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Silent Streets 

Haiti takes a break from the violence and votes

Wednesday, Feb 8 2006
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PORT AU PRINCE — In the week before Haiti’s first election in six years, the capital was eerily calm. The violence that had racked the city for months suddenly ebbed. Parts of town that had for months been off-limits to outsiders were safe. Caravans of pickup trucks blaring campaign slogans jammed the streets. Posters covered almost every wall in the city, displaying the names and images of the 33 men and one woman vying for the presidency as well as 129 parliament seats. The most popular among them was René García Préval, who has inherited the affection of Haiti’s poor — a formidable force in the most impoverished country in the hemisphere — from deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, toppled two years ago by a U.S.-supported coup. Préval served as president from 1996 to 2001 and holds the distinction of being the only elected president in Haitian history to finish a full term.

Préval’s gray-bearded image shares the walls with a bizarre and varied cast, including the smoothly handsome Guy Philippe, who led the 2004 putsch that overthrew Aristide (more than 1,000 are estimated to have died in the months that followed); the wealthy industrialist Charles Henry Baker; Hubert de Ronceray, who served as a minister under Jean-Claude Duvalier; Franck Romain, the former head of Duvalier’s presidential guard, who is widely held responsible for a massacre of voters in the aborted 1988 election; Leslie Manigat, who served as a military-installed president for a few brief months thereafter; Marc Bazin, a onetime World Bank official who served as prime minister after the 1991 coup that ended Aristide’s first presidency; and Dany Toussaint, a former police chief who has been fingered by the DEA as a major drug smuggler.

The week’s placidity was unexpected. From November to January, more than 100 gunshot victims were admitted each month to the trauma center at St. Joseph’s Hospital, one of two hospitals in the capital run by Doctors Without Borders. But in the week and a half before the election, a spokesman for the organization said, “We haven’t seen a single one.

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“We like that,” he added. “But we’re not sure it’s peace that’s descended on the city.”

Kidnappings, endemic for months, ceased entirely. Gang leaders in Cité Soleil — a miserably poor neighborhood of a quarter-million and the site of repeated gun battles between U.N. troops and residents loyal to Aristide — had reportedly called a truce, imposing an election-week moratorium on kidnappings and bloodshed. “The violence has to be ended,” said gang leader Ti Blanc on Sunday at a Préval rally in the bullet-scarred Boston neighborhood of Cité Soleil. “That’s done with. We all have to sit down together.”

Just months ago, large segments of the population remained cynical about the elections. The vote was canceled and postponed four times. Hundreds of activists in Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party remain jailed without trial, and police have repeatedly opened fire on pro-Lavalas demonstrations. No polling places were to be located within the boundaries of Cité Soleil. In some sections of the countryside, peasants would have to travel as much as 50 kilometers — on foot or by mule — to cast their votes. But the climate changed. “Now there is a will to vote that is palpable,” said former Aristide Defense Minister Patrick Elie, who months before had dismissed the process as irreparably corrupt. “This is one reason why I am anguished,” Elie confided. “If this will to vote is frustrated, I really don’t know what might happen.”

DESPITE IT ALL, THE VOTE went off with extraordinary calm. By late Tuesday, the only reported death directly attributable to the election was a casualty of enthusiasm: an elderly man asphyxiated when the crowd around him tried to push their way into a polling station. All around the city, Haitians poured from their homes. Lines began forming before the sun had risen. Asked what they hoped for from the elections, most answered unanimously: change. They wanted less violence. They wanted jobs in a country where 76 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day, food in a country where nearly half the population suffers from malnourishment, education in a country where half the population is illiterate, electricity in a country that falls into obscurity every evening at dusk.

On the outskirts of Cité Soleil, voters were more concise: They wanted Préval. At a polling place near SONAPI industrial park, the line stretched nearly a quarter-mile, and doubled back the same distance. The polls, scheduled to open at 6 a.m., were still shuttered two hours later. “I’m going to vote,” a young man who identified himself only as Wisler enthused. “Nobody’s going to stop me, whether it’s at 8 or 10 o’clock at night, I don’t care. There’s no other choice. The majority, who can’t eat, who have nowhere to sleep, who can’t pay the fees to go to school, we’re going to vote for Préval.”

A man with a scarred face and a huge smile who introduced himself as Wilbur stood stuck in the crush at the gates to the polls. He grabbed at a branch of bougainvillea, one of the few plants in sight in this dusty, trash-strewn part of town, and fingered its delicate flowers. “This is Préval,” Wilbur said, and grinned.

Not far away, in a barren stretch of Cité Militaire, at least 1,000 would-be voters who’d been turned away at the polls took to the streets, singing Préval’s name. They waved branches and held their voting cards high above their heads, racing past masked squads of policemen in black uniforms and past blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers pointing their rifles warily from atop armored cars. “Yo pa fe eleksyon!” yelled an old woman, jumping in rage (“They’re not doing the election!”). If the people’s will did not prevail, a young man hollered, “Haiti will burn! All of Haiti will burn!”

Just a few hours later, all was tranquil. The polls opened and the crowds dispersed. The police sat lazily on the curbs, their guns at their sides. Vendors sold fried plantains and plastic bags of water to people still waiting to vote. Those who had already voted filed out, their thumbs marked with purple ink.

They would have to be patient for a few days longer, it turned out. By midday Wednesday, local election results had been posted on polling-station doors. Préval took 93 percent of the vote at one location on the edge of Cité Soleil, and 70 percent in the affluent suburb of Petionville. But Jacques Bernard, the executive director of the Provisional Electoral Council, was unwilling to project a winner at a press conference Wednesday evening, promising only that “interesting statistics” would be released by Saturday afternoon. “I believe that this election will be a faithful representation of the will of the Haitian people,” he said. One can only hope.

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