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Waiting for Preval

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI — “I don’t see how anybody could possibly, possibly, commit fraud in this election.” So said Jacques Bernard, director general of Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP by its French initials) at a February 6 press conference the night before the first election since the 2004 overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Polling stations opened hours late, and were atrociously overcrowded and confused. Sixty-five polling stations were destroyed, but no significant violence marred the day. Haitians showed an overwhelming will to vote, and turned out in enormous numbers. That night, a U.N. official told me he hoped to complete the count by the next morning.

But the next morning passed in silence. The first announcement of partial results did not come until Thursday night, 48 hours after the polls had closed, with about 10 percent of the ballots counted. CEP officials released them by region, refusing journalists’ requests for national totals. “You can make that calculation yourself,” said council president Max Mathurin.

A few reporters did the math. The results reflected the sentiments on the street: 61.5 percent had voted for former president Rene Garcia Preval, beloved of Haiti’s poor. The figure forecasted victory in a field of 34 candidates, especially incredible since Preval had barely campaigned, had not lifted a rhetorical finger to combat his opponents, had refused to make any promises, and had dodged the press until a week before the vote. He was not even in the capital, but had retreated to his modest home in the tiny highland village of Marmelade.

By Friday morning, my source at the U.N. was fuming. “The CEP is partisan, completely partisan,” he said. “But we’re not going to let them fuck this up.” The ballots he was seeing, he said, were overwhelmingly for Preval — “clearly over 60 percent.”

That night, the CEP announced that about half the votes had been counted. Preval had dropped to just over the 50 percent he needed to avoid a runoff. (His closest competitor, Leslie Manigat, who briefly served as a military-installed president in the late 1980s, had at that point received only 11 percent.) The percentage of invalid votes was strangely high, just shy of 8 percent of the total. Complicating matters: The CEP counted ballots left blank as part of the total, further diluting Preval’s lead. “You know how Haiti is,” CEP President Mathurin quipped. “There are a lot of people who really don’t have the capacity to vote.”

PORT-AU-PRINCE HAD BEEN QUIET all week — tense with anticipation, but quiet. So Saturday morning I caught a ride up to Marmelade with a couple of friends, correspondents for Venezuela’s Telesur network. It’s a six-hour drive down ferociously potholed roads, unpaved most of the way. Preval’s face — gray-bearded and not quite smiling, looking as if he were waiting for you to speak first — gazed out from campaign posters on nearly every wall along Marmelade’s cobbled streets. The white stucco house that belongs to Preval (or, as he is known in Marmelade, the President) is a humble affair. It is not the largest house in Marmelade, or even on its block.

A few of the President’s bodyguards, large men with conspicuous bulges beneath their untucked shirts, stood around the house. Two Argentine soldiers in blue U.N. helmets guarded the corner. Children chased each other through the park across the street. A full moon hid behind the clouds. We got a call from Port-au-Prince: thousands had filled the streets and surrounded the National Palace. They pulled down the posters for all the candidates from the palace walls, leaving only Preval’s.

At last, Bob Manuel, Preval’s campaign manager, stepped out on the porch and beckoned us inside. The CEP had just released the latest figures. Preval had dropped to 49.7 percent. Inside, the President sat on a low bench, smiling, a phone at his ear. He wore Levi’s and a checked polo shirt, slip-ons with no socks. A bare fluorescent bulb lit the room.

The President hung up the phone and switched to a rocking chair. The phone rang. Bob Manuel answered it. The President crossed his legs, smiled and scratched slowly at his beard. Another phone rang. Manuel talked on both at once. The President laughed and gently stamped his feet, then listened. “Tell them to be calm,” he told Manuel.

He turned to us. “Forty-nine percent, did you hear?” He seemed amused. But the results were still partial, he pointed out. “All the areas we’re strongest they haven’t counted.”

The President asked how long we’d stay. We hadn’t decided. “Stay,” he said. “We’ll put on a concert for you tomorrow night.”

IN THE MORNING, AT THE EDGE of the President’s porch, a group of men argued over a printout of the most recent CEP results. The listed figures matched the previous night’s announcement, 49 percent. But the pie graph at the top of the page gave Preval 52 percent. The discrepancy proved something, everyone agreed, but no one knew quite what. At about 9:30 the President emerged. He unbuttoned his jeans, tucked in his shirt, buttoned again. He eavesdropped on the men’s argument and went back inside. An hour passed. The President came out again, shaking his head. “It’s not that they don’t know how to do the numbers,” he said. “They’re cheating badly.”

