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Haiti's Hope

Post-election pool party at Hotel Montana the day after protesters celebrated, welders reinforced the hotel gates. (AP Photo/Anders Leighton)

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

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.)

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.”

“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.

Just before the election, I had telephoned Charles Henri Baker, one of the few candidates deemed to have any chance of facing Préval in a runoff, should Préval fail to win a clear majority. Baker’s wife answered in English, and told me to come to their house the next day. But to tell the story of my meeting with Baker, I have to first tell the story of Lafanmi Selavi, because it was Marc and Gerard who guided me through the twisting streets of Port-au-Prince to Baker’s compound, and Marc and Gerard, now 20 and 19, were veterans of Lafanmi. Those are not their real names, but in Haiti, little things can catch up to you in unexpected ways. Suffice to say that Marc was as short and shy as Gerard was tall and extroverted, and, though not related, both were members of the same small, sad family. They were, without being overly dramatic, the abandoned children of Aristide.

Lafanmi Selavi (Creole for “the family is life”) was an orphanage opened by Aristide in 1986. Marc and Gerard’s parents were alive, but had been unable to care for them, and both arrived at Lafanmi in the early part of Préval’s first presidency. They worked at Radyo Timoun (Children’s Radio), a station set up by Aristide and run entirely by youth from the orphanage, who reported and broadcast everything that went on the air themselves.

In the beginning, Aristide dropped by Lafanmi all the time. He knew the kids by name, and they adored him. They would visit him at home and swim in his pool. He met with the kids who ran the radio station two times a week and called them often on the phone. His work with Lafanmi became a focal point of Aristide’s international support. Wealthy liberals from Canada and the States sent checks. But sometime in 1998, Aristide grew distracted. He came around less often, and turned the orphanage over to political appointees who didn’t care much for the kids. Conditions deteriorated. In 1999, the orphans staged a protest. Aristide had promised to find jobs for the older boys and hadn’t delivered. The boys shut down the radio station, blockaded the building and stopped traffic in the street. The police broke it up with tear gas and arrested more than a dozen kids.

Two months later, the shelter closed. “Aristide came one afternoon,” Gerard’s brother remembered. “It was raining.” He told the kids there had been a bomb threat. “It’s not safe to stay here,” he said. “We’ll stay in touch.” He didn’t. Lafanmi never reopened. Those who could lodged with friends or relatives. The rest went back to the streets.

The next year, they took the radio station away. Adults took over and turned the station into a propaganda machine for Lavalas. It was still called Radyo Timoun, but the kids were thrown out. When they tried to see Aristide at his office, aides chased them away. They talk about him now more with sadness than with anger, like children who’ve matured too fast, whose weak-willed parents have disappointed them one time too many. “He didn’t need us anymore,” Gerard’s brother told me and shook his head in silence.

Many graduates of Lafanmi were killed by the police after the 2004 coup. Some are living in the streets. Marc and Gerard and the others I met were still as close as a family. They were among the few Haitians I spoke to who did not join in the general enthusiasm for the elections. “The system is corrupt, and once you get in it, same virus,” one explained.

“I don’t believe in leaders,” Marc told me the first day we met, not in elections or government, only in something vague and beautiful, which he called revolution.

It took two tap-taps to get to Baker’s compound. Tap-taps are Haiti’s closest thing to public transport — wildly painted pickup trucks with narrow benches welded along the beds. We climbed off the first one, crawling over the knees of the other passengers. I followed Marc and Gerard through a market crammed with people, everyone and everything in motion, women hawking batteries and plastic razors, coffee and sugar wrapped in teaspoon-size portions, a few stunted carrots or bruised mangoes. We hopped another tap-tap and got off at the end of the unpaved road that leads to Baker’s home.

Every house on the block hid behind high walls, but the razor wire set Baker’s apart, as did the sandbags, the guard on the roof, and the man at the gate with a shotgun. More guards waited inside, where light-skinned women who spoke perfect English bustled purposefully about. After five minutes, Baker emerged from behind a closed door and beckoned me into his office. Marc and Gerard sat at my side, wearing jeans and black knit caps embossed with the bereted image of Che Guevara.

