Published December 15, 2010
The news, constantly updated by text messages and reports on Twitter, was that riots were breaking out across Port-au-Prince and in outlying areas. After much anticipation and late at night, Haiti's electoral council had announced the results of the Nov. 28 vote: Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady and one of the few candidates of the old generation of Haitian politicians, finished first with 32 percent of the vote; Jude Celestin, the governing party's choice, had 22 percent; the popular musician Michel Martelly finished third with 21.7 percent. The council declared that the two front-runners would meet in a runoff.
It did not take long for the United States Embassy to announce its skepticism. In a statement, the embassy said the results were "inconsistent" with the findings of independent observers. Haitians started to call on the U.S. government to release all facts that it had. The State Department demurred, but by this small action, it effectively threw the entire election process into chaos. The expectation was that the U.S. would back President René Préval and the results announced by the electoral council, but this did not happen. Some suggested it might be a tactic by the U.S. to remind the Haitian government of its power and influence while at the same time registering its disapproval of the Préval government's apparent attempt to rig the vote in Celestin's favor. The logic was that Celestin would prevail in a runoff against Manigat, but that Martelly would easily beat either of them. Everyone had underestimated the popularity of the musician, and now he stood a good chance of upsetting the whole applecart.
For Haitians, these happenings are not unfamiliar. Over the last two decades, elections here have produced uncannily similar results. When Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a newcomer to politics in 1990 after the departure of Baby Doc Duvalier, nearly 100 candidates were on the ballot. The results were in dispute and the supporters of Aristide took to the streets. The resolution was for Aristide to be a part of a runoff that he eventually won by a landslide. Préval faced a similar circumstance as a newcomer and populist candidate six years later, when he would win after street battles and protests. Martelly is now being cast as the populist candidate whom the entrenched powers are trying to keep out. His supporters have declared on television and radio that they will not stop protesting until he becomes president. The Celestin camp says it will continue to protest until its man comes to power.
We were visiting an NGO friend up in the hills above Port-au-Prince as the news began to come through. Andre P, our fixer, was receiving updates from his network of contacts about what was going on in the streets. Andre's access to information was comforting and fascinating. On our way down from Petionville earlier, as the streets began to clear in anticipation of the announcement, Andre observed a police jeep blocking off one street. "Okay, we will go down this street to make sure they are blocking the other street," he said. We turned down a narrow lane and there were the police. "Good," he said. Then we turned down another street and, as he predicted, the police were there also. At the last checkpoint, he slowed down and shouted to some of the policemen. They nodded back and waved. The cordoning was being done, he explained, because the announcement of the results was to take place in a restaurant in the center of this network of roadblocks.
By the time we headed down Cape Vert towards Port-au-Prince, the streets were completely deserted. We headed straight through the city, and then up a series of steep inclines, through small communities where people were standing around on the streets waiting. We arrived at a massive apartment building at the top of the hill—a virtual fortress. This was where many expatriates lived, especially those of the ilk who live in fear of kidnappings and never go anywhere without a contingent of security guards.
Over a modest meal of peppered chicken, rice and potatoes, we absorbed the reports from Andre's contacts as the chaos unfolded downtown. The night before, a reporter covering the story for a major U.S. newspaper remarked wryly that all three of the candidates had rejected the results. Manigat thought she had won 52 percent of the vote; Celestin was sure he had won the election outright, and Martelly knew for a fact that the whole thing was rigged and he had won the popular vote. Their followers were out in the streets fighting each other.
On Thursday morning, four days after the vote, it was overcast and wet. Our plan was to fly to Cap-Haitien to report from there. We were to hitch a ride on the small UN charter plane flying out of Port-au-Prince. The arrangements had been made—passport details logged and everything confirmed. But no one believed it was going to happen. A rumor had been going around that two UN peacekeeping troops had been killed earlier that day in Le Cayes. Because the UN had backed the electoral council's verdict on the vote, a strong anti-UN sentiment was growing on the streets.
To the surprise of no one, all the UN flights were cancelled. Faced with the prospect of another day idle in the hotel, Andre and I discussed the possibility of going to Carrefour to meet with Joel Sainton and Mrs. Morel, two HIV/AIDS activists we had worked with previously. Andre made some calls to residents of Carrefour to see what was happening. The news was hopeful. The rioting had calmed and people were not out on the street in numbers.
