By Steve Werlin
The Creole word for a demonstration is “manifestasyon”. It’s the word used to describe the times that people take to the streets to protest. They might be objecting to the murder of a popular figure or the high price of various commodities or the firing of a university official or the presence of U.N. peacekeepers. Monday evening, for example, crowds converged on a luxury hotel in Pétion-Ville called the Hotel Montana. It had been used as the headquarters both for the peacekeeping mission and the electoral council. Hotel management was intimidated enough to tell both the U.N. and the council to set up residence elsewhere.
Yesterday, I had to walk through one demonstration, and this morning demonstrators are in the street outside Frémy’s home in Dabòn, where I am as I write. The most striking thing, perhaps, about the two demonstrations is how similar they were. It’s surprising because the reasons for the two demonstrations, though they were both focused on the February 7th elections, were so different.
Since last Friday at least, Haitians have been anxiously awaiting the results of the elections. Voting went splendidly on Tuesday, with Haitians all over the country making great sacrifices so that they could participate in elections that were long overdue. I have written about how well they went in the corner of Lagonav where I spent election day – See: AnElectionAfterall – and as I returned to Pòtoprens on Saturday I learned that voting had gone just as well in other areas. The electoral council had said that results would take three days to tabulate.
From the start, though, it seemed clear that René Préval was certain of a large victory. He was president from 1995-2000, between the two interrupted terms of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Préval entered the election campaign relatively late in the game, and he didn’t do a lot of campaigning, but the sector of the population that had supported Aristide – the poor – got almost uniformly behind him. They are the large majority in Haiti, so if they vote and vote together, their candidate cannot fail to win. And they have been voting. Their candidates – whether Aristide or Préval – have won every successful election since the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986.
If Aristide was known for his enchanting rhetoric, for his extraordinary ability to put a dream into memorable words, Préval is known for straight, simple talk. When he did finally hit the campaign trail, his stump speech was the farthest thing from what you’d expect from a populist. He would ask large crowds to raise their hands if they were unemployed. In Haiti, where unemployment is said to be over 60%, hundreds or thousands would raise their hands and cheer. And then Préval would say: “Listen carefully to what I’m telling you: I cannot promise you I’ll create employment for you. That’s not what a government does. I will try to create a secure and stable country where the private sector can invest. They are the ones who can create jobs.” His seeming frankness appears to be part of what has made him popular.
The difference in style between Préval and Aristide is clear from the emblems each has chosen for the political alliances they’ve led. These emblems are important not only because they crystallize a message but also because many voters lack reading skills so that it is by the emblems they vote, especially for candidates below the presidency whose pictures they may not be able to identify. Aristide’s emblem is brilliant. It’s “bo tab la”, a picture of a small table with chairs. It means “a place at the table”, and it’s a clever way to suggest that Haiti’s poor want their share, too. Préval’s is much less sophisticated. It’s “lespwa”, or “hope”, and the picture that accompanies it is of a healthy, green leaf.
The only real question as the votes were being tabulated was not whether Préval had one, but whether he had won the absolute majority he would need to avoid a March 19th run-off with the second-place finisher. It would be a tough row to hoe, because with 34 candidates opposing him each would need to average only 1.5% of the vote to made a second ballot necessary. Even so, Préval’s margin of victory seemed certain to be large.
But on Friday, only very partial results were released. More were released Saturday and Sunday, with Préval hovering the weekend at around 50%, briefly climbing to 52% Saturday night before dropping to 49% and then 48% percent on Sunday. And then the counting stopped.
Accusations of fraud began to surface. Even within the electoral commission, statements were made by some members suggesting that other members were manipulating the count to ensure that a second ballot would be required. Those attempting to manipulate the vote might have hoped that, if they could just get the opposition to Préval down to one candidate, they might be able to beat him head-to-head.