Baker is a tall man with straight, white hair and a skin tone that would not look out of place at a Rotary Club luncheon in Maine. He was one of the more vocal leaders of the Group of 184, the coalition of opposition groups that helped push Aristide from power. He owns a factory not far from Cité Soleil that sews uniforms for American nurses. Baker represents what has, for better or worse, been the only functioning sector of the Haitian economy in recent years besides cocaine trafficking. In large part due to U.S. economic policies, Haiti now imports 58 percent of its foodstuffs and virtually all of its consumer goods. What industry there is produces nothing: Raw materials are shipped in, assembled in Haiti and shipped back out. Haiti’s sole marketable asset is its poverty. Labor costs are cheaper here than anywhere else in the hemisphere. The minimum wage is less than $2 a day, and even that is rarely paid. Baker represents the tiny slice of Haitian society that has profited from this arrangement.

But profits are down. Five of the Baker family factories have been burned in the last two years, and the one that remains employs less than half the people it once did. Foreign companies do not want to take the risk of doing business in Haiti, and the focus of Baker’s candidacy has been to lure them back. His campaign slogan, plastered on walls all over town, consists of three austere words: order, discipline and work. The security situation, Baker told me, would be his first priority. The only solution, he said, was “overwhelming force.”

On the wall behind Baker’s desk hung two crossed sabers and a Haitian flag tacked upside down to symbolize the nation’s disarray. It was the day before the election, and I asked Baker how, if elected, he planned to bridge Haiti’s staggering class divide. He answered with another question: “Is there really a class divide in Haiti, or is that a figment of the imagination of the international community?”

I tried again. Did he fear, I asked, that as a wealthy, light-skinned man he would have difficulty convincing the masses of Haiti’s poor, whom he did not resemble in the slightest, that he had their best interests in mind?

Baker turned first to Gerard and then to Marc. He addressed them in Creole, and asked whom they planned to vote for. Discomfited at being spoken to, both answered with shy defiance, telling him in turn that they were revolutionaries and did not plan to vote for anyone. Perhaps Baker had expected them to defer to his authority with a humble “You, Mr. Baker,” but if he had, his face registered no disappointment. Instead he muttered something in Creole about how Americans should arrive in cars, and not with dust on their shoes. Then he turned to me and, in English again, at last returned to my question about his perceived inability to win the trust of the masses. “I don’t have that problem,” he said.

Outside, as soon as the gate clanked shut behind us, Marc and Gerard doubled over, laughing. “Baker is shit,” Marc sighed between guffaws. They high-fived each other, and high-fived me, and then led me back down the dusty road to the corner, to flag another tap-tap.

Three days after the election, I spoke to a U.N. official involved in monitoring the vote. He was furious. “The CEP is partisan, completely partisan.” More than 60 percent of the ballots he had seen, he said, were for Préval, but the CEP had “tried every possible dirty trick” to stall and skew the process. “We’re not going to let them fuck this up,” he insisted.

At the Montana that night, the CEP released more figures. They had tabulated about half the votes. Préval had fallen to just above the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff. By a strange quirk of Haitian electoral law, blank ballots would be counted as part of the total, which set the bar still higher for Préval. At that point, more ballots had been left blank than had been cast for all but four of the 34 candidates.

“You know how Haiti is,” one council member explained. “There are a lot of people who really don’t have the capacity to vote.”

René Préval had been silent all week. Just before the election, his campaign duties accomplished, he retreated to his home in the small northern town of Marmelade, a six-hour drive from the capital. He would not return to Port-au-Prince, his advisers said, until the final results had been announced.

I caught a ride to Préval’s hometown with two journalist friends working for a Venezuelan television network. Nestled high in the mountains, Marmelade is a lovely place. Just one ridge over, the hills are brown and barren, but around Marmelade, the peaks are almost lush. After Préval’s first presidency, from 1996 to 2001, he did something almost unheard-of: He left politics. Préval returned to Marmelade and concentrated his energy on developing his hometown. He persuaded the Cubans to send doctors and teachers for a clinic and a music school, and the Taiwanese to sponsor an agricultural cooperative that grows citrus, coffee and bamboo. The surrounding villages are muddy clusters of crumbling huts, but Marmelade’s streets are cobbled. There’s even a solar-powered computer center and a park with a gazebo and electric lamps that come on at night.

