By Joseph Tsidulko
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He went inside again, and re-emerged a few minutes later, dancing this time, and singing, “Yo vole vol nou, yo vole vol nou .?.?.” (“They’re stealing our votes .?.?.”)
At last the President consented to be interviewed, and took a seat on a bench in the park across the street, his bodyguards hustling behind him. Within minutes, half the village had crowded around to watch. The President was cautious, almost conservative. He spoke of decentralizing Haiti’s government and reducing executive authority. “We will not have a president who is second to God,” he said. (Oh well — just two days before I had heard a resident of one of the poorest of Port-au-Prince’s slums pronounce, “First God, then Preval.”) He spoke of the importance of private investment, and of social programs for health and education. He begrudgingly and elliptically answered questions about the possibility of Aristide’s return from exile. (“The constitution says in Article 41.1 that no Haitians need a visa to leave our country or to come back.”) And he spoke, albeit briefly, about the election. “You see how the people voted? They waited four, five, six hours. It’s not because I’m handsome.” They didn’t vote for him, he said, but for themselves.
By late afternoon, a rumor had spread that 52 percent was correct, and that the President would be President again. Word had gone around in Port-au-Prince as well. Thousands filled the streets, marching from the lowland slums of Cite Soleil, Bel Air and Martissant up to Petionville in the hills above the city, all the way to the gates of the posh Hotel Montana, where the CEP held its daily press conferences. In Marmelade, the celebration was more modest. A few dozen revelers marched in circles around the park, beating drums and blowing through hand-tooled horns. Jugs of home-brewed clairin passed from hand to hand.
But the President was nervous. “It’s not true,” he told me in the park. “There’s news that I’m at 52 percent, but it’s not official.”
A full brass band waited on a stage set up in the middle of the park. The President sat before them, alone on a row of folding chairs. He looked anxious, almost stricken. The celebrations had come too soon. When his followers learned he had not officially won, their joy might turn to rage. At the same time, how could he accept results he felt were rigged? But if he didn’t accept them, his supporters might tear the country apart. The band tuned up. A crowd gathered behind him. Kids climbed trees for better views. The President sat and scratched his beard. He implored the conductor to hurry, pointing to the sky. “Rain,” he said.
The rain fell. The revelers celebrated long after the band had finished. They filled the square and all the streets around it. Everyone was dancing. Old men in ragged straw hats were dancing, and little girls with braided hair. Groups of boys danced arm in arm. Old peasant women stamped their feet and laughed. “Pas touche Preval,” they sang. “Wa brille! Wa brille!” (“Don’t touch Preval, or you’ll get burned! You’ll get burned!”)
The CEP held no press conference in Port-au-Prince that night. They couldn’t get through the crowds to the Hotel Montana.
ON MONDAY, THE COUNTRY SHUT DOWN. Tens of thousands filled the streets in Port-au-Prince. They pushed through the gates at the Montana, danced on the patio and swam in the pool. The airport closed. Barricades of rocks and logs, burning tires and the skeletons of cars blocked all major roads, inside the capital and out. A U.N. helicopter flew Preval to Port-au-Prince to meet with the heads of the interim government, the CEP and the U.N. delegation. I got lucky, and fell in with a caravan of Preval’s guards heading back from Marmelade. Roadblocks disappeared before us. Crowds poured out to cheer the convoy in every crumbling mud hut hamlet all the way back to Port-au-Prince. “Preval, the country is yours,” the people shouted. “Do what you want with it.”
Rain was pouring down when we reached the outskirts of the capital, and the streets had emptied out. Tires still burned in the gutters in the suburb of Tabarres, where a man was killed earlier in the day, shot in a confrontation with U.N. troops. We heard it on the radio coming in: 92 percent of the vote was in, and Preval had tumbled another notch to 48 percent.
The barricades went up again in the morning, manned by crowds of young men with quick tempers and hard stares. Before noon, Preval gave a press conference, claiming he had evidence of electoral fraud. Preval asked people to keep pressure on: “Demonstrate,” he said, “but demonstrate in peace.” He asked his supporters to take the roadblocks down, to hurt no one and destroy nothing. Within hours, traffic was moving again. Tires and blocks of concrete were stacked neatly on the curbs.
Word got out that evening that hundreds, perhaps thousands of ballots had been discovered in Truittier, a sprawling dump at the edge of town. Most were still there Wednesday morning, scattered among heaps of burning waste. I found ballots marked with a black X beneath Preval’s photograph. No one knew if they had already been counted, who had dumped them, or why. “People wanted this to be discovered,” the U.N. official speculated. People in the streets had little doubt about the meaning of the dumped ballots. Before the morning was over, thousands once again filled the square across from the National Palace.