Given the disturbances, Andre P said there was only one reliable route to Carrefour. You head down Champ de Mars, past the Palace—the site of many protests—through the downtown area and the volatile Main Street, a short cut along Harry Truman Boulevard, and then into an area called Bicentenaire, along what is known as the Grand Rue--though its official name is Rue Jean Jacques Dessalines--that runs along the coast and through a heavily populated area interspersed with gas stations and a complex of makeshift markets and shops, a thoroughfare with the wide generosity of the classic French boulevards but now badly in need of repair, and on into the crazy maze of streets, lanes, camps and houses that is Carrefour.
As we made our way downtown, we could see signs of disturbances as early as the Champ de Mars. Indeed, several boulders were in the small back lane that led to the massive double gates of our hotel. Outside the hotel, Andre pulled aside another driver to discuss conditions on the street. The driver was from Carrefour, so we hoped that perhaps he had made the trip from there this morning. Unfortunately, he hadn't. He had tried to drive home last night, but could not get through. He parked his car at the hotel and took a motorbike taxi home—the only vehicles able to navigate the roadblocks and the crowds. He had taken another bike taxi back to Port-au-Prince that morning. When Andre said we were going to try for Carrefour, he smiled and said "bon chance."
With the window open—"So I can hear if there is any gun fire," Andre explained—and the car filling with mosquitoes, we drove downtown and then started to make our way along the boulevard. People were moving along the sides of the road, many carrying buckets for water, others pushing wheelbarrows piled high with goods for sale or materials for building. There were not many vehicles, and after a few miles we came to the first roadblock, marked by a dark cloud of smoke, the flashes of flames and a mob of men. Andre slowed to a crawl. Once we were spotted, a small crowd gathered around the vehicle. Andre P had earlier told Andre Lambertson, our photographer, to take out his camera. I heard the men asking for money to get through. Andre P told them that we needed to get to Carrefour to do some reporting. His easy manner, his authority and his calm were effective. The men shook his hand, pointed us towards a gap in the fire and waved us through. On the other side of the roadblock, we stopped so Andre Lambertson could take some photographs. I stayed in the car imagining what I would do if things suddenly went wrong.
Soon we were back on the road. Andre P spotted two vehicles from Doctors Without Borders dancing their way from one side of the road to the other. He quickly hitched in behind them to form a convoy. They were being waved through because the community knows them and their work—they had a free pass. We rode behind them through blockages of burnt-out vehicles, an overturned tap-tap, the smoldering remains of tires, huge boulders and slabs of wood with nails protruding.
People we passed along the route were going about their daily life, chatting and laughing. What struck me was the number of people with transistor radios clamped to their ears. I was reminded of the collective attention that had held the city when I was here during last summer's World Cup. The pulse of the city was defined by the game schedule. This time people had radios on, listening to the reports of the political parties. We were riding through a quite volatile area and it seemed that people were bracing to repel an invasion from another part of town. The roadblocks were designed to prevent intruders from coming into their communities to cause trouble.
But the roadblocks were causing trouble of their own. The airport was closed because of the roadblocks. Some people had managed to make their way to the airport early that morning, only to be told that the airport was not opening. By the time they got the news at about 11:00 a.m., the roads back to their homes were blocked. Reports had come in that people dragging suitcases were trying to make their way back to their homes on foot.
We also learned that in Jacmel, one of the people on whom Andre Lambertson and Lisa Armstrong had been reporting, a man named René who was caring for 13 boys orphaned by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, had just suffered the tragic consequences of these disruptions and Haiti's latest calamity—a cholera outbreak. Four of René's boys were stricken with cholera and died. René could not get them to a clinic in time to get medication because of the roadblocks and the rioting.
The humanitarian organizations that have been tackling the cholera outbreak were now in crisis mode. The concern was that what little success had been achieved in limiting the cholera outbreak could be completely undermined by the riots. The shutting down of access to the camps by the multiple roadblocks, the difficulty of getting sick people in the camps to clinics, and the challenge of getting medical supplies to the clinics could only exacerbate the situation. Without road access, the supply of water trucked in and pumped into cisterns for communal use in the camps would be shut off, forcing people to turn to other, less reliable sources of water.
By the time we arrived in Carrefour proper, we were amazed at how calm and normal things seemed. It was like being in a different city. Joel Sainton, in brown slacks and a paisley patterned long-sleeved shirt, grinned as we drove into the narrow lane where he lives. He had been chatting with his neighbors, some women who lived across the street from him and who were shadowed behind a metal grill. We embraced and he led us to his apartment along the backside of the building. He looked thin, but was energetic and lively as always.
