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Amid Caribbean celebration, sadness


If only for a few hours, the turmoil of a country hundreds of miles away did not dominate Walter Rolton. Amid the strains of reggae and calypso music at the 13th annual Caribbean Festival, he almost forgot the unrest in Haiti.

But concern for his homeland and the strife among his fellow Haitians is never far from his mind.

"Yes, I do think of there much, very much," Mr. Rolton said yesterday as he sat against a tree at Druid Hill Park and watched thousands of festival-goers. "Sometimes you think about it too -- much and you do nothing else. This is a way to distract yourself for a while."

As he spoke, he slowly ate a plate of bake and salt fish, a Caribbean specialty, and watched the festivities from a distance.

"Does the festival here distract my mind today?" he asked. "Not enough. I still think of home."

The festival -- which organizers believe will attract nearly 200,000 people -- will end today with activities from noon to 10 p.m. A parade from Camden Yards to the West Baltimore park kicked off yesterday's celebration.

Many vendors and festival-goers -- some of whom have relatives living in the Caribbean Islands, although they have established lives for themselves in the United States -- said they follow the events of Haiti and Cuba carefully.

Since 1991, Haiti has been under military rule. The United States may use military intervention to restore Haiti's government. In Cuba, thousands of residents have fled in boats and makeshift rafts in recent weeks to the United States.

Mr. Rolton, 38, has lived in West Baltimore for five years. He left his mother and two younger brothers behind when he came to Baltimore to try to start a business, save some money and send for them. He often tries to write or call his family in a small town near of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti's capital.

"You don't get through always and you worry," he said. Mr. Rolton speaks fluent French, but his English is often tangled and, at times, unrecognizeable. He works at a convenience store and said his English has improved greatly during the past year.

"I wish for the U.S. help there. It [is] not just something that I want and hope for, but something that [is] necessary. They cannot wait too long before they help."

The Clinton administration has committed itself to restoring to office Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted during a military coup.

Although no date has been set, U.S. officials have said a military invasion could occur in the next two months, perhaps by the end of this month. U.S. Marines are training in Puerto Rico for the possible invasion.

In the Cuban crisis, the United States and Cuba reached an agreement on Friday in which Cuba would stop its citizens from fleeing to the United States. In return, this country promised to accept 20,000 new immigrants each year.

Nearly 30,000 Cuban refugees are being housed at a U.S. military base in Guantanamo Bay or camps in Panama.

About 30,000 West Indians live in the Baltimore area and about twice as many live throughout Maryland, according to officials of the West Indian National Association.

There is no estimate of the numbers of Haitians in the Baltimore area. Most settle in Florida or New York, officials said.

One goal of the Caribbean Festival is to promote understanding of West Indian culture among Maryland's other ethnic groups. It is also intended to be a chance for people of Caribbean descent to meet each other.

"It's not supposed to be a time cry and feel sorry. You see old friends, talk about home, see how making ends with them goes," Mr. Rolton said. "But if I see someone, I know the talk about home will make me upset."

Mr. Rolton said he knows of only three other Haitians in Baltimore.

"We know problems are there. Political problems most of them," he said. "But they [will] straighten out. The United States [will] help straighten them out."

Osborne Bristol, who came to Baltimore from Grenada 10 years ago, is "very upset" about the Haitian strife. He estimates Haiti to be a two-hour plane ride from Grenada.

"People have been oppressed there and that brings a lot strife," said Mr. Bristol, 39, who is known as "OB" and also lives in West Baltimore. "I'm not from Haiti, but I still have roots in Haiti -- and that's blackness."

After watching the governments in Cuba and Haiti, he says, he has an appreciation for the U.S. government and President Clinton.

"The U.S. government policies are not perfect, but it's a lot better than any other on Earth," Mr. Osborne said. "The economic needs in Cuba are not being satisfied. And in Haiti, it's political."

Even after a possible invasion of Haiti and restoration of Mr. Aristide to office, the United States faces a time-consuming and costly task trying to "make right" the country, said a former resident of Trinidad.

"There's much to be done. Maybe too much," said Charles Gold, who settled in northwest Baltimore after leaving Trinidad 10 years ago, "The people there need it very much. No matter how long it takes, if the U.S. involves itself, finish the job."

Yesterday, as the day grew longer, the festival grew livelier. The bands became more enthusiastic and the music blared louder. Nearly everyone had a good time.

Mr. Rolton continued to watch from a distance.

"I'm glad everyone has a good time," he said. "Next year, I will too."

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