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Haiti's Hope 

A tortured country searches for a future

Wednesday, Apr 12 2006
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The older people say that dèyè mòn gen mòn?; beyond the mountains there are also other cities. Those cities are fading. Those mountains are fading too, because the soil is no longer rich and they expose their stony bones, bleached by wind and storm, to the sun. Beyond these scorched mountains, there are our cities eaten up by termites, our blackened cities, our cities with dirty, laughing kids running around, carrying new cities in their arms and new hope in their eyes.

General Sun, My Brother

by Jacques Stephen Alexis

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The view from the Panorama Bar at the Hotel Montana is magnificent. The hotel sits high in the hills above the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. Beyond the city to the west stretches the endless blue of the Caribbean Sea. If your stomach is full and you’re bored with the pool, you can stand here on the patio, drink in hand, and gaze down at the world arrayed beneath you, at the beige sprawl of low cinder-block buildings, rusting metal roofs and dusty, unpaved streets. You can see the airport with its single runway, the port and the docks, now all but still. And though in any sense other than the crudely cartographic, Jupiter could not be farther away, you can even make out Cité Soleil, the most emblematic of Port-au-Prince’s slums. But from this distance you cannot see the burned-out ruins of Cité Soleil’s police station, or the bullet holes beneath a kindergarten’s windows. You can’t see the alleys of tumbling shacks with patchwork walls constructed not of sheet metal but of tiny, jagged metal scraps. You can’t see the listless, naked children, guts swollen with hunger. You can’t feel their patchy hair. And when the sun sets gloriously into the sea, most of the city below falls into utter blackness and you cannot see Cité Soleil at all.

This distance — and the proximity it masks — is the key that unlocks most of Haiti’s tortured contradictions. But one afternoon in mid-February, six days after Haiti’s first election since the 2004 overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the distance between Cité Soleil and the Hotel Montana briefly disappeared. In the public eye, the Montana had become the symbol of the country’s Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire, or CEP), which was charged with organizing and counting the vote, and which used the hotel as its press center. For a week, journalists, diplomats and politicians traded gossip at the restaurant, at the bar, in the many quiet lounges. The vote count was not going well. Then, the day before Valentine’s Day, thousands of men and women, who would otherwise not have been allowed past the hotel gates, marched from the capital’s lowland slums up the winding Rue John Brown. They marched up the Montana’s long, steep driveway and pushed past the blue-helmeted Guatemalan soldiers assigned by the U.N. to guard the gates. The crowd flowed into the lobby, the poolside patio, the terraced lounges. The hotel staff hid the food and locked away the booze. But despite all the anger that privation breeds, the protesters hurt no one and destroyed nothing. Instead they laughed and sang. They danced on the patio. They frolicked in the pool. They let a few hours pass, and then walked home.

I wasn’t there that afternoon. I was stuck at a roadblock a few hours to the north in a town called L’Esterre. But late that night I made it back to Port-au-Prince, and I dropped by the Montana the next day. By the time I got there, welders were busily reinforcing the gates, gardeners trimming the trampled shrubs. The pool had been drained.

A week earlier, the night before the election, the Montana hosted a CEP press conference. A reporter asked Jacques Bernard, the council’s director general, what part of the process he feared might be most vulnerable to fraud. “I dream about that,” he answered. “I try to find out if there is a weak link in the system and . . . frankly I can’t find any. I don’t see how anybody could possibly, possibly commit fraud in this election.”

To many, it seemed a little late to hope for fairness. The last elected president, Aristide, had been pushed out in what journalist Amy Wilentz has called “a slow-cooked coup.” Since the spring of 2004, Haiti had been governed, to the extent that it was governed at all, by a president and prime minister installed (albeit indirectly) by the U.S. government and propped up by 9,000 U.N. troops. More than a thousand people had been killed. The economy, never brisk, had ground to a standstill. Elections originally scheduled for autumn had already been canceled and postponed four times. No polling places were planned inside Cité Soleil, home to as many as 300,000. The man initially considered most likely to win — Aristide protégé Father Gérard Jean-Juste, beloved of Haiti’s poor — had, like hundreds of others with links to the deposed president, been in jail for months on trumped-up charges. (Most of the charges have since been dropped, and Jean-Juste released, but not until long after he had been barred from running on the grounds that he had failed to register his candidacy with the CEP in person.)

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