Elections and the Haitian Street
The Haitian Street teems, and then stops (election oblige), then teems again. Caroline Khoubesserian reporting from Port-au-Prince
Haiti brims with people. Its population (approximately nine million) dwells mostly on the coastline of this tiny piece of land, including in and around its crowded capital city, Port-au-Prince. Astounding poverty and the insecurity of daily life notwithstanding, this is a place full of life. By day, the streets of Port-au-Prince and other urban areas are busy, bustling, dusty, noisy, garbage-filled, colourful and, yes, musical. Taptaps, the main form of public transportation – converted pick-up trucks and vans dressed up in a rainbow of designs, pumping Haitian music – abound. People hop on and off these packed vehicles to get to work, to school, to join friends. Every once in a while, a showy youth on rollerblades will hook onto the back for the tough, uphill ride from Centre-Ville to Pétionville. Market vendors are everywhere, on the roadside and among the slow-moving traffic of downtown. On sale are drinks, vegetables, fried banana chips. Clusters of people gather easily in the streets for a conversation or a quick hello. Even the problematic shantytowns – Cité Soleil, Martissant – are filled with people going about their business as usual.
Protests are a common feature of the streets. In both the capital and the regions, Haitians will easily blockade or rally for various causes. The rising cost of living (la vie chère), lack of pay for schoolteachers, the dire need for road improvements, the non-inclusion of Famni Lavalas (a left-leaning key political party) and general misgivings about the UN MINUSTAH (peacekeeping) presence are all potential themes. Since mid-2008, these gatherings have been frequent, rarely violent, and even if so, only on a small scale. (The last truly violent protests were in April 2008).
Even with this constant action, all was silent on last April 19 and June 21 – the days of partial senatorial elections. Not a movement was noted, nor a sound heard throughout the capital. The streets were deserted. Reports indicate that between three and 11 percent of the entire population voted. And the following day, all was back to normal: the traffic-jams, the colour, the music, people everywhere.
One interpretation for the quiet of the election period – popular with the Famni Lavalas (the party of former president Aristide, himself in exile in South Africa since 2004) – is that Haitians boycotted the election because their candidates were excluded from the ballot. The Famni Lavalas, internally divided at the time, did not submit lists of their candidates with Aristide’s signature to the CEP (conseil électoral provisoire) before the official deadline. However, party proponents claim that they were excluded on purpose, and thus staged the nation-wide non-participation on election day.
That said, Haitians might be altogether fed up with politics, including Famni Lavalas. The non-voting and the non-protesting could together be a silent retreat of the populace from their so-called representatives – a wholesale rejection of politics. Many Haitians no longer believe that politicians act on their behalf to improve society, and thus do not wish to participate in the processes that bring them to office. Moreover, violent descent in Haiti can be staged by the cronies of powerful men to sway the political scene. It seems that there was no reason to agitate the population during this last senatorial election.
With other elections right around the corner, one should not take the stated results as representative of the mood of the population. Engaging the population is tricky in the current state of affairs. Another partial senatorial election is to take place in November of this year. It will directly follow the hurricane season, meaning that the level of popular interest could be even lower, as Haitians themselves with rebuilding their homes. On the other hand, interest could well be extremely high, as they consider how international aid is put to use by their representatives.
These elections will pale in import with the 2010 presidential elections. That is when the real extent of this quiet protest will become clearer. En attendant, the vibrancy of the Haitian street endures.
Caroline Khoubesserian spent the last year in Haiti working for a humanitarian organization. She has worked in the humanitarian field for three years.