As Chile prepares for new president, Haitians warned they won't find 'paradise' there

Rosita René and husband Ramon Feliciano (not pictured) moved to Chile from the Dominican Republic seven years ago. Today, they own a house, a car and a small business selling everything from produce to toilet paper at street markets in Quilicura, a suburb of Santiago, where Haitians have established themselves.
Rosita René and husband Ramon Feliciano (not pictured) moved to Chile from the Dominican Republic seven years ago. Today, they own a house, a car and a small business selling everything from produce to toilet paper at street markets in Quilicura, a suburb of Santiago, where Haitians have established themselves. For the Miami Herald

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SANTIAGO, CHILE — This is how Rodrigo Delgado earned the nickname the “Haitian mayor” even though he presides over a small slice of a South American capital 3,500 miles from Haiti:

He hired Haitians with teaching qualifications as school aides, translated his local government website and public schools app into Creole, and staffed clinics and other public services with Spanish-speaking Haitian professionals — all in an effort to integrate thousands of Haitians who have migrated to his municipality.

And now Delgado, the mayor of a working-class district of Santiago called Estación Central, has commissioned a song, “Vida Extranjera,” or “Foreign Life.” But this time he’s trying to warn Haitians about the potential downside of life in Chile, where a growing wave of immigrants from the hemisphere has nearly saturated the capital, limiting job opportunities.

Jamsley Charles, 24, arrived in Chile at the end of December in hope of finding a better life in the South American country. But some 22 days after his arrival from Haiti’s Artibonite Valley, Charles, who was staying in a tiny room with another Haitian he met in Chile, still had no job prospects. Roberto González Vilajuana For the Miami Herald

“Haitians who arrive in Chile are often misinformed about what they are coming to. They think they are going to quickly find work and somewhere to live,” he said. “There are problems with work visas and labor conditions. There is a saturation of the market particularly in the metropolitan regions of Chile. When Haitians are arriving, they are not finding the same conditions that existed five or six years ago.”

The song is Delgado’s latest effort to reach Haitians — before they leave home to gamble on a new life in Chile, where right-leaning President-elect Sebastián Piñera, assumes power March 11. Last year, nearly 105,000 traveled to the South American country, according to Chile’s border police.

Haiti lost 1 percent of its population, nearly 105,000 people, to Chile last year in search of a better life, but the unprecedented migration is not without consequences or controversy.

The track written and sung by Ernst Yngignack, a Chile-based Haitian artist known as Black Peat, is aimed at the youth of Haiti. It cautions them about the risks they may face if they come to Chile as part of a migration wave to Latin America created by hard economic times in Haiti and tougher immigration policies in the United States, the Dominican Republic and other, more traditional destinations.

Delgado got the idea to commission a song, he said, after he realized Chile had become the frequent subject of Haitian songs. One of this year’s most popular carnival songs, “Anlè anlè nèt(“Moving Up High”) by the band Kreyòl-La, is about discouraged young Haitians heading to Chile.

Local mayors around Chile used to call Rodrigo Delgado the “Haitian mayor” because he had so many Haitian migrants in his Estación Central district of Santiago. Now, they are calling him for advice as the South American country becomes the new destination for Haitians. His latest effort: commissioning a song warning Haitians about the ups and downs of life in Chile. Roberto González Vilajuana For the Miami Herald

Delgado, who is a psychologist, knows the influence of pop culture on youth and hopes the song, set to a reggae beat and infused with Creole slang, will reduce the potential for social conflict in his working-class community.

“We don’t want to say come or don’t come,” said Delgado, 43. “What we want is to influence the debate at the decision-making level.”

The grandson of a Palestinian immigrant, Delgado understands what it’s like to be a stranger in a faraway land. And as Chile experiences an unprecedented 20-fold increase in migrants from Haiti, he has become an unofficial cultural translator and bridge between the two countries.

The head of the migrant affairs committee of the Chilean Association of Municipalities, Delgado is among several Chilean leaders who say that despite Chile’s open-door migration policy, its central government has mismanaged the migration wave, which has come faster than most local governments can react. They charge that the national government has not done enough to help migrants integrate, especially Haitians who face language and cultural barriers as well as budding discontent over their growing numbers in a slowing economy.

And certainly, many communities are struggling to come to terms with their new residents, something Yngignack, 22, attempts to convey in Spanish and Creole.

“Life of a foreigner is a life that’s complicated,” he sings. “If they tell you Chile is great ... don’t forget everywhere has poor people.”

Black Peat, born Ernst Yngignack, is the author of the song ‘Vida Extranjera,’ commissioned by Rodrigo Delgado, the mayor of the Estación Central district of Santiago, Chile. The song, which is in Spanish and Creole and set to a reggae beat, was recently released in Haiti in hope of influencing the decision-making among Haitians considering migrating to the South American country. Roberto González Vilajuana For the Miami Herald

Yngignack said he drew inspiration for his lyrics from everyday Chilean scenes of struggling Haitians selling food on city streets and dragging suitcases to the nearest bus terminal.

“They are saying Chile is happening, it’s paradise — come, come,” Yngignack said, about the informal go-to-Chile campaign among Haitians. “People think they are going to find free things, housing, money. But that’s simply not true.”

He’s been through it himself, when he arrived three years ago to join his mother.

“Finding a job isn’t easy, and to get a decent place to live, they ask for a work contract and many can’t even speak Spanish. It’s a terrible situation,” Yngignack said.

