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Caribbean Americans form own caucus

Group faults Democrats' muted stand on issues


Some Caribbean-American Democrats, offended by what they see as their party's lackluster response to recent controversies over Haitian migration and other issues important to their community, have formed their own statewide group, separate from the party's black caucus.

One catalyst for the break: the state party's failure to speak out after hundreds of Haitian migrants were carted off to detention centers following their dramatic scramble ashore at the Rickenbacker Causeway last fall.

''Here is an issue the Democratic Party should have picked up and championed, and it didn't,'' said Thomas Pinder, a North Miami Beach Democrat of Bahamian descent. ``It made me sick.''

But members of the party's black caucus, who lobbied against the request for a new Caribbean caucus when Pinder first submitted it two years ago, are furious, fearing the move will dilute the political influence of what has been one of the most important groups in Democratic politics.

''You need to be a cohesive group. You need to combine your strength,'' said Dorothy Jackson, president of the statewide black caucus.

Caribbean-American Democratic activists, however, say it's a necessary move to prevent an exodus to the Republican Party, which is actively recruiting Haitian-American voters and crafting policy to attract Hispanics.

More importantly, they say, the Democratic Caribbean Caucus of Florida, recently approved by the state party, will provide an opportunity for West Indians to set their own agenda.

''There is a dedicated Caribbean base to the party,'' said Pinder, the caucus' new president, ``yet there seems to be an imbalance of support. That became more and more clearer during the gubernatorial elections.''

According to Census figures, there are 491,783 Floridians who describe their primary ancestry as non-Hispanic West Indian. The majority of them, 313,540, live in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Though no figures are available as to how many are registered Democrats or Republicans, both parties are vying for their memberships as an unprecedented number of Caribbean Americans win political offices, in the Legislature and cities including Miramar, North Miami and Lauderdale Lakes.

Current and former Democratic officials defend the party's record on Caribbean issues, but acknowledge it didn't take a public stand after the Rickenbacker incident on Oct. 29, during the heat of the gubernatorial campaign.

Former Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe, who was forced out after last November's devastating losses, said the party in the past has addressed issues relating to the Haitian community, but ``in October it fell to the candidates.''

''The party was never requested to do anything about it,'' he said of the Haitian migrant controversy.

In contrast, U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, and his mother, former U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, immediately spoke out about what they said was unfair treatment of Haitians. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride eventually attended a rally in Little Haiti.

The Miami-Dade Democratic Executive Committee has since put out a statement denouncing the indefinite detention of Haitian asylum-seekers.

New state Democratic Chairman Scott Maddox said the party is very much aware of the growing Caribbean influence, and its need to rebuild its image among them, as well as African Americans.

''I think we are the party that is best suited for Caribbean Americans,'' Maddox said. ``We are doing outreach programs across the state of Florida. It's basically just listening. The Democratic Party has to talk to different demographic groups and say we are here to listen to you.''

Although the recent break within the black caucus can easily be viewed as a family disagreement, observers say, it's also a sign that Caribbean Americans, unlike their African-American counterparts, may be willing to do something about their feelings toward the Democratic Party.

For years, African Americans have complained that the Democratic Party takes their vote for granted. But few have been willing to leave the party and join the GOP.

That may not be the case for many Caribbean Americans. As they grow in size and political clout, observers say, the group is in a position to force both parties to vie for its votes.

This notion isn't lost on the Republican Party, which has spent the past two years working to recruit Haitian-American voters. Now, after forming three Haitian-American Republican clubs in South Florida, it is preparing to begin recruiting other Caribbean voters, says its former state chairman and Miami attorney Al Cárdenas.

Pinder and Patrick Jabouin, former president of the Caribbean American Democratic Club of Broward, are very much aware of the GOP's advances. While both continue to believe in the Democratic Party's ideals, they say the party has to begin speaking a new language -- one that addresses Florida's changing demographics.

''As many strides as we have made, it is as if we still don't have a voice,'' said Jabouin, a Haitian American.

In both local club meetings and even on a statewide party level, he said, issues affecting Caribbean-American voters often get tabled or overlooked. They include: Haitian immigration, trade involving the Caribbean basin and in-state college tuition for undocumented high-school graduates.

''We don't see this as branching out from the black caucus. It's an addition,'' Jabouin said about the new caucus that plans to reach out to members in at least 12 Florida counties and will be open to anyone, including non-West Indians.

Jackson, of the statewide black caucus, thinks otherwise. Her group is made up of grass-roots activists and some elected officials whose goal is to increase the party's black membership.

'We all want to be in charge; everybody wants to be the chief and not the Indian. No one has come to us and said, `I want you to help us lobby and get this,' '' she said.

Carole Boyce Davies, director of African New World Studies at Florida International University, said she is concerned about the split.

''I am always concerned about immigrant groups that come into the United States context without understanding fully the nature of the rights that have been gained and fought for,'' said Boyce Davies, who is from Trinidad. ``Unless this is a call for a more developed set of representative strategies, then what is it? One has to have strength in numbers to navigate through the system.''




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