Hope for Haiti BY JIM WRIGHT The thin, bespectacled priest enters the room almost shyly to shake hands with six observers. Slight of stature, his skin unwrinkled and clear, hair cropped close to his head, he looks less than his 37 years. His voice is soft. He speaks quietly. He doesn’t smile. This is Jean-Bertrand Aristide, “Titide” to his doting followers. His candidacy for president has electrified the Haitian masses as no other personality in the 20th century has done. Father Aristide is perhaps 5’9″ tall. He listens expressionlessly as each of us speaks, peers owlishly through his glasses, then answers with almost maddening brevity. Where, you wonder, is the vaunted charisma? Where is the messianic magnetism of this man whose fiery sermons forced his resignation from the Salesian order of the Roman Catholic priesthood and catapulted him into the role of national folk hero? Earlier in the day, residents of a teeming slum called Cite Soleil \(City of which the heat rises 10 degrees higher than the sweltering outdoors. One man points to an open sewer which runs between the rows of tiny shacks, not 10 feet from their front doors. “Father Aristide is the only man in Haiti who can do something about that!” he told me with conviction. A grey ooze runs in the fetid ditch. A rank odor rises from its bank. Haiti is far and away the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its people are the least literate and the most oppressed, its history the most violent. “Your people have real elections every two years,” Marcelin Schiller of the Haitian Workers Union had reminded me. “Our people are allowed to have a free election every two centuries!” I am thinking of this as former United Nations Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young asks candidate Aristide for a specific assurance. Will he publicly urge his followers to honor the verdict should he lose? As members of the Jimmy Carter observer team, we have gained such promises from the four other leading candidates. “If I should lose?” the priest responds incredulously. “But I have not lost. It is the people who have done it, and they have won. If their votes are honestly counted, we will receive 70 percent of the total. Your question is founded on a false premise.” Bravado? Arrogance? False confidence? It is 2:30 in the afternoon. The tabulation of votes will not commence for nearly four more hours. There are 11 candidates. As it turned out, Aristide was exactly right. Everywhere in the city slums, in the remote mountain villages, out in the countryside the political novice swept the opposition aside, easily winning 70 percent of Sunday’s vote. “Just like the lavalas,” commented Michael St. Lot, a gifted Haitian educated in the United States and assigned to our group as a translator. He referred to the dramatic figure of speech which had become a central slogan in the Aristide campaign. The Creole word describes the sudden deluges which pour down from the skies at the beginning of each rainy season to sweep the streets clean of all the dust and debris that has collected there during the dry months. In similar fashion, the devoted followers of the young priest’s populism believe their movement can cleanse Haitian society of the widespread corruption which has littered its history. In such a way, like a sudden storm, the movement had swept away all its political opposition in Sunday’s. balloting. There was no doubt of this outcome in Aristide’s mind as we’ talked on election day. There were other doubts, however. Whether there would be violence. Or fraud. Whether the “powers” which had ruled Haiti for most of the entire century would let Aristide take office. Or even let him live. There have been three attempts on his life. The church where he preached was set afire by arsonists. On December 5, seven people were killed by grenades thrown from a passing car into Aristide rally. In November of 1987, elections scheduled to fill the presidency following the final collapse of the 30-year Duvalier dynasty had broken apart in a violent blood-bath. Sunday morning I drove by the Rue Valiant schoolhouse where 17 people were brutally slain by gunfire while trying to vote three years ago. That day in 1987, the gangsters had won. Tontons Macoute, hoodlums trained as a private army by Papa Doc Duvalier, had successfully terrorized the process. The elections were called off in mid-afternoon. This time things would be different. Everyone seemed determined they would be. The army had purged itself of lawless elements which three years ago had acted in cahoots with the murderers. Even Aristide, earlier suspicious of the army, had high praise for the professionalism of the young men assigned to his physical protection throughout the campaign. U.S. Ambassador Alvin Adams worked tirelessly to assure the full prestige and backing of our government to help the process function. Teams of political scientists spent months assisting the electoral commission to devise ballots and procedures to register voters and carry out an honest canvass in the 14,000 far-flung precincts. Canadians provided the ballot boxes, Venezuelans the indelible ink in which each voter’s thumb is dipped to ensure that nobody votes twice. Former President Jimmy Carter made five personal visits to the country, offering technical help and stimulating confidence by his assurances of international interest. As election day approached, nearly a thousand international observers descended on the scene from theOAS, from the United Nations, from the Carter group, from 16 countries. Americans might resent foreign observers in our polling places. But Haitians did not. They appreciated it. It helped them believe that, for once in the life of their country, they might see an election free of violence, free of fraud, free of intimidation. And that is what they got. Now the hard part begins. To attract investment. To reassure tourists. To purge their society of its layers of corruption. To win respect. Poor Haiti. Peopled by descendants of African slaves who revolted against Napoleon’s troops in 1804, it became the site of the world’s first successful slave uprising and the second country in the Western hemisphere to declare its independence. For Haitians, that independence has meant little. Through 186 years, they’ve been exploited, worked hard and cheaply, ignored by the world. But the dream has persisted. Main streets in Port-au-Prince, the faded capital bear the names of American abolitionist John Brown and Martin Luther King. The two principal Haitian heros, their George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, are Jean-Jaques Dessalines, a slave who lead the battle against France, and Charlemagne Peralte, a martyred guerrilla leader hunted down and slain by American Marines in 1919. U.S. Marines occupied Haiti from 1914 to 1934. Haitians have not forgotten this. And that’s the other doubt that seems to linger in the mind of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. When I tell him that we’d like to lay the groundwork for a better understanding between his country and ours, he asks: “Do you really think this is possible?” I assure him that I do. The new president of Haiti says: “I will believe it when I see it.” Most Haitians speak neither English nor Spanish nor French. They speak Creole. Their modest achievements are widely ignored. But they are proud. On Monday following the election in which a majority of the people had voted, they thronged the streets of Port-au-Prince in a joyous celebration. They stripped leafy limbs from trees to wave overhead in tribute as they danced in conga-like lines to the rhythm of merengue bands, steel drums, bamboo horns, and gourd rattles. It was a day-long carnival of freedom. The Haitian people had shown the world that they can hold a free and fair election. “Nou ka pa komen li men nou pa sot,” said a Haitian worker to one of our election observers last Sunday. “We may be illiterate, but we’re not stupid.” Former Speaker of the House Jim Wright of Fort Worth represented the 12th District of Texas for 34 years. His remarks, written for the op-ed page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram are reprinted with permission. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1 1
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