By Kenneth Kidd, The Toronto Star
PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI—To reach Mario Joseph, you travel down a narrow side street until the path is blocked by the tents of people whose homes were destroyed in the January earthquake.
From there, you travel through an iron door in a fence, past a spirited meeting of activists on the veranda of an old house, then up a driveway past another, more school-like gathering, this time solely of women, until you reach the back door.
Once inside, you then double back toward the street again to find Joseph’s office, more or less at the geographic centre of the site.
This is apt. There aren’t many political or civil rights protests in Haiti that Joseph, the justice-crusading head of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, isn’t part of or doesn’t know about.
Among recent efforts: student marches to the Ministry of Education and a sit-in by the office of Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, in which hundreds of people from the tent cities protested evictions.
Those are causes close to Joseph’s heart, and they relate in consequence to his other, more quixotic campaign: Stopping Haiti’s presidential and partial legislative elections, scheduled for Nov. 28.
Or, barring that and with greater odds of success: Persuading enough people to boycott the balloting.
Joseph thinks the country simply has too many urgent problems to waste time and resources on an election whose legitimacy is already deeply in question. “We need to have a better life before we vote,” he says.
“Take care of people in the camps. The election divides. You need to unify people.”
Joseph peppers the word “immoral” through any discussion of Haitian government and politics, and he’s soon racing through his points of outrage. He starts with the electoral council overseeing the elections, a body almost universally seen as an ill-disguised puppet of current President René Préval, whose term was temporarily extended as a result of earthquake.
The council has already rejected a raft of would-be candidates, including the presidential bid of Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born but U.S-reared hip-hop artist. (He hadn’t lived in Haiti for the past five years, as required.)
Also barred is anyone formally attached to the now-fractured Lavalas party of twice-ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now living in South African exile. (The ostensible reason: Aristide himself didn’t file the election papers for the party.)
“This is a selection, not an election,” says Joseph.
And he thinks that, even by Haitian standards, it will be especially prone to both fraud and the exclusion of people otherwise entitled to vote. It has to do with the government identification cards that voters need to present at the polls.
With 1.5 million people displaced by the earthquake and living in tent cities, there are a lot of missing ID cards. And what of the scratched cards with damaged photos that formerly belonged to the estimated 300,000 people who died in the January earthquake? “It’s an open door for fraud,” says Joseph.
Better, he argues, to leave Préval or some provisional body in place and let Bill Clinton’s Interim Haiti Recovery Commission get on with its rebuilding work.
“The elections themselves are not going forward in an open, democratic, participative, transparent manner,” agrees Mark Schuller, an associate professor at the City University of New York, who has just released a critical report on the impact of international aid agencies.
He, too, thinks turnout could be low enough to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the result. Last year, for instance, the exclusion of still-popular Lavalas from legislative elections was the key reason less than 10 per cent of voters bothered to show up.
But Schuller, recently returned from Haiti, has other, pressing concerns, and sadly they all involve the potential for violence.
As the campaign began, he says, scarcely anyone in the camps thought the election would herald any difference in their lives, which is only heightening frustration at the less-than-glacial pace of reconstruction.
Not that the election isn’t welcome as a kind of fiscal stimulus. Haitian campaigns involve a lot of walking-around money, dollops spread among ostensible supporters who are actually paid. This includes those who hand out T-shirts, put up posters, spray graffiti or cheer on the candidate at a rally. The standard pay is 200 Haitian gourdes per day, or roughly $5 Cdn.
More problematic is whether significant sums start flowing directly to the resident committees that run the tent cities. In some cases, those committees are already objects of derision and resentment, seen as just another remote elite by camp-dwellers.
“I’m worried about camp committees being bought off by candidates and landowners, forcing people in their camp to vote for their candidates,” says Schuller. “Camp committees, many of them are good and have a solid base, but many of them are not.”
Schuller fears that some charismatic figure might emerge, one able to channel the frustration of people who’ve been living in tents for months. And there is already an omnipresent object of that bile: the international aid agencies and non-government organizations.
“Most people are angry at the NGOs because, like it or not, they are the ones who have taken over (the job of providing services) from the state,” he says.
The people in the camps know a lot of money is out there, someplace, and they see the rented SUVs of sundry NGOs everywhere on the streets. But conditions in the camps remain abysmal.
“That’s increasingly the story that I hear,” says Schuller, “that NGOs are getting rich off of our misery and don’t really want things to change, because if the problems were solved, the (NGOs) wouldn’t exist.”
In the back garden of a house in the gated community of Belvil, Laënnec Hurbon is serving Haitian coffee in small espresso cups.
His ranch-style house wouldn’t look that out of place in Miami or, minus the palm trees, a Brampton subdivision.
Outside the neighbourhood gates, the usual squalor and chaos of Port-au-Prince prevails. Inside, it’s calm and safe: Hurbons’s extended neighbours range from middle-class businessmen and government officials to senior players in the drug trade, even visiting members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Hurbon has choices not available to most Haitians. He has a PhD from the Sorbonne and a French passport. He could have fled long ago. But he remains devoted to the troubled land that gave him birth.
A sociologist and professor at l’Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince, Hurbon has spent his career studying the interplay of religion, culture and politics in the Caribbean.
He finds the number of people running for Haiti’s presidency — initially 34, now whittled to 19 — both telling and troubling.
“It seems to me there is a pathology of power in Haiti,” he says. “That’s why we have so many candidates. It’s a comedy. Nobody knows these people.”
So, why do they run? Some might be truly public-spirited, but Hurbon believes most are just answering the siren call of state coffers, and the chance — at any level of government — to skim some of it for themselves. “The state is something which can give me money. There’s the possibility of becoming rich.”
And, historically at least, there’s the equal possibility that at some point you’ll have to flee, and live off any ill-gotten gains outside the country.
