Before last night's party to celebrate his country's successful revolution in 1802, Haitian ambassador Georges Leger had almost canceled the evening. The times seemed too sensitive, the image of Haiti right now severely tarnished. But a group of Haitian friends convinced him to go ahead.
"Not having a party would not change a thing, but having it would get some people together," said the ambassador. His hesitation, he explained, was because of "the treatment of my fellow citizens in Florida," the destination for many of the thousands who have fled poverty and political repression in Haiti and have found the American freedom gates blocked and their boats often turned back by the U.S. government.
But Leger must have been aware of the public image a lavish reception hosted by the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere would have during this particular trauma. One guest, standing by the fireplace, near the end of a well-stocked table of food, remarked, "I wonder how the poor folks at home would feel about this." Many guests eager to talk about the Reagan administration's treatment of the Haitians, and what many perceive as a double standard between black and non-black refugees, would not talk about the Haitian government's policies that have caused this exodus. "I better not, this is their house," said one guest, describing a social paradox many felt.
But the party, by Washington reception standards, was a roaring success -- crowded, hot, several different languages floating across the room, an abundance of the best cocktail foods and liquors, and polite conversation among the 600 guests. Part of the crowd was older, established Haitians who have lived and worked here for many years. The public awareness of the Haitian boat people has not affected their lives greatly, said one woman. "We hear about it. For example, we go to events, like the mass for the people who drowned off Florida. But our response is more humanitarian than political." The American guests' response was more direct. The Rev. John Dingle said, "Here you have again a color situation. Look at what they are doing for the Polish sailors, anyone can jump ship."
After receiving guests on a wide, red-carpeted staircase, the ambassador was surrounded by two groups of friends, one making fishing dates and the other detailing the visits of U.S. medical teams to Haiti. While some guests had friends taking their photographs below the portrait of liberator Henri Christophe, others were drumming up business for the beleaguered nation. Donald Zimmerman, chairman of the board of Formflex Foundations, said he has three factories in Haiti, where American-produced fabric is assembled and then sold to undergarment manufacturers here. Haiti is a good market, said Zimmerman, "because of its proximity to the U.S., the abundance of labor, their good dexterity, they are able to sew well, they are bilingual and the government's pro-capitalism attitude."
The long-awaited administration policy on the Caribbean was another topic of discussion. It is expected to be announced in February, according to John Upston of the State Department. "The reason it is taking so long is that the initiative is not being made in the U.S. but involves consultations with the countries in the region," explained Upston, who said he wasn't involved in the Haitian refugee issue and couldn't comment on the Reagan approach. The slowness of the Reagan initiative has hindered the activism of some Caribbean interest groups. "Our people are holding back because they have nothing to react to," said Walker Williams, executive director of the Caribbeana Council, who has supported the strong condemnations of policy by both Haiti and the United States issued by the Congressional Black Caucus.
Even in the midst of much liveliness, the ambassador seemed chagrined at the administration's pace. "If I were Polish, things might move faster."