CAP-HAITIEN, Haiti — For decades, Haitians have boarded rickety boats and fled the country - some coming ashore in South Florida - to escape political turmoil.
After a lull following the election last year of President Rene Preval, Haitians have resumed risking their lives at sea - but this time, politicians and others say, the country's moribund economy and more-aggressive smugglers are behind the surge.
In recent months, after scores of migrants drowned near the Turks and Caicos Islands, Haitian officials have scrambled to curtail the flight. Police have become more vigilant in patrolling the coast and cracking down on smugglers. And some lawmakers have held town hall meetings and produced radio ads in the north, from where most boats leave, in the hope of deterring others by describing the dangers of the voyage.
Marc Antoine Francois, a member of parliament from Ile de la Tortue who is behind the campaign, acknowledged in a recent interview that he faces a daunting task in a country where few people have jobs.
"When you have a problem, you have to attack it at its root," said Francois, who last month launched his anti-migration campaign on Ile de la Tortue, an island off Haiti's northwest coast known as a boat-building hub.
Preval, in turn, doesn't deny that work needs to be done. But he added on July 6: "When they say things are not good, they don't have a frame of reference because they did not live the past when things were really bad," referring to the period after the 1957 seizure of power by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.
During the next four months, there are plans to run radio ads in certain communities urging people not to board the boats and to report clandestine voyages to authorities. Also planned is travel to South Florida to urge Haitians abroad to stop financing the trips on behalf of family members - but instead to invest in the country to create jobs.
While Preval's government receives high marks from the international community for creating political stability, improving security and reducing inflation, a complicated portrait of misery is emerging, and it is fueling the migration surge.
"The majority of the young are of the age where they should be in school, but they cannot go to school," Francois said of life throughout this impoverished nation of eight million people. "They have no means of getting an education or learning a trade. They only see one avenue: Take a boat and go to Nassau or the United States. We have to change that."
So far this year, U.S. Coast Guard cutters have intercepted 1,221 Haitian migrants, more than the 1,198 for all of last year. And that worries some international and Haitian officials, who fear that the desperate voyages could easily cause political unrest.
"There is something that is happening that we don't quite understand," said Maureen Achieng, chief of mission in Port-au-Prince for the International Organization for Migration, which has teamed up with Francois and other lawmakers to tackle the problem. "We don't know what's really pushing things in the last couple of months because the situation isn't any worse necessarily."
Achieng and others say they know that poverty and misery are major reasons that people attempt to leave. But what they want to know is if something else is at play. They hope that a comprehensive study of the factors compelling people to leave will provide answers. They then hope to create programs to address the issue.
Meanwhile, Haitians told The Miami Herald that smugglers are increasingly profiting from their misery. As Preval increases the pressure on drug traffickers, unscrupulous boat owners turn to human smuggling.
Aggressive smugglers capitalize on desperation and recruit passengers on the false belief that if they are caught at sea, they would be sent to Australia, rather than returned to Haiti, according to residents and lawmakers.
"They are exploiting the masses," said Georgemain Prophete, a local official.
Their message is reinforced by return visits from emigrants who look better fed and better dressed.
Prophete and others say the Haitian coast guard has stepped up efforts to arrest smugglers, but it's hard to shut down a business where there is a waiting list. It's also a business with no set fees: Some people barter food in payment for their voyage. Others say they pay hundreds of dollars; a Miami Herald reporter was told that in at least one instance, $5,000 was paid.
"People want to change their situation, and they are not concerned if they don't have legal papers," Prophete said. "We talk about hope ... but we haven't seen any benefits yet."
U.S. Coast Guard officials say that while the numbers of individuals leaving Haiti by boat are up, there is no indication that their final destination is South Florida. Many migrant-crammed vessels leaving Haiti are island-hopping with an eye toward the financially stable Turks and Caicos, a British dependent chain 150 miles north of Haiti.
"It has been an increasing problem for us," Jean Harrod, a spokeswoman for the governor's office in Turks and Caicos, said, noting that last year they repatriated almost 3,000 Haitians back to Haiti. "We don't have a big population. We estimate we have 33,000 people. That would represent nearly 10 percent of our population."
Despite the Haitian government's success at controlling inflation - it's down from 40 percent in 2003 to 8 percent today - and keeping the local currency stable, the economic outlook remains grim.
The government needs to create jobs, entrepreneurs and regional economic development, said Haitian economist Kesner Pharel. "That is the main challenge of the government," he said.
Life has not become more expensive, Pharel said - it just feels that way.
"Because I am not working, I don't have any money and I am saying my condition isn't any better," he said. "This time last year, inflation was more than 10 percent, and now it's less."
Economists also cite another factor for the pinch many feel: Nearly three million people receive remittances totaling $1.6 billion annually, most from the United States. The increasing strength of the Haitian currency has resulted in a loss of purchasing power, and local market prices have risen.
Michel St. Croix, the mayor of Cap-Haitien, said that fewer than 10 percent of the city's 800,000 residents have jobs. The city is Haiti's second-largest and, like others, it has lost countless jobs in the wake of political turmoil.
When he entered office a few months ago, St. Croix said, there was only $81,081 in the city's coffers. He was able to collect $135,135 more through taxes, but it's still not enough to satisfy the city's myriad needs, he said.
Recently, his office launched a street-cleaning program, one of several small projects it hopes to introduce with international community help. So far, about 400 Haitians have been put to work cleaning the streets, earning a little less than $3 a day. That's almost $1 more than the pay for most Haitians, 76 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day.
St. Croix is demanding more money from Port-au-Prince - and more attention.
"I am mounting pressure on the government to give the people a way to make a living," he said.
After a boat washed ashore in Hallandale Beach, Fla., earlier this year, Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis told The Miami Herald that stimulating Haiti's economy was one of his biggest challenges.
He had hoped that international donors would fund a project aimed at creating jobs in several cities.
When donors declined, the government decided to fund the projects itself. But the jobs, like the foreign investments, have been slow in coming.
Residents may not be willing to wait much longer.
"If this government was an illegal one, the country would have been in flames already," said Fritzner Vital, an unemployed construction worker, after another unsuccessful day of looking for work. "There would have been protests because things are that bad. If things don't change, the same people who supported Preval will be left with no other choice but to take to the streets."
United States Coast Guard interceptions of Haitian migrants in successive fiscal years:
2007 (as of July 2): 1,221 2006: 1,198 2005: 1,850 2004: 3,229 2003: 2,013 2002: 1,486 2001: 1,391 2000: 1,113 1999: 1,039 1998: 1,369 1997: 288 1996: 2,295 1995: 909
SOURCE: Government of Haiti