A Haitian Psychomachia

By Matthew J. Smith

diasporaMatthew J. Smith is Professor of Caribbean History, UWI-Mona. He has published extensively on Haitian history.

From his countenance Jude Celestin looks genial. His face, brightened by a yellow background and green bar supporting his suited torso, beams on the enormous poster that greets the arriver stepping out of Toussaint L’ouverture International airport.

His smile is the right width: just wide enough to invite but not too broad to convey deceit. His thick mustache frames the upper lip and lends odd balance to the smile. The image of Haiti’s nineteenth century rulers who fancied strong facial hair comes to mind.

It is an imposing visage and his candidate number, #31, located conspicuously under the party name LAPEH and symmetrical with the smile is instantly recorded. The appearance of Jovenel Moïse, candidate # 5 and one of Celestin’s more than two dozen rivals, is by contrast less interesting. Perhaps this is because his intentions seem easier to read.

Clean-shaven and slender faced, he resembles another side of the Haitian male archetype: rural, lean, unscarred by political hubris. The faces of these two men have a hypnotic effect as they follow you from every direction in Port-au-Prince and its surrounding villages and towns.

Their rivals keep company a few paces behind. Images of the aspirants for the highest chair in Haiti are wall papered on makeshift bandstands, blown up screen size on poles at intersections, and hung overhead, forming arches at a point on the Canapé Vert main road.

On November 20th, yesterday, Haitians went to the polls to choose their next leader from among these faces. More importantly, they made a claim at ensuring their fragile democracy is upheld. The luminous spectacle of party colours  green, yellow, pink, and of course, blue and red  will begin its recession.

If successfully done, a second round in January will consecrate popular will. Maybe. Recent history has already shown that elections cannot be guarantees of anything, even the electoral process itself. The November elections are a third attempt at a first round.

In October 2015 they were mired in irregularities so problematic that they had to be rescheduled at enormous cost for October the following year. Haiti was left without an elected head of state when former president Michel Martelly demitted office on February 7th.

Then the week this redo was to be held, Haiti was pummeled by Hurricane Matthew. Political corruption, international interference and natural disaster had not for the first time upended the democratic intentions of Haitians.

The electoral campaign has suffered as a result of these setbacks. It has lost its fizz and the suffocating atmosphere of political prognosticating seems more forced than wanted. The hurricane’s fury has been the main cause of this. It is yet another misery for Haiti.

The southwestern area was ravaged. More than 80% of the city of Jérémie  a place so close to Jamaica’s east coast that long ago residents claimed to see the Blue Mountains  was laid flat. The entire Grand’Anse region is in full recovery mode. This is a part of the country not greatly affected by the devastating 2010 earthquake. But it has always been a vulnerable zone.

In 1954 the powerful Hurricane Hazel tore through it, precipitating starvation and massive migration to the capital. The collateral damage of that disaster was grave for President Paul Magloire. Slow recovery added to other pressures on the state and led to his overthrow which, in turn, contributed to the rise of Haiti’s notorious dictator Dr. François Duvalier in 1957.

Duvalier’s attention to the region then and after 1963’s Hurricane Flora was in keeping with the lack of care he had for his citizens  a trait inherited by Jean-Claude, his son and successor who famously proclaimed, “it is the destiny of the Haitian people to suffer.”

It is not likely that disarrangement caused by Hurricane Matthew will lead to the rise of a new Duvalier. The government in power is temporary. More to the point, Haiti’s years of dictatorship are over, a friend of mine in Port-au-Prince tells me; the United States would not allow one to form.

Note the main player in this assessment. The Haitian people’s role may be demonstrated by the vote but ultimately it is the United States which decides what happens in Haiti. Since the US Occupation of Haiti began in 1915 the great northern neighbour has played the most decisive role in Haitian affairs.

Dictators like Duvalier were tolerated when necessary and let go when they jeopardized US interests. This is not the whole story. But it is an indication of how power is distributed in Haitian foreign affairs.

US politics today is as unpredictable as Haitian politics. The shrapnel of the vituperative clash between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is still airborne. With Trump as president-elect it is unclear what the consequences will be for Caribbean affairs. Some in the region fear the worst.

When Caribbean foreign relations came up in the heated contest, Haiti was there. In the third presidential debate Donald Trump taunted Clinton for the failures of the Clinton Foundation in Haitian recovery efforts after 2010. Trump, the only presidential candidate in US history to visit the Haitian community of Little Haiti in Miami  where he met with activists and gave a softened stump speech told his opponent and the US public that “what’s happened in Haiti with the Clinton Foundation is a disgrace,” Haitians “hate the Clintons.”

Trump had picked up on something from his visit to Little Haiti where well-dressed Haitian-Americans roiled passionately against the Clintons and others who failed them in the aftermath of the 2010 catastrophe. In Haiti today the mood is not much different.

The bitterness over what the Clintons did there runs like a stream. In Port-au-Prince, as I watched the returns come in on the US elections of November 8th, few lamented the blows that Hillary Clinton received. “I hate Hillary Clinton” were the words of another friend.

