An adventurous young woman from San Francisco, a college student and would-be photo-journalist, recently flew to Port-au-Prince for a few days of in-depth study of her senior project, Haiti. Immediately she was thrown into the virulent partisanship and chaos that has been Haitian politics since the fall of the 30-year kleptocracy of the Docs, Papa and Baby. For four years, Haiti has been trying to reconstruct a government; the hope and euphoria of the Duvaliers’ “uprooting,” as it’s called, has given way to a despair previously unknown even in this poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.
The student came home from her two-week visit with a rudimentary grasp of Creole, a love for that land of nightmare and magic--and a choice for president in the elections now scheduled for Sunday. She had stood next to Father Jean-Bertrand Aristide, known as “Titid,” the popular and populist priest who has often been the target of Tontons Macoutes assassins. He has been called “the charismatic Titid” so many times that The Charismatic seems to be his first name. After he spoke to an adoring crowd, she understood why. She said to him: “May I touch you?”
And he said yes.
She has made her choice about as well as most Haitians do. A field of American-trained technocrats, Duvalierist dinosaurs, perpetual hopefuls--and Father Aristide--is running. When I attended the last election, army-controlled and army-wrecked, which replaced a previous attempt that ended in a massacre, bodies were left outside my hotel every night as a warning about who was still really in charge. That election-selection, boycotted by the honest candidates, gave Haiti the plump, shrill Leslie Manigat, who told me: “Democracy is a bay-bee. If the baby is not perfect, one must not strangle the baby. I will rock the baby.”
Instead, he rocked his military patron’s boat and went to weep in exile in what has come to be known as the Haitian Presidential Suite in the Santo Domingo Hilton. There followed another grim weeper, Gen. Henri Namphy, who was in his turn thrown out by Col. Prosper Avril, an even grimmer Duvalierist bagman. When I visited Haiti late last winter, Col. Avril flew off to Taiwan, trying to borrow money, while the killings accelerated back home. Then he returned, was evicted to Miami--perhaps they didn’t have time to make up the beds in the Haitian Presidential Suite--and Haiti was given its first woman president, pro tem, to preside over yet another try at an election. Ertha Pascal Trouillot was a Supreme Court justice and had the rare virtue of not being known as a crook. She was hardly known at all, and remained so.
The killings continued. She flew to Washington to ask for financial aid. She allowed a brutal Macoutes leader, Roger Lafontant, indicted by one of the previous ephemeral regimes, to return and campaign. He offered to bring the same peace to the country that had been provided by Papa Doc, who was thought to be the incarnation of Baron Samedi, Lord of the Dead, Guardian of the Cemetery. The peace of the grave.
There is a glimmer of hope that this election might occur with a minimum of honesty. Jimmy Carter and his team of observers, already tested in Nicaragua, are scheduled to be there. When I observed the last election, I was handed my choice of ballots and the election official in Petionville hospitably offered me the chance to participate. I blushed prettily, but declined. I explained that it’s illegal for U.S. citizens to vote in foreign elections. “But you’re a sincere friend,” he said.
Now Leslie “Democracy-Is-a-Baby” Manigat, the discredited victor in the previous charade, has come home to try to hoist up his body for another chance in the saddle. Marc Bazin, the former World Bank official known as “Mister Clean"--sober, honest and qualified--has been struggling against his reputation of being the American candidate. Perhaps the nervous, nervy orator-priest, Father Aristide, could learn from another charismatic orator, Fidel Castro, and speak soothing words for the benefit of Washington. Then he might really turn out to be the Lech Walesa or the Vaclav Havel of Haiti.
Tragedy seems to have replaced primitive painting as Haiti’s most reliable export product. The photojournalism student returned as a passionate partisan of this talented, attractive and suffering people.
Even the fact that her notes were ripped off, all her data stolen, adds to the glamour of the experience. “That didn’t happen in Port-au-Prince,” she points out, looking at the bright side. “It happened in the women’s room of the Miami airport.”