“They say Haiti is terre glise, slippery earth, slippery ground,” notes Richard Morse, the outspoken leader of RAM, a popular Haitian band named for his initials.
“You can be standing tall and you slip and fall, because it’s slippery. There have been a lot of powerful Haitians who are now sitting somewhere trying to be low profile who are wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back.”
Cynicism, not surprisingly, runs deep in Haiti. “People think the system is corrupt,” says Joseph. “We don’t have fair treatment. Some (candidates) have more money, some have drug money and then they will be in power to make the rich richer.”
Against that paradigm came Wyclef Jean, whose narrative arc was a reversal and a rebuke of the more familiar story. He’d left the country, made his fortune abroad, and was now returning with the hope of leading Haiti to better future.
For a few weeks in August, his slogans were everywhere, on T-shirts, spray-painted on walls. Fas a Fas, they read, and Jen kore Jen. Face to face. Youth helping youth.
In a country where roughly half the population is under the age of 25, Jean’s appeal for young people was obvious. But even 50-year-old Delius Elistin, little Lovely’s uncle, quickly became a fan.
Elistin hasn’t bothered to vote for anyone since 2000, when he cast a ballot for Aristide, yet Jean’s commercial success resonated. To him, it signified business experience in the United States and, more importantly, offered an inspiring tale of rags to riches.
Jean was a reminder that, yes, Haitians could triumph.
This was not, however, a universal assessment. Hurbon, for one, considers Jean a dangerous model precisely because his success appears to have been too easy.
“The poor people believe they can become rich without studying, hard work,” says Hurbon. “That’s a problem.”
But Wyclef Jean’s popularity is also an indictment of all the other political figures, past and present, argues Morse.
Jean speaks no French (the language of government), scarcely any Creole (the language of the people), has no political experience and lives in New Jersey. His entourage looked as if they were preening for the next gangsta video.
“The fact that he can become a political player by announcing his candidacy reflects the political culture here and what they’ve done to help the Haitian people.”
Had Jean been allowed to run, says Morse, anyone voting for him would have deliberatively been sending a tart message to everyone else: “You have done nothing for us.”
The bar, in other words, is that low; the majority of Haitians, that angry and desperate.
“These people living in tents have never been considered people,” says Morse. “Education hasn’t been for them, doctors haven’t been for them, sewage hasn’t been for them, garbage pickup hasn’t been for them.
“What does the government or an economic elite do that makes you think those people are taking care of their country?”
Haiti’s capital is now awash in political posters, plastered onto buildings or dangling from coat hangers ingeniously hung on power lines overhead.
Billboards extol the likes of Charles Henri Baker, who lost to René Préval in the last presidential election, along with his slogan, Nou bouke (we’ve had enough). Also prominent — and this is key given an electorate that mostly cannot read — is the number 40, the figure denoting Baker on the ballot.
So far, at least, Baker and all the others are being handily out-signed by the acknowledged front-runner, the otherwise little-known Jude Celestin, who just happens to be Préval’s son-in-law.
It’s a rule of thumb that, to make any kind of impression on the Haitian electorate, a presidential candidate needs to spend at least $3-5 million (Cdn.) on his or her campaign. Many expect Celestin’s tab will easily top $10 million.
But the posters are, by nature, far more ephemeral than the angry, spray-painted denunciations that have adorned walls and fences for months before the election.
Aba Preval, or Aba minista — down with both the current president and the Mission des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en Haiti, or Minustah for short. Most Haitians consider the UN mission to be just another American occupation of the country.
And then, unexpectedly, you stumble onto graffiti calling for the return of Haiti’s last dictator, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, who fled to France in 1986.
This might seem jarring. The Duvaliers, pére et fils, dominated Haiti for three decades, ruthless dictators who lavished obscene amounts of money on themselves while employing the gangsterish Tontons Macoutes to terrorize any opposition.
Yet as vicious as the Duvalier era could be, there was a species of fear-induced stability, a kind of solidarity among neighbours. And it’s largely the latter that Haitians wistfully remember when they talk of how the country has changed since 1986 — and they always mention the date.
“The older people still look with longing,” says Gerald Murray, an anthropologist who has been studying Haiti since the 1970s. “They look back on the Duvalier years when things were better.
“They don’t like the Tontons Macoutes, but there wasn’t the chaos and violence that there is now.”
Through the forgiving prism of time, pre-1986 Haiti just seems to them more serene, before the earthquake, before the vagaries of a riotous democracy for which Haitians were arguably unprepared.
“Right now, we are lost as a people,” maintains Michel Martelly, a.k.a. the kompas (folk) singer “Sweet Micky,” now a presidential candidate.
“We have lost our dignity, our pride, basic concepts like sharing, love, compassion,” he told a Montreal interviewer earlier this year. “We need to change our attitudes.”
It’s a recurring theme, this remembrance of a less-disputatious Haiti.
“Haiti was a different place and people took care of each other,” says Melissa Padberg, who runs the Villa Creole hotel started by her grandfather.
“Now it’s dog eat dog. It’s pervasive at all levels, all classes. It’s really unfortunate to see. For a culture to change in almost a generation, really, that has a huge impact.”
Padberg knows that, by Haitian standards, her family is impossibly rich, though by Canadian or American standards, perhaps less impressively so.
But she also recognizes that the course of Haiti’s recent history must change. “If we don’t prioritize eradicating severe poverty in this country,” she says, “we aren’t going to get anywhere.”
It won’t be easy. There will be disheartening, interim setbacks.
“Even the most pessimistic, skeptical person, we all think it can’t ever get worse, and of course it does, and we’re surprised,” says Padberg.
“But I couldn’t live here and not be hopeful that things will change.”
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