Ron Arias
December 23, 1991 12:00 PM

CHRISTMAS IS ONLY A COUPLE OF weeks away on this balmy afternoon at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba. Yet on an abandoned airstrip at one corner of the base, several dozen grim-faced Haitian men and women are ushered off a bus by soldiers, then ordered through the gates of their cheerless new home—a sprawling detention camp. They are the latest of 6,000 fleeing, Florida-bound refugees that the U.S. Coast Guard has recently picked up at sea from leaky, overburdened boats. The next arrivals ushered into the Haitian compound are a self-appointed welcoming committee. Led by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, rap star Luther Campbell and filmmaker Jonathan (Silence of the Lambs) Demme and followed by scores of reporters, they have just landed in a relief plane loaded with food, clothing and other gifts for the refugees. “We’re here as private citizens on a mission of mercy,” Jackson announces to the sentries. “We’ve come to lift their spirits with hope.”

Trailing along in Jackson’s charismatic aura, the visitors begin a frenetic, hour-long tour of the camp. Minutes later, a perspiring Jackson—Campbell by his side—works a boisterous crowd of wildly cheering, arm-waving detainees. As the Americans move on, skirting coils of razor wire that imprison the Haitians, Jackson, ever alert for the crowd-pleasing gesture, spots a small boy. He grabs the child, hoists him into the air and briefly dances to the deafening cheers of the Haitians. Setting the boy down, Jackson springs onto a chair, a portable PA microphone in one hand. “You are not forgotten!” he shouts. “You deserve to be free!”

More cheers erupt. Now it’s Luke Campbell’s turn at the mike. But the 30-year-old rapper appears to be at a loss for words. Odd, since he’s not exactly the retiring type. This is, after all, the man whose 2 Live Crew album, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, was banned in many U.S. cities last year because of its crude sexual boasting and liberal use of four-letter words. Today, though, he is performing in a very different capacity. Luke Campbell will speak as the driving force behind the three-day grassroots airlift put together in the Miami area. In an emotion-choked voice, the outlaw rapper turned Good Samaritan finally says, “People in Miami, they’re pulling for you all.”

Moments later, Campbell and Yo! MTV Raps videojays André “Doctor Dré” Brown and Ed Lover plunge into the crowd. They move through the crush of bodies, slapping outstretched hands and collecting stacks of refugee letters addressed to friends and relatives in the U.S. and Haiti. “It tears you up, man. I’m in total shock,” the wide-bodied Doctor Dré says later. “It’s one thing to hear about refugees on the news. But it’s devastating to see them and hear their stories. They risk their lives for a taste of freedom. Now, especially with Christmas coming on, they’ll need all the help we can give.”

Held in three makeshift camps equipped with tents, latrines and portable kitchens, the detainees form the bulk so far of a growing exodus of Haitians fleeing desperate poverty and political chaos since the Sept. 30 military ouster of Haiti’s elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A Miami federal court initially banned their repatriation, and the State Department last week said 757 of the refugees have been found to have plausible grounds for being granted political asylum in the U.S. “The court is now deciding on a ruling that will affect all the Haitians,” says Florida’s Dade County Commissioner Mary Collins, who flew in with the relief group. “If they’re considered political refugees, they could eventually be given U.S. asylum. Whatever happens, it’s a problem. Our hospitals and schools are already overburdened, and unemployment is very high. So if they come to the U.S., Florida and other states will need the kind of federal help we’ve given the Cubans and other immigrants. The White House will need to come up with a resettlement plan.”

Midway through the group’s tour of the largest of the three camps, Campbell listens to the hard-luck story of Laurent Bodelaire, 28, an unemployed teacher from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. “I sold everything I had and paid $300 to get on a boat,” Bodelaire says. “The army was chasing us, shooting at us before we left. I want to go back to Haiti, back to my family, but only if Aristide is returned to power. Many who supported him have been killed by the army, so it’s wrong to say we are not political refugees. Will we be sent back? All we want now is to be treated like human beings.”

Campbell shakes the man’s hand and silently moves on. Nearby. Jonathan Demme, a longtime supporter of human rights in Haiti, oversees a camera crew filming a refugee segment of a documentary about Haitians called Killing the Dream. “Before things get worse,” Campbell says later, “we have to bear witness to what’s going on. That’s what Jonathan’s doing. That’s why I’m here. People might think I’m just into rap. Well, I don’t mention it much, but I do have another side. My music is one thing—that’s entertainment, that’s business. Onstage, I give people what they want. Offstage, I have a life to lead.”

That life, explains the owner of Luke Records, two nightclubs, a construction company and an executive jet, includes giving $60,000 this year alone to afterschool football and summer Little League baseball programs in Florida, as well as to college scholarship funds and projects for the homeless and AIDS victims. Campbell paid $15,000 to help charter the 727 jetliner for the relief flight to Guantánamo and plans to donate part of the profits of his upcoming solo album, Got Something on My Mind, to the Miami-based Haitian Relief Fund. “My mom gave me my heart, and my dad gave me the sense to tell right from wrong,” he says, referring to Yvonne Campbell, 59, a Miami housewife, and Stanley Sr., 64, a custodian. (Neither is Haitian.) “But most of any goodness I got, I owe to my mom. She gives to everyone. Walk in the door and she’ll cook you a meal.”

As a kid in a Miami household of four boys, Campbell, a former gang member, remembers feeling sorry “for all these folks I used to see coming over on little boats. I could have been one of them, but I was lucky enough to be born American. What bothers me now is the double standard. We let all kinds of white folks in the country—athletes, you name it. But when it comes to poor blacks from Haiti, we turn them away. I think it’s a racial thing—that’s the problem right there.”

The plan to help the refugees stems from a talk between Campbell, who lives in Miami, and Jesse Jackson after both heard news reports predicting the arrival of more than 12,000 Haitians at Guantánamo by Christmas. Almost immediately, the rapper asked for airlift donations through local community groups and radio announcements. In a rare, spontaneous display of unity and sympathy, Miami’s Cubans, Haitians and African-Americans joined the effort. In three days residents as well as restaurants and other businesses brought in a flood of donations, ranging from underwear to canned minestrone, to the Luke Records warehouse in the Little Haiti section of the city. Volunteers trucked the items to the airport for loading, and Jackson and New York Rep. Charles Rangel helped get the OK to land a civilian aircraft at Guantánamo. Although only 11,000 lbs. of goods were allowed in the cargo bay of the passenger plane, another 50,000 lbs. arrived later by jet freighter. Finally, part of the 800-member U.S. military task force that runs the camps unloaded and distributed the gifts.

“With this many people, it may not seem like much,” says Campbell, as he leaves after clasping a few more outstretched hands over the razor-wire barrier. “But they appreciate what we’ve done. They’re helpless, cut off and frustrated, and some of them are sick. Whatever the court decides, they won’t forget the day we brought them a little hope.”

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