Haiti elections and protests: A snapshot of the last week

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On Wednesday, Haitians turned the world upside down. What do things look like from that perspective?

Since last Sunday, the tension has been building as the population waited for the Electoral Council (CEP) to announce the results of the selections. The moment they declared Jude Celestin's good fortune to be selected for the second round, people exploded. On Wednesday, the crowds reclaimed their streets in Port-au-Prince. Sometimes it was a violent exercise, but we want to consider the imagination and creativity of the Haitian protesters.

The first challenge facing the people was to free themselves of Celestin's face. Everywhere they go in Port-au-Prince, they are mocked by Celestin's smile. Huge sums of money were spent to plaster the city with his posters That trick -- spending outrageous sums of money to impress electors -- may work in the United States, where we imagine the campaign was conceived, but it has been an insult to impecunious Haitians parched with thirst and required to buy water to avoid cholera. So, the first order of business was to simply clear the streets so that they would no longer be forced to look at him. It wasn't easy. He was everywhere.

How to get rid of the posters fastened to the tops of tall telephone posts? They had been installed by campaign workers (well paid) who used cherry pickers made available by telephone companies. The people put their heads together. They tied rocks to the end of ropes that they threw over the posters that straddled the posts, pulling them down once they were hooked. This operation, however, only cut the posters in two. So, young men who are skilled at scaling coconut palms scurried up the telephone posts with their bare feet to remove the offending images from high above the crowds. Joegodson appreciated the spectre: the pieds nus were able to undo the work that, for Celestin, had required the mobilization of very expensive imported machinery. Bare-footed young men turned out to be far more efficient.

People then turned the posters of Celestin into works of art. The goal was not destruction or violence; it was self-expression. Some people brought paints to give the ubiquitous smiling face a second life, demonstrating the power of impressionism over realism. Soon, people were comparing their creations. Some simply offered Celestin glasses to better see the Haitian people. Others gave him horns or other demonic symbols. His teeth were blackened, his skin pot marked, and his eyes gouged. Some artists wrote captions from his mouth, allowing him to admit in his own words his bad faith towards the Haitian people.

So bountiful was the harvest of Celestin posters that the protesters used them to turn up the heat. Ironically, Celestin supplied the effigies for his own burning. Things could be worse. In 1986, people took their revenge on the tonton macoutes who, for decades, had administered the Duvalier regime at the local level. The most hated macoutes were literally torn apart and left for weeks on display, their actual body parts disfigured as were, in this case, the images of Celestin.

So the people turned to President Rene Preval, who has mocked them for five years. Preval is well aware of the power of the people. After all, they put him in power in 2006. It was through a restrained expression of their power, by refusing the results of the first round of the rigged selection in February 2006, that the same Haitians imposed their will on "the international community" and brought their candidate to power. Now, he is afraid. As the crowds climbed to express in person their disappointment at his long betrayal, Preval decided that he might be more comfortable in the Dominican Republic. A friendly American helicopter kindly offered him a lift.

But Preval is not the only unwelcome presence in Haiti. The crowds opened up a number of discussions with the MINUSTAH troops, armed to the teeth with weapons that they had been advised not to use. For the moment, like the signs of Celestin's electoral extravagance, Haitians do not appreciate being witness to the billions of dollars that the "international community" flushes down the MINUSTAH toilet while they live in tents and work in the assembly plants for three dollars a day. People surrounded the MINUSTAH soldiers, inviting them to return to wherever they were born and to take their cholera with them. They saw the fear in MINUSTAH eyes. The Haitians told them that they should be ashamed of their presence in the service of a band of criminals that refuse Haitian independence. The poor deluded MINUSTAH troops really are out of their depths. They await the order to shoot so that they might settle the score with the ungrateful people whose country they are occupying. (That order appears to have come while we were writing.) That is what the United Nations calls stability.

For the Haitians, it's clear enough that the United Nations, MINUSTAH, the OAS, CARICOM, Preval and his protege Celestin, all answer to the same corrupt system centred in Washington. All have, in some way, recognized that the selections were too obviously corrupt this time. But all are continuing to search for the road that leads away from Haitians controlling their own lives. It's getting silly.

A couple of months ago, Joegodson and his brother Jhony attended some campaign meetings sponsored by Unity, the party of Celestin that hopes to fill the house with deputies. Joegodson was stunned at the openly anti-democratic propos of the Unity candidates. For example, the candidate for the senate, Marie-Denise Claude, told an audience at a meeting in Delmas 33 that those who refused to support the Unity party would find themselves totally shut out of the benefits that would accrue. "Unity!" Joegodson laughed and cried in exasperation. "You're called UNITY, for God's sake!"

So what is this stability that the foreign powers are trying to impose on Haiti? For the last five years, Preval has imagined himself to be the CEO of a corporation called Haiti. Celestin seems to understand Haiti in the same way. Haiti is a company that you run. You appear once in a while, as do presidents of corporations, to show off your expensive suits and to remind people of what "success" looks like. You expect your employees to be well behaved and to work in the interests of the country/corporation. Their efforts will assure that the CEO is well compensated. Employees/citizens who do not cooperate are fired from the body politic, 'shut out' in the words of good Unity employees/candidates. Haiti is a business, a branch plant of the Washington head office.

