By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“I cannot talk of the leadership without saying we. I was part of it.” He blew out a long, smoky sigh. “You start playing the game and you forget what you got in it for. I must say that we were also under siege. It’s no excuse, but we’ve been under siege, man, from the very day, and we fell for it.”
The siege was intense: a military coup in 1991 followed by the systematic murder of Aristide supporters throughout the early ’90s by the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), a U.S.-sponsored paramilitary group. After Aristide’s return, it took on subtler forms: unending pressure from the World Bank and international lending institutions to open up Haitian markets, privatize the national industries, slash the public sector. Aristide, and after him Préval, obliged the banks in many respects but resisted in a few. The banks responded brutally: Loan disbursements were cut off entirely in 1995 and again in 2001. That year, the United States blocked more than $470 million in funds from the Inter-American Development Bank, which then perversely demanded that Aristide’s government make payments on loans it had not received. As the banks strangled Haiti economically, the U.S. applied the political squeeze. Under the guise of democracy building, groups like the International Republican Institute funded, encouraged and advised Lavalas opponents of all stripes, and spurred them toward a political confrontation. (The result, post-coup, is a painfully fragmented political class: 34 candidates on the presidential ballot, more than 100 parties on the scene, almost all lacking any popular legitimacy.)
The trap was set, and, as Elie put it, they fell for it. The movement grew defensive, repressive and corrupt. “Fanmi Lavalas became a power machine,” he said. “Many of its members were behaving in a traditional Haitian way, vying for power, vying for money. It was the exact opposite of what we started out to be.”
That failure, and the disillusion that came with it, help to explain the despair that has clouded the last two years. Many people’s hopes had dimmed long before Lavalas crumbled. After the 2004 coup, said Elie, who had begun lighting his cigarettes end from end, “it was like the whole country went into depression.”
This time last year, Elie was encouraging people to boycott the election, to protest a system rigged against them. Few needed the encouragement. But when the vote got closer, “people started going in throngs to register. There was a new dance that the Haitian people were dancing. Now there is a will to vote that is palpable.” Elie smiled, and crumpled his empty pack in his palm. “This is one reason why I’m anguished. If this will to vote is frustrated, I really don’t know what might happen.”
After the election, I caught a ride to the downtown slum of Bel Air. Electoral law required each local polling place to post its individual results on the door, and I wanted to take a look. Compared to the shantytowns of Cité Soleil or La Saline, Bel Air was almost pretty. There were a few trees here and there, and dusty bougainvillea spilled over the walls. Just down the hill, you could see the bay, and to the south, the white-domed National Palace. A woman fried plantains and chicken over a charcoal brazier. Bone-thin dogs limped through the trash in the gutters.
Polling took place at the school on the corner, a low building stuccoed a dingy turquoise. I met Lyonel Barthelemy in the doorway of the school. Like most young men in the neighborhood, he had been unemployed for the last two years. Barthelemy had worked for Teleco, the national telephone company, but lost his job after Aristide’s overthrow. (The interim government quickly purged the state-owned enterprises of Lavalas supporters, firing thousands in the months after the coup.) Barthelemy pointed to a rubble-strewn lot on the corner. Until last year, a house had stood there, he said, but the owner had been involved with Lavalas, and the police burned it down. He took me around the block and showed me the charred remains of another home. The police again, he said. They arrested everyone who had lived there. And he pointed down another street, Rue Montalais, where police had gathered 11 young men, all suspected of ties to Lavalas. The policemen made them lie on the ground side by side, then shot them one by one.
The sheets taped to each door along the school’s one dank hallway gave the totals for that room’s polling table. The results were not surprising. On the first, Préval had 194 votes. All the other candidates combined had 17. The tallies from the other rooms were much the same.
“I love Préval,” Barthelemy grinned. “All the people love him. He’s the only hope.”
That night, the CEP gave another press conference. “The process is moving along rather quickly,” said Jacques Bernard. About 10 percent of the ballots had been counted. But the CEP announced the results only in French, which the vast majority of Haitians do not understand. (Metaphors in Haiti tend to be unsubtle: The rich and poor in Haiti literally speak different languages. The elite speak French, the masses only Creole.) And they refused to give national totals, releasing results region by region. Journalists quickly did the math. Préval had 61.5 percent of the vote.