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Letter From Haiti

Nearly five years ago, on February 7, 1986, after President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier fled the country, I found myself wandering through the crumbling streets of Port-au-Prince, gazing at thousands of Haitians who, for the first time in a generation, appeared to be genuinely happy. They seemed as though they would explode with joy - waving their arms, dancing uninhibitedly, wearing smiles so broad their faces could barely contain them. In 1986 they were even cheering the army, crowds carrying soldiers overhead. "Alleluia, Duvalier alle!"

Five years, three election attempts, four military juntas, one puppet regime, one corrupt civilian transitional government, three coups d'etat, a couple of states of siege, and unknown hundreds of deaths later, I found myself wandering those same streets. The pavement had deteriorated even more, but the same hopeful citizens were in a jubilant frenzy once again, shouting that they were free, that at last the country was theirs, that they were saved.

How many times have the slightly akimbo, eighteenth-century wooden houses of Port-au-Prince, with their collapsing fretwork balconies, witnessed this same sight? How many times can you be cheated without growing cynical? You would think a people who have endured three centuries of hunger, betrayal, and violence would become suspicious and distrustful. But deja vu, the mysterious sense that you have seen this before, apparently is not a part of the Haitian character.

Perhaps the previous day's election had in fact been the best in Haiti's 186 years of independence. Was that going to guarantee freedom and safety and food? Even if radical priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide were elected, did that mean he would actually take power, hold on to it, and use it wisely? There were a lot of things to worry about, still a long list of problems standing between these elated Haitians and deliverance. Just getting from the December 16 election to the February 7 inauguration would require some luck, I thought. Maybe even a miracle.

Jean-Claude Bajeux, a somber, thoughtful former priest whose entire family was slaughtered by Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier, was not one to run wildly through the streets. He had more than a few reservations about Aristide, both the man and his chances of success. But he offered an explanation of the Haitian character. "Tomorrow belongs to God," he said. "If we can get free today, it will be our revenge."

Among United States officials, foreign policy very much resembles that aspect of the Haitian character: equally little perception of deja vu, and a similar knack for experiencing every moment as brand-new. If it works today, let God take care of tomorrow. Or as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson put it while in Port-au-Prince to observe the elections, "The U.S. government has tried to act on its hopes and not its fears."

Through the knotty mess of regimes these past five years, U.S. officials have been trying to twist arms in hopes of prying loose some kind of presentable election in Haiti, just as they have stubbornly insisted that each Haitian president, including Jean-Claude Duvalier, was working to bring democracy to the land. But the U.S. has needed a "good" election to give its wholehearted blessing. On the other side of the island, in the Dominican Republic, the U.S. has been arm-twisting for "good" elections since 1965, when the Marines invaded to settle a civil war in favor of the rebels who had overthrown Marxist Juan Bosch. The ousted Bosch had been the first person in Dominican history to achieve power through a fair election, but the Americans were not fond of the victor. Twenty-five years later democracy in the Dominican Republic still has quotation marks around it. December 16 may have signaled the start of Haiti's journey toward democracy, but there remained a treacherous road ahead. As with the ill-fated Dominican Republic, Haiti was beginning with an elected leader who was not favored by U.S. officials, a man who had gained immense popularity through dramatic speeches in which he has blamed his nation's woes on the Americans and their imperialism.

Given the several attempts on Aristide's life, it's likely he will be a president rarely seen, if he is successfully inaugurated. Fellow priests are skilled at keeping him hidden, and even his political organizers have little contact with him. His public appearances, brief and unpredictable, only added to his mystique. On the Friday before the Sunday election, for example, he showed up at his own rally two hours late, stayed for only two minutes, then disappeared again. Eight thousand people were left gaping. On election day, he was seen only for an instant, as he voted. Aristide's elusiveness, however, shouldn't be mistaken for shyness. He is an emotional man who becomes visibly ecstatic when his crowds of supporters roar their approval. (He has his down moments as well, including at least two nervous breakdowns in his 37 years.)

 

Aristide encourages comparison with Jesus, who also was said to appear mystically and then vanish. When he was expelled from his Salesian order in 1988, after defying the church's hierarchical authority, Aristide pointed out that "Jesus was not a priest; he was a lay worker." One of those nagging doubts: Father Aristide, that frail, soft-spoken man whose glasses seem too heavy for his small face, exhibits signs of megalomania. During a 1987 conversation, when I remarked that he seemed interested in political office even though the church would not allow this of a priest, he quietly said, "That's true, but if the people demand me, what can I do?"