That is what Haiti looks like from the company headquarters. However, Haitians see their country as something more than that. Turned upside down, as it was on Wednesday, they show that the CEO serves at their pleasure. (From the Dominican Republic Preval appears to agree.) And they refuse to be fired from the nation for insubordination.

Late on Wednesday, Joegodson's little brother Nenel came by to see if there was anything to eat there. Joegodson had something to offer (having bought what he could in order to prepare for the disruptions everyone saw coming pursuant to the CEP's announcement). As it was starting to get dark, Joegodson decided to accompany Nenel back to Cite Soleil.

At the MINUSTAH base in Simon, the soldiers were taking their tank out of hiding for a late-night drive. Of course, if they would only stay in their stupid base, there would be one less target. The local people were still feeding the street fires and blockades. Joegodson asked if they weren't tired after the day's activity. They said no; they had lots of energy. They had only taken a short break to have a few mouthfuls of broth. Some of them started to throw stones at the tank. As it turned on them, the kids started to run. Joegodson cautioned them, "Don't run, it's what they want. They'll fire on you. Just be calm." It worked. The people settled.

On Thursday morning, Joegodson returned to Simon to see how his brothers and sisters were coping. Normally, there are traffic jams -- blokus -- heading down from Delmas 33. This time was different. Only one taptap had dared to venture out on the streets. He piled his little vehicle full of Haitians, who were forced to hang off the sides and inhale the fumes rising from the piles of burning tires along the way. People were listening attentively to their radios. Last night, those who have appropriated the right to decide who the Haitian people have elected appealed for calm; there would soon be an announcement. Many were thinking that the CEP would concede the election to Martelly in the manner that Preval had been declared president in 2006. How did that happen? Deja vu?

In 2006, the unelected and unwelcome foreigners that have declared themselves in charge of Haiti were looking for a way to put Washington's man in the presidential palace. To persuade them otherwise, masses of poor men and women climbed the mountain, their numbers swelling along the way, to spend the afternoon at the luxurious Hotel Mentana. In contrast to MINUSTAH, they presented a formidable force of will in the place of deadly arms. When they arrived at the Hotel Mentana, the security guards put down their weapons and opened the gates intended to keep the poor out. Those security guards, their brothers in poverty, must surely have known they were coming. (In the same way, the Haitian police are refusing to cooperate with MINUSTAH during this present crisis.) For that one day only, thousands of poor Haitians hobnobbed with the elite. They took over the pool, walked through the shops, and stretched out in the lobby. They laughed, joked and then, in the greatest good cheer, they left everything exactly as they had found it. That scared everyone who wants to keep those Mentana gates firmly closed. They gave in. You can have your Preval, they decided. No one knew then what a traitor Preval would be to the Haitians who secured him his presidency.

On Thursday, the announcement that had been promised turned out to confirm that the CEP was simply buying time; they would offer another count of the voting station reports. Meanwhile, people heard on their radios the testimony of a woman from the Champs de Mars camp that men dressed in Celestin t-shirts had just fired rifles into a crowd, killing several people. Elsewhere, MINUSTAH troops were firing their weapons

Stay calm, had been the message from the authorities. The people that Joegodson spoke to were becoming much more determined. "Stay calm, they say. Stay calm while we kill you," was the general response on the taptap and the streets. "Preval may as well have told us all to handcuff ourselves while they steal the country."

The protesters have various perspectives on the current crisis. In Port-au-Prince at least, they fall into two main categories. However, it is important to understand that each of those groups divides and subdivides in complex geometries. Moreover, the groups overlap significantly. On the one hand are those who refuse the selections altogether. Since the CEP excluded Fanmi Lavalas and fourteen other political parties, without cause, these people refuse to collaborate in the process. They are currently protesting against the entire process. On the other hand are those who have accepted the elections, however reluctantly, and are now claiming justice within that process. So they put forward their preferred candidate and are fighting it out on the streets since the process that they accepted is blatantly fraudulent.

Ravèt pa janm gen rezon devan poul says a Haitian proverb: the roach is never right before the chicken, meaning that the powerful always impose their will on the weak. However, the Haitians are throwing down the gauntlet. Those outside of Haiti, so badly educated by their media, have the power to force their governments to support the Haitian people. The Haitians have come together to show that united, they are strong. L'union fait la force -- in unity is strength, as the Haitian flag reminds them. But the real terror will come from Washington via the United Nations and all the multilateral organization and national governments that support the current assault on democracy. To stop the coming violence will require solidarity -- l'union -- that includes the populations who have claimed to support Haitians. Canadians could make a difference were they to put determined pressure on their government to support the will of Haitians. That unity would make us all strong.

Vilmond Joegodson Déralciné lives in Port-au-Prince and Paul Jackson lives in Montreal.

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