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Haitians in America Make Mark in Campaigns

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Early next week, Haitians are scheduled to vote in the first presidential election since an uprising forced out President Jean Bertrand Aristide two years ago. The estimated 540,000 Haitian immigrants living in the United States will not be able to vote, but their influence is still felt.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Early next week Haitians are scheduled to vote in the first presidential election since an uprising forced out President Jean Bertrand Aristide two years ago. The estimated 540,000 Haitian immigrants living in the United States will not be able to vote. Even without that right, many say this large Haitian diaspora is having a big impact on the election.

NPR's Phillip Davis reports from Miami.

PHILLIP DAVIS reporting:

It's a Friday night in Coral Gables, one of Miami's most affluent neighborhoods. Several dozen well-dressed Haitians are gathered at an art gallery to raise money for Charles Henry Baker, one of the 35 candidates for Haiti's presidency. Uniformed waiters carry trays of wine and cheese. The gallery's owner is Maryam Nadir(ph). She moved to Miami from Port-au-Prince, Haiti six years ago. Nadir points to a painting hanging on the wall.

Ms. MARYAM NADIR (Art Gallery Owner, Coral Gables, Florida): Where I've seen this one is by Philipe Dodard, which is very well known Haitian painter, internationally well known, and the value is $2,500.

DAVIS: Each raffle ticket costs $50 and that evening the group bought 400 tickets, adding some $20,000 to Baker's campaign war chest.

Mr. CHARLES HENRY BAKER (Candidate's son): Every single penny helps.

DAVIS: That's Charles Henry Baker, the candidate's son. He lives mainly in the U.S. these days. He says events like this show the influence that Haitians living in America are having on the election and on campaigns like his father's.

Mr. BAKER: He knows that they're not going to be able to vote but he knows that their support means a lot because whether we like it or not, the United States has a very strong influence over what goes on in Haiti and we have a lot of Haitian taxpayers here in South Florida and we know that the louder they speak and the louder they're heard here in Miami, we have more chances of getting things done in Haiti.

DAVIS: Though many Haitians have been in America for decades, there is still a high degree of connection and concern about the political instability and widespread violence in their former home. Dr. Ranley Desir has lived in the U.S. since 1975. He's now a cardiologist with a practice in Miami.

Dr. RANLEY M. DESIR, M.D. (Cardiologist, Miami, Florida): We are tired of burying our friends. This kind of chaos and violence, we didn't have it when I grew up so we have to make every effort we can to break that cycle of violence.

DAVIS: With 35 candidates, Haitian politics is almost endlessly complex. On the same night as the art gallery affair, a very different gathering was going on uptown in a neighborhood called Little Haiti. Dozens of working class Haitians jammed a storefront meeting room to express support for their man, former President Rene Preval.

(Soundbite of chant We want Preval)

DAVIS: It's a regular Friday night meeting of Veye-Yo, a Haitian-American grassroots organization. There are no $50 raffle tickets here, instead a hat is literally passed around to raise money for the Preval campaign. The money will go for t-shirts, flyers and Preval posters in Haiti. But, it's not just campaign contributions that bring influence, it's also the money that Haitians of all stripes send back week after week. It's estimated émigrés send more than $800 million a year back to Haiti. Lavarice Gaudin is chief organizer at Veye-Yo and he says that money means Haitians listen to their relatives in Miami.

Mr. LAVARICE GAUDIN (Chief Organizer, Veye-Yo): Each one of us has a family in Haiti. What they trying to do now, calling they family, whether they send $50 to you, you are to spend $30 for yourself, you spot a 20 to pay for the transportation. The election day (unintelligible).

DAVIS: Election day is scheduled for Tuesday, February 7th.

Phillip Davis, NPR News, Miami.

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