The answer to Aristide's own question is clear: he has responded. And in a nation that is at least 80 percent illiterate, he has done so with great effectiveness, speaking the language of the masses, making his point through symbolism rooted in their daily lives. His political symbol is a fighting cock and his motto is "Se Lavalas," a Creole term for the torrent that rushes to the sea during a hard rain, carrying away with it all debris. He says he intends to cleanse the country, sweeping out every vestige of Duvalierism. His countless urban supporters understand this image because they live in slums, squatting on marshy lowlands near the harbor. When a hard rain comes, the loose rocks from the mountains, chunks of asphalt from the roads, and garbage from downtown streets wash past them to the sea. The lavalas.

"The prayers go up and the lavalas goes down," Aristide said during the funeral for victims of an armed attack at one of his political rallies. No one doubted that the lavalas was coming down. The question was this: Would Aristide's political opponents or the military or the Duvalierists use fraud, trickery, or violence to rob him of his victory? Moments before that December 5 attack, the electricity went off. Blackouts continued to occur at dramatic moments, and every time the lights dimmed, people braced themselves for those unnamed, unidentified assailants who have killed so many Haitians in the past five years. The message no one missed is that the people who have committed the violence in the past remain in Haiti and still have enough power to control the electrical system.

When Aristide declared his candidacy at the last moment, in October, the other ten presidential candidates, most of whom had been developing their political campaigns over five years, were shrunken from the best hope for Haitian democracy to somewhat comic figures. Populist preacher Sylvio Claude, who three years ago seemed to be the politician with the largest following in the nation, was reduced to reminding people of his imprisonment under Duvalier, using the slogan "The Martyr." Hubert de Ronceray, a Duvalier minister-turned-critic, employed as an emblem a drawing of a hand sticking a burning cigarette into an eye, a torture he claims he suffered after being arrested during the most recent state of siege. Technocrat Marc Bazin had always been a man to watch because he organized so diligently, seemed so competent at it, and because he was clearly a favorite of the United States government. U.S. officials, of course, denied they had a favorite, but how could America resist this conservative economist who understood computer systems and wore business suits?

Five years of campaigning, of building political parties, were swept away in the lavalas of Titid - Little Aristide - as his followers call him. The crowds sang, "Titid, it is you we were looking for. Now we have found you, and we are saved." Always the image of the savior. Another troubling question about Aristide: How could he possibly live up to his followers' expectations?

The day before the election, I was in La Saline, a mucky, fetid Port-au-Prince slum where many of the country's tourist souvenirs are made. (The fact that Haitians still produce souvenirs years after their tourism industry virtually died is another example of Haitian optimism.) In addition to those who were hard at work in hopes of selling their wares, many other people were cleaning the normally garbage-strewn mud alleys between shacks. Titid, after all, had said to clean the city for elections. I spoke to three young men who were making indigo-colored statues with spring-loaded sexual organs.

"If Titid is president, I will be able to have coffee in the morning," observed one craftsman.

"We need money and he will bring what we need," said another.
The third said, "If Titid becomes president on the sixteenth, by Tuesday things will change." That one must already be wrestling with disappointment.

An estimated 1000 foreign observers came to Haiti for the election (including a number of Caribbean politicians who would do well to have a few Haitians sent to observe their own slightly strange elections). The star among them was former President Jimmy Carter, who held a press conference in which he unwisely mentioned that he had previously observed an election in the Dominican Republic, a comment that elicited mutters and guffaws from Dominican and Haitian journalists. In this past May's Dominican election, the incumbent, Joaquin Balaguer, trailing badly in the opinion polls, pulled ahead in the vote-counting after - of all things - an electrical blackout. The blackout at the electoral headquarters may be an apocryphal story, but we'll never know, because Carter gave the election his nod of approval and left without observing the counting process.

 

Carter's good will has earned him the admiration of democracy advocates throughout Latin America, but like many Americans he seems to operate on faith. Even his admirers are baffled that this battle-scarred political veteran is not more tough-minded. On election morning, Carter went to Ecole Argentine, where voters had been massacred during the 1987 election. This morning was peaceful, and we chatted, standing on the floor that had been puddled with blood three years ago. Carter assured me that by early evening he would know the results "within two to three percentage points."

Neither Carter nor anyone else was going to have an accurate count soon after the polls closed. The electoral office was not able to get ballots distributed to all 14,000 polling places, and voters were getting impatient by midafternoon. At one polling site, the kitchen of an abandoned house along the Route de Delmas, a main road through Port-au-Prince, ballots were delivered but no pens with which to mark them. Because so many Haitians do not know how to write, they do not carry pens. I passed mine around for half an hour, allowing a few people to vote, but then I had to move on.

Also along Route de Delmas were the fortress headquarters of Roger Lafontant, a bald, gregarious physician who as Duvalier's interior minister had not only ordered torture by the feared Ton-Ton Macoutes but, according to witnesses, had participated in it. After returning from exile this past summer, he had announced his intention to run for president, which in turn led to Aristide's declaration that he would also enter the race.