Delgado said an estimated 7,000 Haitians have moved into his district of 140,000 residents in recent years.

“We’ve witnessed a lot of abuse, overcrowding, and we’ve been witnesses to how they have been lied to about the prospects of coming to Chile,” he said.

Long lines of Haitians seeking passports and other kinds of assistance are common at the Haitian Embassy in Santiago, Chile. Chargé d’Affaires Carl Raymond, left, says the embassy has outgrown its space and is currently looking for new offices. Roberto González Vilajuana For the Miami Herald

Chilean Social Development Minister Marcos Barraza disagrees with the criticism about the central government’s failure to help migrants. He said that under President Michelle Bachelet, “an array of public policies” have been introduced to remove social barriers and promote inclusion among those pouring in from Haiti and other South American countries. Among them: lifting a five-year-residency threshold to receive a housing subsidy.

There were fewer than 5,000 Haitians in Chile in 2010, but today there are more than 100,000, according to the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.

And Haitians keep coming even amid tensions in the South American nation and after a popular charter airline canceled fights between the countries this week.

Thousands of young Haitians are looking for economic opportunity in Chile. But they don't always find it.

Jorge Ramirez, an immigration adviser to Piñera, said the billionaire businessman-turned-politician wants “clear rules and regulations” when it comes to Chile’s immigration laws. But there are few details so far, leaving migrant organizations and some local officials apprehensive.

“We cannot put the immigrants under the rug and pretend that nothing is happening here,” said Juan Carrasco, mayor of Quilicura, a working-class suburb of Santiago. A proponent of integration and migration, Carrasco, like Delgado, has his own views on how migration should be regulated in Chile.

“Chile is an aging country. Every day there are less children,” said Carrasco, who thinks migrants should be allowed in but be required to explicitly say at the borders whether they are coming in search of work. “Migrants are not coming here to take away people’s jobs. They are coming in to work in areas where Chileans don’t want to work.”

Not everyone agrees.

Juan Bertand, 40, whose shop is located in Quilicura not far from Carrasco’s office, said the country’s immigration system has “collapsed” under the surge of Haitians plus Venezuelans and Colombians. “There are too many immigrants. They need to put a stop to it.”

Hector Hernandez, 58, who runs a produce booth, said while Haitians have been good for his business, he’s neutral on the question of Haitian migration. And he can laugh about the situation: “What’s the second capital of Haiti? Quilicura.”

If Estación Central is the gateway for newly arriving Haitians, Quilicura is where Haitians have established themselves with Haitian restaurants, churches and stores lining busy San Luis Avenue.

“Today we have the Haitian community integrated in sports, in music, in dance, in restaurant sectors. There’s potential here, and for us, it’s a multicultural phenomenon that is transforming our lives,” Carrasco said. “We must grow as a country, and immigration is the way to achieve that.”

Juan Carrasco, mayor of the Quilicura district in Santiago, said his sprawling working class community has been working with the Haitian community since 2010. A proponent of immigration, Carrasco’s migration and refugee office offers Spanish classes to Haitians, which he believes is necessary to help the integration process. Roberto González Vilajuana For the Miami Herald

Carrasco said the deepening relationship between Quilicura and the Haitian community started in 2010, when the municipality set up a free phone bank to allow residents to contact family after Haiti’s devastating earthquake. The migration and refugees office followed. Then local officials designed programs with Haitians for the community, hired translators for schools and offered Spanish classes.

“It was a lot slower for us to learn Creole but it was easier for them to learn Spanish,” said Carrasco, who sees eliminating the language barrier as the first step to integration.

To better understand the new residents, Quilicura conducted a survey revealing that while many of its Haitian residents were educated and held technical degrees, they faced dehumanizing conditions such as unsanitary and overcrowded housing, and rents three times what the law allowed. After the survey, Quilicura became the first municipal district in Chile, Carrasco said, to pass housing regulations that set standards.

Today in Quilicura, he said, “you can’t rent out a dwelling without meeting minimum sanitary conditions. ... You can’t have 20 people sharing just one bathroom.”

This newly opened restaurant in Quilicura, Chile, is among several Haitian businesses in the sprawling working class community, where some Haitians have lived as far back as 2006. Roberto González Vilajuana For the Miami Herald

Delgado, the Estación Central mayor, calls crowded housing “a bomb that will explode in time,” and one he continues to struggle with as more Haitians arrive. The municipality, he said, is seeing frequent fires due to poor and overloaded electrical connections by landlords seeking to profit from cramming too many people in basic housing units.

“There’s a lot of abuse and threats by the owners,” Delgado said. “When the Haitians complain that these are undignified living conditions, the owner will say, ‘The door’s wide open, go,’ because they’ve got 10 families waiting.”

Delgado’s work to incorporate the Haitian migrants into his community has made him a go-to guy among provinces and districts across Chile, with mayors calling him for advice on how to tap central government funding or figure out how to set up migrant offices.

“A few years ago, some of my friends, mayors from the regions ... used to joke with me and call me ‘the Haitian mayor,’ ” he said. “Today, those same mayors are calling to ask my advice. They never imagined they would have groups of Haitians living in their communities. This wave of migration flow from Haiti is very strong. It has come very quickly.”

Jacqueline Charles: @Jacquiecharles

This project was made possible by a fellowship from the French-American Foundation - United States. The story does not reflect the views of the French-American Foundation or its directors, employees or representatives.

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