Why you should care
Because this is an election mess like no other on Earth.
The author is a freelance writer and radio producer.
They say comedy is all in the timing. So, too, is tragedy.
First the rains were off. Haiti gets two wet seasons a year, when skies fill up over farmers’ fields and nourish harvests of gorgeous mangoes, beans, coffee, cacao, rice, avocado and limes. The seasons have been strange, though. Twice last year the rains were late, stunting crop growth in the south, starving livestock in the northeast and leaving planters to pray for clouds in the central plateau. Spring melted into summer and summer into fall, but instead of cooling downpours, Haiti got hit with a grueling extended election season.
It had been five years since Haiti held any sort of vote, and that drought was set to break last year with staggered polls for local, legislative and presidential elections — a deluge of ballots in a country that is regularly given reason to mistrust the electoral process. A lively campaign season became voting season, voting season erupted into protest season and all of it has collided and spilled over into 2016, with no end in sight.
If the street vendors jerk into motion, you’ll know: protest coming, time to move.
Elections have not gone well. August’s legislative vote featured low turnout and violence; months later, a scandal blew open as a candidate presented receipts for the bribes he paid to electoral judges. Even so, Haiti’s new members of parliament were sworn in. The first-round presidential election, in October, seemed comparatively smoother, but the days that followed brought to light widespread fraud schemes. Even so, presidential runoffs were announced between the ruling-party candidate and apparent second-place finisher; twice, the vote was put off at last minute after pressure from a motley alliance of opposition candidates. While the international community pressed to brush past fraud to go ahead with the runoff, the opposition pushed back by demanding an investigation, reforms and a credible do-over. Now, nothing seems to be moving forward.
The ebb and flow of outrage has played out on the streets of Port-au-Prince for months. On days when the different sides call for protests, major public squares and multilane tangles can become choked to bursting with marching bodies, tear gas and flying rocks; on quiet days, they can feel eerily empty, people too nervous to linger outdoors as they used to.
Sidewalk vendors are a bellwether. You’ll be sitting in a snarl of afternoon traffic or loping along a main thoroughfare headed downtown, and suddenly you’ll notice the vendors turn their heads down the street in unison. They’ll stand up from their perches, away from their spread of fans or folded towels or condensed milk tins, bodies tensed watching for black smoke and listening for shouted slogans. If they jerk into motion, shoving wares onto baskets and dragging them off into hiding, you’ll know: protest coming, time to move.
“These aren’t real protests,” an older friend scoffed over lunch one late November afternoon. I’d covered countless demonstrations in Port-au-Prince over the years, but I told him these felt different, jittery. My friend shook his head. In his time, he said, protesters would block the road with burning tires so no one could pass, not these half-assed barricades. He was irritated by constant demonstrations, irritated by an elastic tolerance for fraud, irritated by everything throwing his business and day-to-day for a loop. He and the president, Michel Martelly, had been childhood chums, but irritation with his former friend’s political behavior looked more akin to heartbreak. As we drove out of the restaurant parking lot, a guard at the gate signaled to stop — a protest was coming up the street. He sighed and turned his car around.
For months, the political crisis has overshadowed every other crisis in the country: rising food prices, insecurity, growing numbers of deportees and refugees from the Dominican Republic, the ongoing cholera epidemic, the plummeting local currency. It has overshadowed positive news, soccer victories, cultural events and holiday festivities. On the 25th anniversary Haiti’s first democratic elections, in December, the station director of Radio Kiskeya, Liliane Pierre-Paul, went on the air and bemoaned: “Twenty-five years later, where are we?” Her station had been recently attacked by unknown gunmen, a harkening to a more repressive era. “We’re almost in the same place,” she said, sounding both furious and morose.
“When they’re president, they’ll understand me,” the president warbles over a building beat.
Even Carnival season — the most democratic of celebrations, a time for joyous release, clever costumes and barbed dance tunes that anyone can participate in — has been made strange, overlapping uneasily with the election crisis. A week before the bacchanal was scheduled to begin, and a week before his term was mandated to end, Martelly decided to morph from president back into his old musician persona, Sweet Micky, by dropping a bomb of a Carnival song.
The song’s title, “Bal Bannann Nan,” is charged with possible meanings (“the banana bullet,” “the banana ball” or “give him/her the banana”) and nods to Martelly’s chosen ruling-party successor, an agribusinessman nicknamed the Banana Man. While the old Sweet Micky was beloved for sly jokes made at the expense of musical rivals or those in power, President Martelly has spent five years being harshly intolerant of his critics. His new song is filled with acrid personal attacks on the press, in particular Radio Kiskeya director Pierre-Paul. Over a playful beat, he tells her where she needs a banana stem, going into gleeful detail over how to administer it. The violent sexual imagery was met with applause from those excited by a Sweet Micky comeback — and outrage from those mortified by his decidedly unstatesmanlike behavior. “When they’re president, they’ll understand me,” he warbles over a building beat.
Other songs that have come out ahead of Carnival carry the tension of the season in their titles: “Look at the State of the State,” “False Candidate,” “Who Is President?” In “Zonbi San Manman,” Boukman Eksperyans calls to uproot a zombifying political system. Vwadèzil blasts the electoral council and the government in “Eske Wap Pran Dekoupe” for cheating and prostituting themselves. In “Dan Di,” T-Vice takes aim in a fiery hook at both a former musical rival and current president: “Stop sucking Micky’s ass!” It is the second most played Carnival song this year, after the president’s.
The festive Carnival mood is late to arrive. Uncertainty over whether Martelly will step down as president this weekend, whether Sweet Micky will perform that song on a float and whether protesters will clash directly with bacchanal has dampened the vibe. After Carnival comes spring. There will be a transition of power, another election, another rainy season. If the rains return, and credible elections can take place, there may be hope for relief from this interminable strangeness yet.