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
Within a few hours, the car was running again. But our progress was slow. The main roads were all blocked. The country had been brought to a stop. Angry young men manned barricades composed of stones, tree trunks, burning tires and the remains of ancient cars. U.N. troops had cleared the roads near the center of town, but at the outskirts, the barricades were standing. We talked our way through some and bribed our way past others. We took a long detour through the back roads and made it clear into the plains south of Gonaives. But in L’Esterre, the next town of any size, the road was blocked every 100 yards. A man named Joel who appeared to have some local clout guided us past the first few. We skirted several others on our own, but finally stopped at a wall of tractor-trailers. The crowd at the barricades was angry, and didn’t like us much. They wouldn’t let us pass. For a little while, they wouldn’t let us back out either. Only Joel’s intervention got us out. We had no choice but to head back for Gonaives. It was at about that time that we heard via cell phone that protesters in the capital had breached the gates of the Montana and were celebrating in the hotel pool.
Driving in silence back toward Gonaives, we got extremely lucky. We came across a caravan of eight SUVs parked on the side of the road. One had blown a tire. In their windows were drawings of a three-leaved branch, the symbol of Lespwa (“hope” in Creole), Préval’s political party. It was Préval’s security detail, heading for Port-au-Prince. A U.N. helicopter had flown their boss to the capital that morning to meet with the interim government and the leader of the U.N. delegation. Only Préval, it was clear, could keep the country from exploding.
We asked Préval’s head of security, whom we recognized from Marmelade, if we could join the caravan. He assented, and we struggled to keep up as the trucks sped down the rutted highway. In L’Esterre, in St. Marc, in Cabaret, in every town and clutch of leaning huts along the way, crowds poured out to greet us, dancing, cheering, singing Préval’s praises and literally jumping with joy. The barricades disappeared in our path. We heard the news on the radio on the outskirts of the capital: 92 percent of the ballots had been counted. Préval had slipped again, to 48 percent.
The next day was a roller coaster. In the morning, the roadblocks were up, the crowds as angry as I’d seen them. Standing at a barricade on Delmas, one of the major thoroughfares through Port-au-Prince, I asked a man named Junior what he thought would happen if the final count did not give Préval a win. “Oh, shit,” he answered in English, shaking his head, his eyes widening at the thought. “This country going to be on fire.”
A few hours later, the tension dropped. Préval gave a press conference. Every ear in Port-au-Prince was glued to a radio. “We believe we have evidence of gross errors and massive fraud,” Préval said. He asked his followers to dismantle the barricades and let traffic pass, but not to give up the streets: “Demonstrate, but demonstrate in peace.” Préval’s one asset was his support in the streets. He had played his cards skillfully and kept the pressure on. The barricades came down.
The reprieve was short-lived. That evening, word got around that ballot boxes had been discovered in a dump at the edge of town. By morning, when I drove over to check it out, the roadblocks were up. Tires were smoking in the streets again. The dump was in an area called Truittier. It sprawled for acres at the edge of a grove of banana trees not far from Titanyen, the lowland flats used as clandestine burial grounds by death squads since the days of Duvalier. The air was sharp with black, acrid smoke. Pigs and goats rooted through endless heaps of burning trash. A crowd had gathered around the ballots — wide sheets of newsprint stamped with photos of all the candidates. Thousands of them littered the ground. Crude black X’s had been marked beneath Préval’s face on most of the presidential ballots. A dump employee told me the ballots had been hauled in by the truckload the day after the election. When the scavengers who live around the dump approached to inspect the ballots, she said, the truck drivers beat them and told them to stay away and let the ballots burn.
They hadn’t burned, though. Some were singed, but only casually so, through contact with the perpetually smoldering trash. And though it had poured for two of the previous three nights, the ballots were barely damp. It was hard not to suspect that they had not been dumped, but planted to provoke a conflagration. And it looked like it might work. As I was leaving, a crowd of scavengers began marching out of the dump, waving tattered ballots in the air and chanting Préval’s name. “We were looking for you,” they sang, “and we have been delivered.”