We waited for several hours at the edge of that park and watched the bats skip and dive in the lamplight until Bob Manuel, Préval’s campaign manager, invited us into the candidate’s modest white stucco house. The news from Port-au-Prince was bad. The CEP had released the latest figures. Préval had slipped below 50 percent. Thousands of protesters had filled the streets around the National Palace. Even if the CEP’s tally was clean, their method of releasing information — drop by drop and with Préval’s lead leaking steadily away — could not have been better calculated to breed suspicion. But inside, Préval seemed relaxed, almost amused. He sat in a rocking chair beneath a bare fluorescent bulb. He scratched his beard and smiled. “Forty-nine percent,” he said, “did you hear?”

By morning, Préval’s mood had shifted. The bodyguards and hangers-on outside Préval’s home passed a sheet of paper between them. It was a printout from the CEP Web site listing two conflicting figures: the 49 percent announced the night before and a pie graph that gave him a 52 percent slice of the vote. Préval appeared on the porch every half-hour or so. He listened to the men argue about the significance of the discrepancy, and went inside without a word. He re-appeared, shaking his head. “It’s not that they don’t know how to do the numbers,” he said. “They’re cheating badly.”

When he next appeared, he was dancing, but there was no smile on his face. “Yo vole vol nou,” he sang (“They’re stealing our votes”), circled the patio and pranced back inside his home.

Late that morning, Préval gave an impromptu press conference on a park bench across the street. A good portion of the village gathered around the few journalists in town. Préval was tense and impatient, and after about 20 minutes, he stood and ended the interview as suddenly as he’d begun it, with a terse “Okay, thank you very much.” But until that moment, he spoke in two distinct registers. The first was abstract and political. It was reasonably polished, calculated to offend no one. It appeared to bore him. In that key, he spoke of the importance of “creating an atmosphere for private investment,” of decentralizing the Haitian government as mandated by the largely unimplemented constitutional reform of 1987, of developing a functioning educational system, investing in health care and agriculture, and eliminating corruption. He said nothing that might cause a World Bank official’s gray heart to flutter.

It was when Préval spoke in metaphor that his voice came alive. I asked him the question I had asked Baker, what he planned to do about the gulf between the classes. He answered very differently. His response was allegorical and anything but concrete, but it nonetheless communicated more than anything else he’d said, and it clearly gave him pleasure to speak without recourse to technocratic vagaries. Préval had someone fetch a Coke bottle. “Look,” he said, pointing first to the wide base of the bottle and then to its narrow mouth, “this is larger than this. This is tiny.” He balanced the bottle by the narrow end. It wobbled in his palm. “If you put it like that, instability.” He turned the bottle over. “If you put it like that, stability. Because the economic power is here,” he said, indicating the base again, “but,” he pointed to the mouth once more, “the political power is here.”

Préval balanced the bottle wrong side up once more. “The country is upside down now.” He let the bottle topple, caught it and, with a gap-toothed smile, stood it on its base again. “You understand.”

In the end, though he had said he wouldn’t, Préval spoke about the election. “My job was to go and campaign,” he said. “Now it’s up to the CEP to give the results. They just gave two results, a graph with 52 percent, and the figure 49 percent. There is a problem now. If I see the 52 percent, I will claim victory. If the people see the 52 percent, they will claim victory.”

The danger, he implied, was not just incompetence or fraud. It was the peril of letting the people in the streets believe they had triumphed, and then trying to yank their victory away.

By evening it was already too late. The word was out that Préval had won. Carnival was still two weeks away, but it started early in Marmelade. Rara bands marched around the plaza, drumming and blowing long, hand-tooled horns. The villagers filled the streets, drinking and dancing. Préval was the only one not celebrating. Flanked by bodyguards, he paced in the rain outside his house, anxious and slightly stooped, conferring with Bob Manuel.

