The Associated Press Staff

ST. PETERSBURG Five Haitian presidential candidates courted Haitian-Americans’ money and influence in a forum at a Tampa Bay college today. There are 19 candidates competing in the presidential election scheduled for Nov. 28 as the Caribbean nation struggles to recover from a January earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless. Many candidates have extended their campaigning to the U.S. Haitian-Americans cannot vote in their homeland, but they can raise money for candidates and influence their friends and family in Haiti. The diaspora’s support is critical to the economy of Haiti, said Edwin Paraison, Haiti’s Minister of Haitians Living Abroad, while speaking to more than 150 audience members attending the forum at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

Haitians living abroad send home roughly $1.5 billion a year – money that even before the earthquake was considered a major source of income in the country of 9 million people, 70 percent of whom are unemployed. “To help and influence our parents and family members in Haiti to vote for you, you need to tell us your plan for the Diaspora,” Paraison said in French to the five candidates, who included two doctors, a former diplomat, the director of customs in Port-au-Prince and a former minister who served in the cabinet of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the three-hour forum, the candidates made similar pledges to boost tourism to Haiti, decentralize its institutions and improve access to health care and education. They all said Haiti should depend on its own army, disbanded by Aristide in 1995, instead of United Nations forces for national security. They gave few specifics about how they would help the country recover from the earthquake, beyond stating that the Haitian government must take charge of the country’s reconstruction. Eric Smarcki Charles, the customs director, said his government would build two additional airports in the country to develop business and tourism centers beyond Port-au-Prince. Josette Bijou promised to address political corruption that has stalled Haiti’s development in the past and to create a government “where transparency is the norm.” Genard Joseph said in his government, a reinstated Haitian army would participate in reconstruction projects. All the candidates pledged to include the diaspora in the decision-making process as Haiti recovers. Gerard Blot called Haitian-Americans a “financial resource” for their homeland. Garaudy Laguerre acknowledged that he can make promises, but not guarantees, to include the diaspora in his government. He noted that the Haitian diaspora extends beyond the U.S. to Canada, France, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, and that each community expects something different. “If I would promise that they all would have a Haitian passport and be able to vote in Haitian elections, not only would I be lying to you I would be lying to myself,” he said in Haitian Creole. Raymond Glefil, a 53-year-old truck driver from Winter Haven, said he appreciated Laguerre’s honesty and he would tell his relatives in Haiti to vote for him. “I think he tells the truth and did not promise too much,” Glefil said, adding that Laguerre seemed to understand that fixing Haiti’s problems would take longer than the next president’s five-year term. The forum was organized and moderated by Daniel Thelusmar of Tampa-based Heart to Heart Caribbean Ministry. It was broadcast live online to more than 160 radio stations in the U.S., Canada, France, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Eckerd officials said. Haiti’s election faces significant obstacles and criticism. The country’s Provisional Electoral Council has excluded more than a dozen political parties from participating in the elections, including Fanmi Lavalas, the largest and the party of Aristide. That decision “will undermine both Haitians’ right to vote and the resulting government’s ability to govern,” 45 members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week.