On Monday, things started to heat up. Préval’s supporters took to the streets in Pòtoprens, fearing that the election was being stolen from them. Throughout the day, various leaders asked Préval to make a statement, telling his supporters to quiet down, but he declined, saying that he was not the master of the Haitian people and that he would need to consult with other members of his political organization before he could issue a statement.
That evening, his supporters demonstrated outside the Hotel Montana. He finally made a statement, saying that he and his colleagues believed there to have been inaccuracies and downright cheating in the counting of ballots, that he believed he had the absolute majority he needed to take office without a second ballot, and that he would make certain that his team very closely watched the final tabulation to ensure its accuracy.
Tuesday was very quiet. I had been in the countryside on Monday, but I had to spend Tuesday doing some work and running some errands in Pòtoprens. I got in and out of the city without any difficulty, except finding busses and trucks that were on the road. Apparently, Préval’s statement had convinced his supporters to wait and see.
But Tuesday evening news broke that ballot boxes and ballots had been discovered partially burned in an area north of Pòtoprens where trash is left. It’s not yet clear what the stuff was doing there, but fears of fraud became more urgent, and Wednesday Préval’s supporters shut down Pòtoprens by taking to the street.
Wednesday afternoon, I had to get from Fondwa, in the mountains between Léogane and Jacmel, to Darbonne, where I had work scheduled with Frémy on Thursday. The problem was, the route between Jacmel and Léogane was blanch, or empty. The trucks and busses that work it were nowhere to be seen. Eventually, I got a ride from a guy driving his own car across the mountains toward Tigwav. When we got to the base of the mountain road, at Kafou Difò, he would turn south and I would head north, but at least that would get me part of the way. In the worst case, I figured I could walk from there to Frémy’s in two or three hours.
I headed on foot towards Léogane, and that’s where I came across the first demonstration. Protesters had blocked the road – one of Haiti’s main highways – carrying posters and banners with pictures of Préval and his party’s emblem. They were dancing and singing. To say that they were peaceful doesn’t go nearly far enough. They were downright friendly, inviting me to join them, chatting with me as I made my hurried way. And it’s worth emphasizing this point because, especially for Haitians that don’t know me or what I am doing here, I can’t help but represent the same foreigners whom they believed to be complicit in the effort to steal the election from them.
They understood my hurry, and did not hinder me as I made my way. When I got sufficiently in front of them, I found a working tap-tap and made my way to Darbonne without further incident. I spent the night at Frémy’s. I heard news of the day’s protests in Pòtoprens, and they had been uniformly peaceful.
When I got up Thursday morning, I learned that Préval had been declared winner of the first ballot and given 51% of the vote. The official announcement was made in the middle of the night. I headed to downtown Darbonne as I always do first thing when I stay at Frémy’s, to drink coffee at Jaklèn’s. She’s a coffee merchant in the morning and serves beans and rice later in the day.
Heading to Jaklèn’s, which is at the tap-tap station in downtown Darbonne, I came across the second demonstration. The street was full of Préval fans, chanting his name and dancing. This time they weren’t protesting fraud, but celebrating his victory. The street party continued for a couple of hours.
I started to think about what someone who didn’t understand Creole and didn’t know what it was about might have made of it all. The two events resembled nothing more than celebrations. With Kanaval, or Mardi Gras, right around the corner, they could both have appeared to be warm-up parties, preparations for the main event.
Part of me thinks that the joyousness even in Wednesday’s protest reflected something fundamentally Haitian: the ability to be cheerful at moments of discontent. One of the ways that Haitians react when they hear about a misfortune, or see someone in pain, is by laughing. It has taken me some getting used to, but I’m beginning to see the wisdom in such acceptance.
But part of me thinks that something very different was at work this time. It was as though, even as they protested against what they believed to be fraud in the making, they knew that they would win out in the end.
The confidence they seem to have in Préval gives reason for optimism. If the powerful sectors in Haiti and abroad that oppose him can be convinced to accept his victory and work with him for the next five years, Haiti might finally begin to make the progress that his ally, Aristide, promised years ago: “From misery to poverty with dignity.”
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