After massive midnight immigration raids by Bahamian police on the Haitian neighborhoods of Nassau, the Haitian government effectively has stopped the large-scale repatriation of its people from the Bahamas.
All travel documents from the Bahamas to Haiti have been voided, according to an official note delivered by the Haitian government to the Bahamian Foreign Ministry. Informed sources say all Haitians being repatriated will now be handled case-by-case.
The move puts a serious chill on relations between the two Caribbean countries and could have repercussions for the United States, where southern Florida's burgeoning population of tens of thousands of illegal Haitian immigrants has become a serious problem in the last year.
The concern of U.S. officials is that some of the thousands of Haitians now being pressured to leave the Bahamas will attempt to move to the United States, a problem that appeared to have been avoided by the Bahamian-Haitian repatriation program worked out last year.
But the worst losers may be the Haitians themselves. These boat people of the Caribbean, most of whom have risked their lives to escape the near-starvation economy and political stultification of Haiti, now find that not only do the Bahamas and the United States not want them, but also that it may be impossible for them to return to their home.
"This is a very complicating factor," one U.S. official said.
"This problem," said one Bahamian government spokesman, "is a greater problem than ours. Now there is no repatriation. Nothing. If Haiti is not going to take these people back, who is going to take them?"
Alexandre Paul, the Haitian consul here, said Friday that he expects the Bahamas to look for aid from the United States and the United Nations if the Repatriation is stopped. A Bahamas government spokesman said such aid may be sought, but no action has yet been taken.
Paul, who is known for his sharp language, calling the Bahamian government "racist" and "neo-Nazi," said Friday he believes Haiti has been provoked.
"They want some money from somebody," said Paul. "In my opinion they want to stop the voluntary repatriation program, and the easiest way is to get the Haitian government mad."
Haitian illegal immigrants have been a delicate problem for this collection of islands off the Florida coast for more than 15 years, but the issue has taken on the proportions of a crisis in recent months.
Bahamian officials estimate the Haitian population at about 10 percent of this country's 242,000 residents. The English-speaking Bahamians tend to resent the alien, French-speaking culture of the Haitians. They see Haitians as an economic threat in a nation where unemployment is estimated at 17 percent and as much as 30 percent for young people, and they claim that the Haitians are a drain on the nation's social, educational and health services.
Bahamian Prime Minister Lynden Pindling recently claimed that some 60 to 90 percent of patients in Nassau's clinics are Haitians, but no actual surveys have been made.
Complicating the situation is the fact that some Haitians are needed in the Bahamas to work in areas, particularly agriculture, that Bahamians are largely abandoning to search for jobs on the more urban islands of Grand Bahama and New Providence. About 1,500 Haitians have been granted legal permits to live and work here.
The Bahamian government has called several "amnesties" in an attempt to get Haitians to turn themselves in voluntarily. The last three-month amnesty ended Jan. 18. More than 400 Haitians reportedly left the Bahamas voluntarily from the beginning of that program on Oct. 22.
Hundreds more were registered to leave and were awaiting transportation to Haiti on a broken-down Bahamian tender, The Lady More. The Haitian government had agreed to accept 400 repatriated Haitians a month.
The situation was touchy all along, but the current crisis began late on the night of Feb. 9.
Despite prior official assurances to Haiti that there would be no roundups of illegal immigrants and public speeches, in an official memorandum of June 1978, squads of Bahamian police and immigration officials moved into action last Monday evening.
They moved into Haitian neighborhoods all over Nassau and the island of New Providence dragging Haitian men, women and perhaps 30 children into vans and cars. A total of 392 Haitians, some with legal work permits, were locked up in Fox Hill Prison in the next few hours, according to government spokesmen. Most are still there.
One legal Haitian from the Lady Duvalier Corner neighborhood in Nassau, who was released after his employer called several government officials, described his arrest.
"It was two o'clock in the morning," said the man, who refused to let his name be used. "They came and they opened everything, pushed through doors and windows. There were 11 of them, immigration and police. They drag our bags from under the bed and throw out everything looking for money.
"Then they take me and my sister. They push us in a bus and take us to police station with others. Some of them look like they was beaten. One man's heart hurt bad."
Conditions in Fox Hill, despite some recent renovation, were described as like "a pigsty" with people forced to sleep on the floor and plumbing fixtures that were new but not working. The Haitian consul and foreign reporters were refused entrance to the facilities at the end of the week.
Minister of Home Affairs Clement Maynard would not respond to journalists' inquiries and it was not clear why the midnight roundup with ordered. Maynard's office had warned that strong measures would be taken, but as late as mid-January the prime minister had ruled out mass arrests.
The Haitian consul here said that as late as Friday he still had received no official word that the Haitians had been arrested. On Friday evening his office delivered the note to the Foreign Ministry in effect terminating all previous repatriation agreements.