Haitians are nonetheless wary of what a Trump presidency may mean for Haiti. Trump’s hard position on immigration worries people who for generations have looked to move to the United States. They are also anxious about Trump’s skittish foreign policy. The benefits of relief after the hurricane and the long road to recovery are major issues to contend with in the coming months.

In Port-au-Prince someone reminded me that journalistic interest in disasters is proportional to the numbers of dead bodies. The earthquake claimed hundreds of thousands and raised the numbers game for Haiti. The fewer than one-thousand officially reported to have died because of Hurricane Matthew attracted fleeting regard. Updates stymied on Twitter feeds and Facebook posts.

The personal narratives of suffering that were covered daily in the international press years ago are occasionally referenced today. And so the experience of a woman I met, whose family is unable to bury their relatives one month after the hurricane because the water has not receded, will not become widely known by others.

The heavy rainfall of the last few weeks that have left parts of the northern city of Cap Haitien a flood zone is not told. For some, it seems, Haiti’s tragedies are too numerous to follow.

Some distance from the capital, in the wide coastal plain of the Arcahaie region, political posters lack the freshness of those in Pétionville. They are torn, pale and dusty to such a degree that one wonders if they depict candidates contesting this year’s election or are remnants of an earlier, forgotten contest.

The message is as unmistakable as elsewhere: these are important elections. The posters are supplemented with graffiti. “Moïse Jean-Claude ou revolution,” on a wall in Michelet, indicates the stakes candidates and their supporters have imposed on this election. These stakes were raised recently by a hardened warrior of such battles, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

A former president and much earlier than that, a former priest  Aristide was one of the most powerful and controversial actors on the Haitian political stage, an embodiment of Haitian contradictions. After three decades and two exiles he has taken once more to the hustings, beating a trail with his Fanmi Lavalas party’s candidate Dr. Maryse Narcisse, candidate #54.  One prominent poster has Narcisse holding hands with Aristide above head and the slogan “Pèp La Ak Timid Dakò. Vote Doktè Maryse” (The People and Aristide agree. Vote Dr. Maryse). Dr. Narcisse’s credentials in public health strengthen her chances and make her a leading candidate.

She also has a good following and funding. But it is Aristide’s support that promises to be decisive. At an appearance on their “Dignity Caravan” held in the village of Renaissance Aristide pushed his narrow torso through the sunroof of an SVU and climaxed a twenty-minute speech by invoking the memory of the violence of the brutal 1980s. He warned that if there were not elections on November 20th there would be an uprooting: “elections libre ou dechoukay (free elections or an uprooting).” Said thrice for emphasis and crowd response, it was also a reminder of the side of Aristide that opponents and supporters alike would rather not see.

The threat may not be as great as the Haitian media fears. A student at the State University of Haiti cautioned me that Aristide holds little relevance for Haiti’s large population of youth, people too young to hold memories of his incendiary speeches in the early 1990s or even the circumstances of his second ouster in 2004. He is, for them, a figure of the past, a man without force.

This may be an underestimation of his capacity. He is attached to a movement that could prove instrumental in  the confusing days ahead.

Everywhere in Haiti’s congested areas is flecked with concrete kiosks known as bank borlettes,  counters where Haitians seek to transform dreams into winning numbers, a practice with roots in the Duvalier years. The process is simple. A payment of a few gourdes is made on a pattern of numbers forged by a dream a book known as a tchala links the dream with corresponding numbers  and written down by an attendant on a series of writing blocks.

These numbers are drawn in foreign lottos; betters hold their breaths. It is a shared pastime and a consuming habit on which too many gamblers risk everything for a chance at fortune, the salve for their problems. One of the most visible of the bank borlettes is named Patience. Patience, a necessary virtue for a game of chance. The metaphorical relevance is striking, for so much of Haitian existence politics, the weather, life  is staked on chance.

An eighteenth century planter in the British West Indies, with the weather in mind, described life in the tropics as a lottery. It is a Caribbean predicament. Anger in such a context is greater than distraction. It upsets all that patience suggests. Haiti has often appeared to be teetering on a balance, its equilibrium tipping over ever so slightly between vice and virtue. And which one dominates the view of those less aware is dependent on which part of the country one fixes one’s eyes upon.

Haiti’s fragmented realities are never more clear than when disaster and desire collide. This is true of the current moment as it has been so many times before. The post quake normality continues unabated  uniformed missionaries in bilingual t-shirts bump their way through the clog at customs; aid workers and gleeful college students pour into the Karibe hotel by the busloads; the people of the Grand’Anse scramble to re-envision their futures; protests for candidates have started again in Mirebalais and the environs of the capital; the earthquake generation lay about under tarps that pock the city; and posters of power smiles flap in the brown haze of poussière.

How many times can these scenes regenerate themselves? Patiently Haitians wait for change, quietly anger builds.

On a door in the departure lounge of the airport there is a line of graffiti, an appeal for a forgotten candidate, the only one who can transform this reality: “Vote Jesus  #100.” It is a reminder that when all else confuses and drains, the oppressed hold on to a higher aspiration.

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