Lafontant's candidacy was disqualified on a technicality, and he spent election day at his headquarters. Behind solid-steel gates, his yard drops steeply toward the back of the property, where the earth has been torn up for use as a parking lot for the many Jeeps that tear in and out. Lafontant had about 200 men there on election day, some of them armed. A stray Uzi lay abandoned in a corner next to an unoccupied metal folding chair.

The mood inside the fortress headquarters was festive - Roger and his merry men monitoring the election. "We are very happy because we hear they are having trouble with the elections," said one muscular aide-de-camp. (It was only ten o'clock in the morning.) Lafontant's men periodically marched into his office, where he sat next to five telephones, and reported to him about ballot problems in various Haitian towns. "Ah," said Lafontant as if he had just taken a sip of a fine Bordeaux, "they are organizing the election for one man and they don't know how to do it." He swore that Aristide would never be president and that he would stop him by legal means. But then he added darkly, "We have law and order, and the armed forces are ready."

And that has been the principal problem. The forces are still there and they are still armed. The hard-line Duvalierists in and out of the military; the former members of Duvalier's private militia, the Ton-Ton Macoutes - the people who have been controlling Haiti with guns all along - are still in Haiti. Some have been driven out, but even those few could come back, as Lafontant proved by his return. These restless men, the ones who slaughtered voters in 1987, have not gone away, and Haitians can only wait and try to guess what their next moves will be. No shots were heard in Port-au-Prince during the week before the elections, but that doesn't mean the Duvalierists have put down their guns. One look around Lafontant's headquarters made that clear. It means they have another plan and they are organized and disciplined enough that when some unnamed authority says, "No shooting this week," not a single shot is fired.

The Duvalierists might not resort to guns; they might simply wait for Aristide to confront Haiti's enormous and unsolvable problems and thereby lose his popularity. He is taking over a bankrupt nation, he has no experience governing, and he might not control the new legislature (he did not field candidates for many of the seats). Will he be tempted to rule without consent? One knowledgeable election observer pointed out that because not a single major figure chose to run for the legislature, it seemed likely that no one was planning to take that body very seriously.

 

But what will be Aristide's position when it comes to violence? In the past five years, he has often declined to speak out against mob violence directed at Duvalierists, and has often appeared to be encouraging it. In 1986, when hundreds of voodoo priests were being murdered for alleged involvement with the deposed Duvalier regime, I asked him how he, as a Catholic priest, felt about the attacks. He replied, "If [the victim] is a Ton-Ton Macoute, I can understand it." He refused to condemn the killings, which eventually prompted Marc Bazin to describe him as "a violent man surrounded by known terrorists." And Bazin may be right. No one knows. Only the Duvalierists have been tested with power in Haiti.

Jimmy Carter did not have his results in the early evening as he had confidently predicted. The polls were kept open for those who had been denied a vote for lack of ballots. But Aristide received enough votes so that only percentages can be debated. There is little doubt that he won a clear majority and won it fairly, despite the irregularities.

By 9:00 the next morning the rhythm of city life began to pick up, a few people shouting, some singing. It grew until the streets were mobbed with a joyous crowd shouting that they were free and saved. But that fervent expression of salvation wasn't shared by all; one Haitian acquaintance of mine was considerably more subdued. For the past five years, he had risked his life fighting for elections, and at the conclusion of the voting last month, he offered this: "I am sure that the democratic rule will be respected - at least for one year."

Post script: The Duvalierists did not wait for Aristide to confront Haiti's problems. The night of January 6 Roger Lafontant seized control of the provisional government. But within hours, the commander of the armed forces, General Herard Abraham, crushed the coup d'etat and arrested Lafontant. The fact that the coup failed is tremendously helpful because it means that those who oppose democracy will no longer regard a coup as the simplest of remedies. But does this establish democracy, or does it merely put my acquaintance's prediction on track: democracy for at least one year?

Even though Abraham arrested Lafontant, that is not to say the general hasn't had ample legal grounds for such an arrest ever since Lafontant returned to Haiti last summer. Why did he wait for the coup and what will he now do with Lafontant? Ton-Ton Macoutes, after all, have been arrested before. Will Lafontant ever be brought to trial? Will the trial be fair, and will a just sentence ever be carried out?

The situation really has not changed. Haiti's fate is still in the hands of the army, and the army and the Macoutes have always been rivals. There are still armed and determined Haitians, no doubt from both factions, plotting against democracy. If there is a lesson to be drawn from this week's events, it is this: These men will not simply give up and go away; it will take more than a botched coup to neutralize them. I think the Haitians who voted on December 16 understood that. I remember them dressing in their best clothes to vote, as though they were going to church. And that is understandable. In Haiti voting is not just an exercise in democracy, it is an act of faith. Once again, the morning after the coup, there were joyous demonstrations in the streets. By Haitian logic, today they were avenged. Tomorrow will belong to God.


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