 

He went inside again, and re-emerged a few minutes later, dancing this time, and singing, “Yo vole vol nou, yo vole vol nou .?.?.” (“They’re stealing our votes .?.?.”)

At last the President consented to be interviewed, and took a seat on a bench in the park across the street, his bodyguards hustling behind him. Within minutes, half the village had crowded around to watch. The President was cautious, almost conservative. He spoke of decentralizing Haiti’s government and reducing executive authority. “We will not have a president who is second to God,” he said. (Oh well — just two days before I had heard a resident of one of the poorest of Port-au-Prince’s slums pronounce, “First God, then Preval.”) He spoke of the importance of private investment, and of social programs for health and education. He begrudgingly and elliptically answered questions about the possibility of Aristide’s return from exile. (“The constitution says in Article 41.1 that no Haitians need a visa to leave our country or to come back.”) And he spoke, albeit briefly, about the election. “You see how the people voted? They waited four, five, six hours. It’s not because I’m handsome.” They didn’t vote for him, he said, but for themselves.

By late afternoon, a rumor had spread that 52 percent was correct, and that the President would be President again. Word had gone around in Port-au-Prince as well. Thousands filled the streets, marching from the lowland slums of Cite Soleil, Bel Air and Martissant up to Petionville in the hills above the city, all the way to the gates of the posh Hotel Montana, where the CEP held its daily press conferences. In Marmelade, the celebration was more modest. A few dozen revelers marched in circles around the park, beating drums and blowing through hand-tooled horns. Jugs of home-brewed clairin passed from hand to hand.

But the President was nervous. “It’s not true,” he told me in the park. “There’s news that I’m at 52 percent, but it’s not official.”

A full brass band waited on a stage set up in the middle of the park. The President sat before them, alone on a row of folding chairs. He looked anxious, almost stricken. The celebrations had come too soon. When his followers learned he had not officially won, their joy might turn to rage. At the same time, how could he accept results he felt were rigged? But if he didn’t accept them, his supporters might tear the country apart. The band tuned up. A crowd gathered behind him. Kids climbed trees for better views. The President sat and scratched his beard. He implored the conductor to hurry, pointing to the sky. “Rain,” he said.

The rain fell. The revelers celebrated long after the band had finished. They filled the square and all the streets around it. Everyone was dancing. Old men in ragged straw hats were dancing, and little girls with braided hair. Groups of boys danced arm in arm. Old peasant women stamped their feet and laughed. “Pas touche Preval,” they sang. “Wa brille! Wa brille!” (“Don’t touch Preval, or you’ll get burned! You’ll get burned!”)

The CEP held no press conference in Port-au-Prince that night. They couldn’t get through the crowds to the Hotel Montana.

ON MONDAY, THE COUNTRY SHUT DOWN. Tens of thousands filled the streets in Port-au-Prince. They pushed through the gates at the Montana, danced on the patio and swam in the pool. The airport closed. Barricades of rocks and logs, burning tires and the skeletons of cars blocked all major roads, inside the capital and out. A U.N. helicopter flew Preval to Port-au-Prince to meet with the heads of the interim government, the CEP and the U.N. delegation. I got lucky, and fell in with a caravan of Preval’s guards heading back from Marmelade. Roadblocks disappeared before us. Crowds poured out to cheer the convoy in every crumbling mud hut hamlet all the way back to Port-au-Prince. “Preval, the country is yours,” the people shouted. “Do what you want with it.”

Rain was pouring down when we reached the outskirts of the capital, and the streets had emptied out. Tires still burned in the gutters in the suburb of Tabarres, where a man was killed earlier in the day, shot in a confrontation with U.N. troops. We heard it on the radio coming in: 92 percent of the vote was in, and Preval had tumbled another notch to 48 percent.

 

The barricades went up again in the morning, manned by crowds of young men with quick tempers and hard stares. Before noon, Preval gave a press conference, claiming he had evidence of electoral fraud. Preval asked people to keep pressure on: “Demonstrate,” he said, “but demonstrate in peace.” He asked his supporters to take the roadblocks down, to hurt no one and destroy nothing. Within hours, traffic was moving again. Tires and blocks of concrete were stacked neatly on the curbs.

Word got out that evening that hundreds, perhaps thousands of ballots had been discovered in Truittier, a sprawling dump at the edge of town. Most were still there Wednesday morning, scattered among heaps of burning waste. I found ballots marked with a black X beneath Preval’s photograph. No one knew if they had already been counted, who had dumped them, or why. “People wanted this to be discovered,” the U.N. official speculated. People in the streets had little doubt about the meaning of the dumped ballots. Before the morning was over, thousands once again filled the square across from the National Palace.


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