MABE Orphanage -- Port au Prince, Haiti

MABE Orphanage -- Port au Prince, Haiti

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Haiti fears violence in election wake

As the country waits for election results, many earthquake victims still
living in camps are preoccupied with trying to live under difficult conditions.
Photograph by: Phil Carpenter, The Gazette
By René Bruemmer and Sue Montgomery, Montreal Gazette
December 8, 2010 2:02 AM

As the country waits for election results, many earthquake victims still living in camps are preoccupied with trying to live under difficult conditions.
Photograph by: Phil Carpenter, The GazettePORT-AU-PRINCE – Protests and sporadic gunfire erupted in Haiti’s capital Tuesday night after electoral authorities announced the country’s inconclusive presidential election would go to a runoff vote.

Gunshots echoed in some parts of Port-au-Prince following the announcement that former first lady Mirlande Manigat and government technocrat Jude Célestin would face a deciding second round Jan. 16 following a turbulent Nov. 28 vote.

In Haiti, election days, and the subsequent dates on which election results are released, are more a cause for fear than a catalyst for hope of a better future. Haitians, jaded by two decades of democratically elected governments that have produced meagre progress for the impoverished nation, hold little stock in the abilities of future leaders to “rebuild Haiti.” They’ve heard it too many times before.

But one thing they are relatively sure of is that violence, sporadic and with the unseeing injustice of a ramped-up mob, may strike anywhere. They’ve seen it many times before. This time the state is especially volatile in the wake of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake and in the midst of a cholera epidemic that has killed 2,120 to date.

In announcing the preliminary official results of the Nov. 28 election, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council called for the runoff because no candidate gained the more than the 50 per cent required to win in the first round.

Manigat garnered 31.37 per cent of the first-round votes, ahead of Célestin with 22.48.

The U.S. embassy in Haiti issued a statement raising questions about the announced results, suggesting they might not be consistent with “the will of the Haitian people.”

Haitians interviewed before the results were released said they were worried that violence could erupt if Célestin finished in the top two.

Now Haitians – under a 6 p.m. curfew called yesterday, – wait to see if there will be an eruption. Already yesterday afternoon, there were radio reports of mobs burning tires in the Port-au-Prince district of Pétionville. Within half an hour of the release of the election results, stories of mobs burning tires in the streets in the north of the country and the south were already being reported. Gunshots were reported in the Delmas district.

Yesterday, the normally traffic-jammed streets were slowed to glacial speeds as Haitians rushed to get home before the 6 p.m. curfew, the time at which results were supposed to be announced. Cars, trucks, tap-tap mini-buses and motorcycle-taxis jockeyed for space with pedestrians and rubble as day faded into night. People hunkered around their radios and waited for the sounds of violence in the streets.

Along busy Delmas St., the large Delimart grocery store shut its doors at 5 p.m., instead of the usual 9. Night classes were cancelled at universities.

But as the 6 p.m. deadline came and went with no announcement, radio stations filled the time with comedians, perhaps to lighten the tense mood in the capitol.

Célestin is running for the party of current president René Préval, who is widely disliked by the majority of Haitians because they feel he accomplished little despite modest achievements, and worse, was practically invisible in the days following the earthquake that killed at least 250,000, when the nation needed a leader most. They call him “the zombie,” and any victory for his chosen successor will be seen as electoral tampering.

Manigat, a Sorbonne-educated PhD who is wife to a former president, is running largely on her academic prowess – she’s vice-dean of one of the largest universities here – and her grandmotherly image. The other major candidate was popular singer Michel Martelly, whose comic antics mask a sharp mind. He is hugely popular with the younger generation, fed up with the old guard, and has campaigned strongly, with rallies resembling rock concerts.

“We need something different,” said teacher and computer technician Carl Henry Jean Baptiste. “If he does well, I’ll be happy. And if he doesn’t, I won’t be disappointed because he’s not really a politician.”

Too many politicians in suits have failed before, Jean Baptiste said. It’s time to try something new.

Jean Enock Joseph, a pastor and human rights activist in the Cité Soleil slum on the edge of the capital, predicted a dire outcome, no matter what the results.

“Chaos,” he said bluntly. “A country in flames.”

In some polls, he said, Célestin got more votes than people registered. The United Nations, he declared, is just a lobbyist for the government. And the international community is rebuilding Haiti according to its own agenda, not that of Haitians.

It’s time, said Joseph, for Haitians to shake themselves out of their “zombie state,” feelings of resignation, and demand their rights for housing, clean water, education and health.

“We have a lot of individuals in Haiti but not citizens,” he said. “People are there for their loved ones, but not for Haiti.”

To that end, his organization, the Centre for Development and Respect for Human Rights, began a year-long program in October called Towards an Engaged Citizenry, organizing training and debates to raise awareness.

“These elections will make things go from bad to worse,” he said. “No matter what happens, it will be contested.”

Election fears hamper all aspects of everyday life. Vendors scurried home early, closing up their street-side stalls that wallpaper the avenues of the capital city. Red Cross officials were told to stay off the streets for fear of violence. At Digicel, the nation’s largest cellphone provider, executives were bundled home early in armoured cars driven by bodyguards, sitting behind the tinted bullet-proof glass of their SUVs. Children were picked up early from school. (A Haitian friend questioned the decision of a cousin to put their child in a school far from home – “It’s not good to have a long trip to pick up your child because you might have to run from demonstrations, from stones and gunfire.”) The owner of a business school with 300 adult students said attendance is way down during election weeks, making it harder to make ends meet.

Everybody prays that the “right result will come out,” he said. That Manigat and Martelly will be the top two.

rbruemmer@montrealgazette.com

smontgomery@montrealgazette.com

Reuters contributed to this report

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

No comments: