Haitian President Michel Martelly ignites controversy in Miami congressional race
Haiti’s president has inserted himself in a contentious Miami Congressional race by endorsing the Haitian-American opponent of Rep. Frederica Wilson, setting off diplomatic shockwaves and potentially reigniting tensions between local ethnic communities.
In an interview with a local Creole-language radio station last week, Martelly called on Haitians to unite and support Rudy Moise, a physician who lost to Wilson in 2010 in a crowded field of candidates in what was the 17th Congressional District at the time.
Moise was among four Haitian-Americans vying for the seat, and the split in the Haitian vote helped propel Wilson, an African-American, to victory.
“It is very important for Haiti to stand behind Rudy Moise,” Martelly said in Creole. “When I say Haiti, Haitians in Haiti; Haitians in the diaspora.”
Wilson swiftly blasted Martelly’s comments, saying she didn’t appreciate what she called “efforts to divide my Congressional district into Haitians versus African Americans” in the Aug. 14 primary race.
“With the myriad of problems that Haiti is experiencing at this time, it’s amazing that President Martelly would have the time, energy and resources to discuss a political situation in Florida,” Wilson told The Miami Herald. “He needs to spend his time, energy and resources solving the many crises in Haiti.”
Moise, who owns a primary care medical clinic, insisted it wasn’t a formal endorsement, but rather support from a former patient and longtime friend.
“He knows me and he made a comment to support me,” Moise said. “He told the people to support me. He’s not getting involved in politics. He wasn’t trying to make this into a political thing like a formal endorsement.”
Still, Martelly’s diplomatic faux pas was heard all the way to Washington.
U.S. State Department officials wondered what Martelly meant when he told popular Haitian radio journalist Alex Saint-Surin during the live broadcast that he was “ready to help (Moise) in any way that I can.’’
“I am going to support him, someway, somehow,” said Martelly, a popular musician who was elected president almost a year ago. “I am going to put my friends with him. I am going to put people who do fundraising with him.”
While it’s customary for heads of state to press for votes in their own campaigns among nationals living in the United States, it is highly unusual for them to involve themselves in local U.S. politics.
At best, it’s a breach of protocol. U.S. law prohibits foreign nationals and governments from contributing to U.S. political campaigns — a measure the Federal Election Commission says was enacted to “minimize foreign intervention in U.S. elections.” Campaign finance records for Moise show no contributions from Martelly.
Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert, said Martelly should be more careful in his statements abroad.
“I guess it’s attributed in some respects to his naiveté, lack of experience,” said Maguire, director of the Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. “But I think he had better grow up fast because, I think, sovereign states are not too keen on having the head of another state insert himself in local politics.”
Martelly’s comments came as he sought to dispel rumors stemming from a recent health crisis. Martelly had flown to Miami on April 16, complaining of pain after shoulder surgery earlier in the month. It turned out to be a pulmonary embolism or clot in his lung, said Martelly, who retuned to Haiti Monday after 13 days in Miami.
Forty-five minutes into last week’s radio interview, Martelly himself turned the conversation from touting his first year in office to calling for Haitians living abroad to end divisions and support Moise, who was in the radio studio.
“Haiti could benefit from the post,’’ Martelly said of the possibility of having a Haitian-American in the seat. “Haiti feels that it needs this support; it needs this key.”
Two years earlier, Haitians had an opportunity to make history by electing the first Haitian-American to Congress but could not agree on a single candidate. Collectively, the four Haitian candidates drew almost 20,000 votes, which would have beaten Wilson who won the Democratic primary with 16,653 votes. Moise, who put more than $1 million of his own money into the campaign, came the closest with 7,769 votes.
Today, Moise is Wilson’s only declared Haitian-American challenger in the primary race for the heavily Democratic district and his supporters believe he could be successful. But Wilson — a former state senator and school board member — remains popular.
Adding to the dynamic in the predominately black district is the Florida Legislature’s new redistricting boundaries, which drew an influx of new voters, many of them Hispanic, into the new 24th District.
Wilson’s campaign said while the district includes a sizable Caribbean population, only 15 percent are Haitian. Still, the campaign said it doesn’t want the race to become a contest based on ethnicity.
Moise supporters argue that by being the only Haitian candidate on the ballot and qualifying with more than 8,000 signatures on his petitions, he has a very good shot at unseating the freshman lawmaker.
Indeed, Moise raised $150,043 during the first three months of the year, compared to Wilson’s $53,955. But Wilson was already sitting on a fundraising advantage, finishing the first quarter with $129,570 on hand, compared to Moise, who has been on a spending spree and ended up with $43,133.
Moise said he “is not running a Haitian race.” But Haiti has been central to the campaign. The day before Martelly’s radio interview, Moise, appearing at a Haiti diaspora investment forum in Miami Beach, accused Wilson of taking full credit for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a law giving Haitians temporary legal protection in the United States, and of only visiting Haiti after learning she would have a Haitian-American challenger.
“Why now? Why not before?” he asked during an interview with The Miami Herald. “She wants to be the champion of the Haitian community.”
But Wilson, who sits on the House Foreign Relations Committee and has sponsored several gatherings to discuss Haiti’s post-earthquake challenges, said her involvement in Haitian issues dates to 1982 when she and the late Haitian rights activist Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste successfully advocated for the release of Haitian women from Krome Detention Center.
In May 2011, Wilson visited Haiti and Martelly took her on a helicopter tour of quake-damaged Port-au-Prince. They discussed a plan to help Haiti, Wilson said.
During the recent “Week of the Diaspora” event in Haiti, the Ministry of Haitians Living Abroad recognized both Moise and Wilson. Wilson issued a news release touting her “Friend of Haiti” award.
“I am constantly advocating for Haiti in Congress and all across the nation,” Wilson said. “This is what the Haitian people need their president to do as well — not for him to be meddling in United States Congressional elections.”
It’s not the first time Martelly has waded into a local election. In February, he caused an electoral uproar in the Bahamas when, during a visit with thousands of Haitians and Bahamians of Haitian descent, he said they should vote as a bloc for the party that best represents their interests in the May 7 election.
The remark sparked immediate outrage with some Bahamians, who accused Martelly of interfering in the island’s politics during a hotly contested general election where illegal immigration is a major issue. One opposition party leader even called for the resignation of Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, accusing him and his party of orchestrating Martelly’s visit to win votes. Party leaders denied they had anything to do with the visit, with some expressing surprise at Martelly’s statement.