By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
René Garcia Préval, who served as president between Aristide’s two interrupted terms, replaced Jean-Juste as the favorite, but the full list of candidates suggested anything other than a healthy democracy. A motley cast of 34 crowded the ballot, most of them either bloodstained or irrelevant. Lining up behind Préval were Leslie Manigat, the aging historian who, in 1988, had been installed as president by the same military junta that tossed him out a few short months later; the sweatshop owner Charles Henri Baker; Guy Philippe, the former police official who led the 2004 coup; the fearsomely named Himmler Rebu, architect of yet another coup; two onetime Duvalier ministers; a Baptist preacher; and the former chief of Duvalier’s murderous presidential guard. As late as last fall, the elections felt to many Haitians like a sham, an empty ritual rigged in advance by a political class that had lost even the pretense of credibility. It seemed an easy setup for another Bush-approved exercise in democracy building: Stage a vote and declare all wounds healed, all responsibilities absolved.
But something happened. Against long historical odds, Haitians let themselves hope that a new government might bring lasting change. In the months leading up to the election, momentum began to build. Gang leaders in Cité Soleil, who had been battling U.N. forces and waging a war of social banditry against the Haitian elite, unilaterally declared a truce. They did not want violence to interfere with the election. The kidnappings stopped almost entirely, the shootings too. Port-au-Prince, which had been shrouded in fear and despair for years, was suddenly and strangely safe.
On election day, the 7th, the city buzzed with hope. Lines began forming in front of polling stations before sunrise. By 6, when the polls were scheduled to open, they stretched for blocks. Few opened on time. Convinced that they had been robbed of their opportunity to vote, thousands waiting at polls on the outskirts of Cité Soleil took to the streets and marched on the National Palace. It is misleading to call them marches and equate them with our own desultory spectacles of protest: They were eruptions. Haitians ran through the streets, waving torn-off branches in the air. They sang Préval’s name, and rained curses on the interim government. They screamed with rage and danced with joy. This was a people roused from slumber, suddenly conscious of its power.
The polls eventually did open. Thousands waited for hours to vote in vast, stifling rooms, crammed shoulder to shoulder and belly to back. All day, of the dozens I spoke to, only four people admitted to having voted for anyone other than Préval.
“They have said this is the last-chance election. It truly might be,” said Patrick Elie, tapping an unlit Marlboro against the table in front of him, his light eyes searching the bar for someone with a match. “Some days I think we are on the verge of the civil war that we have been avoiding and avoiding.” Behind Elie’s graying head, a painting illustrated the problem: A fat man in a suit and a wide-brimmed hat sat smoking a pipe and counting his money, while a skeletally thin dog panted at his feet.
Elie looked slightly out of place in the posh, velvet-padded confines of the bar, with his scraggly beard, Che Guevara tee, and sandals that kept slipping from his feet. He had served as defense minister during Aristide’s first presidency. He left the government in 1995, a year after Aristide returned a changed man from three years of exile in Washington. It was clear by then, Elie said, that the dream had broken down. But when he spoke about the early days, Elie’s face lit up. “The first Aristide campaign [in 1990] was done with nothing. Aristide was running around the country in my car, in a borrowed car. His security at the time was me with a little .380 pistol. It was ridiculous, and still we swept the country. I don’t think I’ll ever see anything like it again.”
If in the United States Aristide is seen only in the most Manichaean terms — by the hard right as the devil incarnate and by the left as a twice-martyred divine — in those days, at least, he had a more credible claim to saintliness. He lived in voluntary penury. He preached fearlessly on behalf of the poor and powerless in a country where taking the Gospels seriously could be a capital offense. He was hated by the elite and loved with abandon by the poor. He seemed untouchable — bodies fell all around him, but his enemies could not scratch him. The movement he headed swelled like a force of nature. Hence its name, Lavalas, is Creole for “flood,” a word that carries a powerful immediacy on this hurricane-whipped island.
Elie would have been chain-smoking if only he had a match. He periodically leaped from his seat to beg a light in English, French or Creole, then sat again, puffing, briefly satisfied. After Duvalier’s fall, Elie continued, “We really had this feeling of coming together”: the economic elite, intellectuals, the poor. “But it was an illusion.”