He updated us on his situation. He was now officially evicted from his crumbing apartment as the landlord needed to fix the entire building. The other tenants had started to move. He had nowhere to go and he needed a place. He felt he could buy time until the end of December, but not beyond that. Despite this setback, Sainton was in good spirits. He had a few plans. There was a piece of property in a town about 20 miles away where he had gotten agreement from a landlord to build a home. He had already started to build, but had to stop because he ran out of money. With $4,000, he said he could finish the house and have a place for himself and his family; with $2,000, he could complete the roof and at least have a shelter that he could eventually finish when funds became available. He was trusting God to provide this money.
He then started to offer is vision for the APIA organization he founded. So far, he has over four hundred people who work with him around the Carrefour area. He said that once they were able to get a place for their meetings, he was confident that even more people would sign up.
Joel Sainton gets animated when he talks about his plans for the organization. He wants to be able to distribute hygiene kits for people living with HIV/AIDS, especially in the face of the cholera epidemic. He wants to distribute information to increase awareness of HIV/AIDS and to help people learn how to live with the disease if they are infected. But what excited him most was his work with churches in trying to remove the stigma of HIV/AIDS. Sainton said that he was in contact with the 80 or so churches in the area, and the pastors of these churches all know that he is HIV positive. He has, along with Mrs. Morel, visited these pastors and worked to sensitize them to the needs of those living with the disease and to challenge the pattern of ostracization and rejection that has marked many churches' reaction to HIV/AIDS. He said there were still churches that would not marry people living with the disease and others that created so many obstacles to marriage that people simply gave up. As an ordained minister, Sainton is able to marry people and he is scheduled to do a wedding next month for a couple whose own pastor had refused because one of the partners was HIV positive.
We left his home and drove through the back roads of Carrefour to the area where Mrs. Morel lives. She was waiting for us on the main street leading to her lane. This was as far as the vehicle could take us. From this point, we had to walk, navigating extremely slippery narrow lanes with high walls that we used to brace ourselves against falling, through alleys covered with canopies of tarpaulin where men and women sat playing dominoes, listening to the radio or just chatting, past brick houses attached to makeshift wood and zinc houses where women sat plaiting hair and watching the world go by. On one corner, we passed a woman gathering leaves from a stumpy tree. She explained that the leaves, a kind of spinach, would go into a stew that she would serve to her children for lunch.
In the tiny courtyard of another house, a thin, shirtless man with curls of black chest hair cascading down to his belly was pounding a pestle into a mortar. Behind him a woman sat with her skirt lapped between her legs, sieving dark powder from one container to the other. The rich aroma of coffee filled the air. They were grinding coffee beans to sell in the market. The coffee, I was told, is delicious and extremely strong—so strong, in fact, that people bought it to mix with the store-bought coffee to give that latter some kick. They explained the process to me while smiling children tested their English on us. "Hello, what is your name? What is your phone number?"' Then giggles.
It had been a typical experience with Joel Sainton and Mrs. Morel—full of laughter, teasing and commiseration. It was easy to forget that not far away the world was on the edge of exploding into riots. Andre P, however, remained attentive to his Blackberry even as he bantered with people we met along the way. By 4:30 p.m., he was receiving urgent texts telling us to get out of Carrefour if we hoped to make it back to Port-au-Prince. Rumors had been spreading that people from opposing parties had gathered in Cite Soleil and were starting to make their way into Carrefour and that residents of Carrefour were setting up roadblocks to stop them. We said a hasty farewell to Mrs. Morel and her children, drove with Joel Sainton to the main street where we dropped him off, and then we headed toward Port-au-Prince in the growing gloom. The streets were now starkly empty. A few people on bicycles picked their way through the debris. We had been following behind a white minibus bus from Doctors Without Borders—for company and for the cover of a known humanitarian organization—but now we were alone. At various intersections we could see police moving into place.
Once we entered downtown, after navigating the lines of smoldering tires and debris along Rue Bicentanaire, Andre drove with caution, slowing to check out what was ahead and then making quick decisions about which street to take. The Champ de Mars was empty and we made it to the hotel in record time.
Update: Yesterday (Dec. 14), Michel Martelly called for new elections allowing all 19 candidates to be on the ballot. He was essentially asking that the results of the Nov. 28 election be discarded. He also declared that the Haitian people no longer trusted the provisional electoral council and asked that the current members all be replaced. Meanwhile, the provisional council announced that it will present the results of the recount on Dec. 22. In other words, things are still unsettled in Haiti.
This post was updated on December 17, 2010.