is black, cited recent Trump’s outreach in Detroit as the sort of campaigning he hopes the candidate will do Friday in Miami.
“Donald Trump is going everywhere ... talking with leaders in the black community,” said Barnett, who has been reaching out to the Haitian evangelical community in particular. One Seventh-day Adventist pastor, Gerly Germain, who is registered without political party affiliation, said he’s still mulling over Trump’s invitation.
As far as South Florida is concerned, Trump’s move is a political play to try to capitalize on the Haitian-American community’s disenchantment with Clinton.
“We don’t have anyone in this election,” lamented Hans Mardy, a Haitian-American Republican who is from Haiti’s rice-growing Artibonite Valley. “The Clintons destroyed the rice in Haiti.”
The Clintons, who honeymooned in Haiti in 1975, have a political relationship with the country dating back more than 20 years, when then-President Bill Clinton returned ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to Haiti. During his presidency, Clinton also supported trade policies that wiped out Haiti’s rice farming. In 2010, Clinton publicly apologized for the deal.
Bill Clinton served as United Nations special envoy after Haiti’s cataclysmic Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. He led an effort to raise billions of dollars in aid, not all of which materialized. He promised that, under his watch as co-reconstruction czar, the country would be “building back better.”
Hillary Clinton made several visits to Haiti as secretary of state, including one with her husband to inaugurate an industrial park she championed. She personally recruited the park’s main tenant.
But the park didn’t produce the 60,000 pledged jobs, and six years after the quake, Haiti has made little progress. It’s in its second transitional government in 12 years, more than $2 billion in debt and preparing for an Oct. 9 re-run of its 2015 presidential elections.
Some Haitian Americans accuse the Clintons of failing to live up to their promises. “After the earthquake, we were very grateful to the Clintons for standing with us,” Celestin said. “But we were disappointed.”
Hillary Clinton’s campaign has focused on Haitian-American voters, releasing a Creole radio ad last week. Last year, the campaign recruited Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime, who is Haitian American, as a campaign surrogate.
It’s unclear how many Haitian-Americans voters live in South Florida, because registration forms don’t provide a “Haitian-American” ethnic category. The voters show up in demographic statistics as “black,” which includes African Americans and other Caribbean Americans.
Republicans have tried in recent elections to win more Haitian-American support. Earlier this year, hundreds of people packed a North Miami restaurant to meet Mia Love of Utah, the first Haitian American — and black female Republican — ever elected to Congress.
Barnett, the Palm Beach GOP chairman, said all he’s asking for is open minds:
“If you are seeing people who are torn, then that’s better than having their minds already made up against Trump.”
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Trump was also hoping to meet with African Americans at the Caleb Center in Liberty City. No such meeting was in the works.