265. Telegram From the Embassy in Haiti to the Department of State1

4748. Subject: Haitian Boat People.2

1. Confidential—Entire text.

2. According to Cap Haitien businessmen and residents interviewed during trip north by Econ Officer Sept 21–24, the movement of Haitians to south Florida has become big business in the north and northwest. The flow of Haitians will continue to increase, according to local inhabitants, because the word has filtered down to the villagers that going to the United States offers the best hope of improving their economic situation. Our contacts believe that, because of the de facto U.S. policy of accepting all of the boat people, the flow has become practically irreversible. Many Capois complained that even their best salaried and experienced workers are beginning to leave, attracted by the sheer adventure and possibility of going to the United States, the ultimate step up the ladder, in their view. While the urge to go is stimulated by the lack of jobs, many believe that a certain magnetism about the trip has developed and that it has become an end in itself regardless of the availability of jobs. Although the north and west clearly account for the majority of boat people departures, there are apparently reliable reports that a considerable number depart from Leogane and island of La Gonave.

3. One long-time American resident of the north observed that while economics is central in the boat peoples’ motivation to leave, another reason is “cultural fatigue.” As our interlocutor explained, the Haitian peasant is subject to many societal strains with voodoo playing a major role. As a result when the opportunity presents itself to “get away from one’s enemies” one usually takes it. Again, because the people in the countryside now know that no one is turned back, they look upon the trip to Miami as a true escape from their societal problems.

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4. All of our contacts emphasize the ease with which one makes the arrangements for the trip, which costs in Cap Haitien between 100 and 1800 dollars per head. Peasants usually sell their livestock and many times their land to be able to afford the trip. As a result, the decision is made to leave and probably not to return, necessitating the transport of family members at a future date. Although making arrangements is not done in the open market, it is easy to make the necessary contacts. There is a considerable return flow of the trips’ organizers to Haiti; they bring boat motors and special provisions with them for the trip. EconOff observed three large wooden boats being built on the Cap Haitien water front; carpenters readily admitted they were building the boats for the Miami trip.

5. The government’s ability, especially in the north, to stop illegal departures (all Haitians require passports and exit visa by law to leave the country) is limited at best. In this connection, during call on Captain Hypolite Cambetta, the Chief of Police of Cap Haitien, EconOff raised the problem of the refugees. Cambetta evinced little interest in problem from the standpoint of illegal departures. He did say that he is newly arrived (past 3 months) and had not had a chance to look into the whole matter, which he acknowledged is of concern to us.

6. Comment: Common theme of our discussions on the boat people problem thus far indicate that it is the ease of departure and arrival which is increasingly attractive to Haitians seeking a better life. According to the street talk in Cap Haitien one can leave Haiti on Saturday, go to work on Monday and send one’s first check back on Friday. Equally characteristic is the lack of mention of any political reasons for making the trip.

7. In a courtesy call on Foreign Ministry Director General Yves Francois on Sept 24, he told Dick Howard (ARA/CAR) and Charge that in his opinion if the U.S. had promptly sent back, beginning in 1972, those Haitians arriving illegally the problem would not have reached its present proportion. He also said that of all possible destinations for Haitians only Miami and New York were really desired.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800465–0604. Confidential.
  2. In telegram 29221 to Port au Prince, February 2, the Department discussed the issue of the “boat people,” urging the Embassy to pursue the issue with Salomon. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800079–0625) In telegram 589 from Port au Prince, February 6, the Embassy reported a meeting between Salomon and Ambassador Jones regarding immigration. Jones took a skeptical position toward directly assisting Haitian boat patrols, and there is no indication the U.S. position changed during the following months. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800065–0273)