In Port-au-Prince, thousands marched up the hill to the Hotel Montana. They stopped at the gates that day, and went no farther. But the ritual CEP announcement of Préval’s dwindling count did not occur that night. The council members couldn’t get past the crowds.

My friends and I left Marmelade at 3 the next morning, hoping to get back to the capital before it all blew up. We didn’t get far. The car broke down at the edge of Gonaives, a desolate city a few hours north of Port-au-Prince. The deforestation is so severe in the surrounding countryside that Gonaives feels less like the Caribbean than a strange outpost in a post-apocalyptic Arizona. Hot, sandy winds blew through the rutted streets. We flagged down scooter taxis for a ride to the bus depot and bought tickets to the capital. But after waiting for 20 minutes in the back of an old converted American school bus, it became clear that we wouldn’t be going anywhere. The radio had reported shooting in Port-au-Prince, and none of the drivers was willing to risk the trip.

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.”

Later that day, I saw more recovered ballots fluttering among the angry faces of the thousands who had gathered in the Champ de Mars, across from the National Palace. They had become a symbol of the word that had been on Haitians’ lips all week: magouy, fraud. Whatever the motivations of whoever dumped the ballots — and the possibilities are legion — their discovery made two things clear. First, even a final, complete count would resolve nothing: Too many ballots had been lost, and no one trusted the people counting them. The solution would have to be political. And second, the peace could not last much longer.

At about 11 o’clock, Préval met with the CEP and several ministers from the interim government. He reportedly made the case to them that if the blank votes were discounted, he had clearly won a majority. Then the CEP talked it over for the next 15 hours. Early the next morning, they announced their solution. It was tidy enough: Electoral law required that the blank ballots be counted. They would be, but they would be divided proportionately between the candidates according to the percentage of marked ballots they had won. Baker finished with about 8 percent, Leslie Manigat with 12. Most of the others had less than 1 percent. Préval had 51. You could feel the relief in the streets the next morning. People were smiling. They seemed to move with more ease and fluidity than they had the day before, as if they had shrugged off a few layers of old and calloused skin. It was over.

It was also just beginning. Haiti was no richer than it had been the day before. Eighty percent of its population was still living on less than $2 a day. That, of course, means hunger, constant and gnawing, but also no money for electricity or even water, no medical care and no chance at education. It means a life without options. Half the population was still malnourished, half still illiterate, and more than one in 20 infected with HIV. Too many had quicker access to guns than to newspapers. But for the first time in a decade, many Haitians could taste hope.

Life went on. Préval fell silent again. Leslie Manigat held a press conference behind the walls of his lushly landscaped compound. In wildly over-enunciated French, he called the CEP’s decision an “electoral coup,” a “Machiavellian comedy” and a “tragedy for the Haitian people.” Within a few breaths, the aging professor compared those same Haitian people to a dog that returns to its vomit. Baker huffed and puffed as well and, like Manigat, accused Préval of profiting from the threat of violence in the streets. They seemed genuinely disturbed that the demands of the majority had been allowed to influence the democratic process. But it was all just noise. No one was listening anymore.

A U.N. spokesman confided to me that there was absolutely no possibility that the runoff election for parliamentary seats would occur on schedule. (“Delays in this country tend to aggravate people,” he said, laughing nervously.) American Airlines, which had canceled flights to Port-au-Prince for more than a week, resumed flying. Jacques Bernard read the writing on the walls (literally: His name was graffitied all over town, usually preceded by aba, Creole for “down with”) and fled to the United States.

He returned 15 days later and demanded that his enemies be purged from the CEP, which spent weeks floating dates for the runoff. They eventually agreed on April 21. Préval’s inauguration receded into the distant future.

Traffic clogged the streets again. The schools reopened. Marc and Gerard returned to their studies. Despite their ages, they have two years left before they finish the equivalent of high school. Neither would admit to any newfound faith in the political system, but they seemed to smile a little more freely. Education, Marc told me, education and love were the only answers. He was crashing on a friend’s sofa, and I would see him there every night, falling asleep sitting up, his books spread open on the couch around him.


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