“Si Aristide te la….” “If Aristide were here….” So started the chants in countless demonstrations on the streets of Port-au-Prince over the last seven years, since then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was flown into exile in Africa on a US military plane.
If Aristide were here, the thinking went, we wouldn’t be so hungry, so many of us wouldn’t be living in tents, and we would have some hope for the future of our country.
Aristide returned to Haiti on a private jet a week ago, and, aside from the welcoming demonstrations in the streets that day, nothing seems to have changed.
Elections went ahead as planned last Sunday, contrary to fears of the US government and others that Aristide’s presence would disrupt all.
Like Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier, who returned to Haiti January 16, after almost 25 years in exile, Aristide is, so far, living a quiet, private life, a mere mortal.
There were, of course, the usual speculations about the real meaning behind the ex-president’s words when he spoke at the airport. Like the Bible, every bit was picked apart and interpreted according to people’s various wishes.
When Aristide declared that ‘Lakay se lakay,’ or ‘home is home,’ supporters of presidential candidate Mirlande Manigat called it a message to vote for their woman, whose campaign symbol is a small ‘kay,’ or house. Others pointed to his reference to the exclusion of his political party Lavalas as a message that they should not vote.
Still others heard his calls for love and unity to mean the country should go to the polls and move on. Meanwhile, followers of candidate Michel Martelly, whose campaign color is a bold pink, were encouraged by the use of a similar, paler shade in the painting of the wall outside Aristide’s house.
But however one interprets Aristide’s always dynamic words and actions, and whatever concrete benefit or harm they could do to the country in the months to come, for some, all that matters is the mere fact of his return.
This was driven home to me as I walked down Rte. de l’Aeroport against the tide of marchers following Aristide’s black SUV as it crawled through the masses to his house. The mood was triumphant but not particularly warm. I was sworn at a couple of times, and one young man looked at me and said, “It’s called democracy, blan!” ‘Blan’ here means not just ‘white’ but those from first world countries and others involved in Haiti.
In this scene, I was a proxy for the US, who, along with two other so-called blan countries, France and Canada, had removed Haiti’s first popularly, democratically elected president from power in 2004, and who had objected to his return home on this day, citing concerns about its effect on elections.
The young man’s indignation made me smile. It went way back. Fresh on the heels of the American and French revolutions, Haiti’s had gone farther than those countries. Led by ex-slaves, it brought liberty to people of all races. But in the two centuries since, the country has suffered under dictatorships, invasions, occupations, and political and economic meddling by the great democracy to its north.
More recently, as democracy seems to be taking hold, it is struggling against its own leaders’ corruption and disregard for its own people, as well as, for better or for worse, ongoing intervention from outside.
Free and fair elections continue to elude the Haitian people. The first round of presidential and parliamentary voting, last November, was marred by blatant and rampant fraud, as well as logistical nightmares that prevented many from fulfilling their civic duty.
The second round was better but still highly problematic. Polling stations echoed with would-be voters’ outraged cries, “I can’t vote! My name isn’t on the list!” Sometimes it was an illiterate person who was lost in the letters, other times the would-be voter had gone to the wrong station, but, inexplicably, many names were simply missing.
Meanwhile, women were dramatically outnumbered by men at the polls I visited – a fact that some attributed to uneven burdens of responsibility for household and childrearing tasks, while others cited a fear of violence. And, especially in remote areas, the pregnant, the elderly, and parents with small children stayed home because buses weren’t running, and they didn’t want to (or were unable to) walk the long distance to vote.
Turnout was estimated to be ‘only’ 30 percent, which is low for Haiti, whose voting rate has at times been higher than the US. But given all the obstacles and reasons for disaffection, this could be considered remarkably high.
At one station, ballots arrived more than four hours late, yet voters who had gotten there at six, the supposed time of opening, said they would wait for as long as it took. For some it was simply their civic responsibility. Others had particular interests in the outcome.
The list of what the president needs to do is unspeakably long, but among voters I spoke with, it often went like this: “Education. And, of course, housing and everything else.”
A number also pointed to the need for the leader to work well with the international community, upon which the county is now more dependent than ever for aid. To Marcel Lochard, an engineer waiting for hours to vote at a downtown station, dealing with the outside world is not simply a matter of diplomacy. It’s about being able to manage, and not get eaten up by, all the international actors who have an interest in Haiti.
Next to him stood Ari Desliens, who has been trying to get his college degree for years but keeps having to drop out for financial reasons. He said the simple fact of the elections is important, because now stalled international funding will flow to the government. He also said the simple fact of Aristide’s return was key. “Aristide’s presence restores the people’s confidence,” he said.
Haiti needed the tens of millions of dollars invested from other countries into these elections – not to mention the billions of dollars one hopes will be disbursed after the new government comes in. But to achieve democracy it also needs a people and a government with the confidence and the ability to sometimes go against the demands of the money-givers.
Is this possible? As a citizen of the US, where money from lobbyists is an entrenched part of the political system, and where the leaders sometimes fail to support the will of the people in other countries, this blan still considers her country a democracy – something to emulate but also defy.