Over the course of the last weeks in January, it began to seem increasingly likely that there would be an election in Haiti.
This is an odd claim for an American to make. The regularity of our own democratic processes means that the question as to whether they’ll be an election never arises. We can tend to be apathetic as election season rolls around. We might be happy or unhappy with the way elections go. Our candidates might win or they might lose. We can distrust an election’s results; we can even doubt the democracy of our democracy. But no one ever has to wonder whether an election will take place. On Tuesday, November 4, 2036 – just to pick an example – I’m pretty sure that Americans will be voting for a president, a set of representatives, and some senators. Nothing like that is really certain this far in advance, but it is pretty likely. There’s even a chance that I’ll participate.
But Haiti has no such history of regular elections. That’s not to say that there haven’t been elections. There have. Presidents have come and gone, some of them elected. Few, however, have completed their constitutionally fixed term and handed their authority over to an elected successor. The country has endured over thirty violent changes in government in the 202 years since it won its independence.
The latest occurred at the end of February 2004, when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from the presidency for the second time. He had been overthrown once early in his first term, in 1991, but returned from exile in 1994 to complete the term. He then handed his office over on schedule to Rene Preval, who was elected to replace him, in 1995. In 2000, he ran again and won.
Exactly what then happened in February 2004 is a matter of controversy. What’s certain is that there were heavily armed groups of irregulars violently approaching Pótoprens from the countryside – Haiti has no regular army – and that demonstrators had taken to the streets in Pótoprens. President Aristide went into exile in South Africa, where he remains. This is true though he also remains a popular figure – perhaps the most popular figure – in Haitian politics.
Since he departed, Haiti has been governed by a Provisional President and Provisional Prime Minister whose constitutional mandates – to organize new elections within three months and then step down – expired over a year ago. Elections had been scheduled three times since last November, but each time they had been cancelled and a new date set.
So it was hard not to retain a degree of skepticism as February 7, the most recently established date, approached. And when we got to the polls at about 6:15 AM, fifteen minutes after they were supposed to open, and found them still closed, and when 7:00 and then 8:00 came and went and they still hadn’t opened, one had to wonder.
My colleagues’ polling place was in Zetwa, roughly a two-hour hike down the mountain from Matenwa. At 3:30 AM, the Matenwa school’s conch sounded. The conch has great value as a symbol in Haiti. The slaves who were organizing themselves into what would become the successful war of independence from the French used the conch to announce the beginning of their uprising. The famous statue of an escaped slave in Pòtoprens shows him with a large conch in hand. In Matenwa, a small boy called Ti Youyout had been asked to blow the school’s conch to awaken prospective voters so that they could prepare to hike down the mountain. A group of us had agreed to meet at the school at 4:00 and to set out together. Folks were anxious to get into line and vote, and I wanted to walk down with the voters and take in the polling place ambience.
The voters’ enthusiasm was striking. If someone had told me six months ago that the Haitians I know would be so determined to vote, I wouldn’t have believed them. Most of the people I was talking to back then were professing a lack of interest, and I couldn’t really blame them. What many said was that they had elected the president they wanted – Aristide – and that he had been taken from them. They didn’t see the point of choosing their own president if their choice could then be reversed by powers, within the country and abroad, that were looking after their own interests.
As plans for the election unfolded, voting only seemed to get harder, in at least two ways. First, acquiring the new national identity card that doubles as a voter ID turned out to be a nuisance. One had to stand in a long line – perhaps hours long – both to apply for the card and then to pick it up when it became available. For folks in the countryside, there might be a long walk just to get to where application for a card could be made. Production and distribution of the cards was slow – this was one major reason that elections were delayed several times. Even now, there are those who never received their cards.
Second, a decision was made to minimize the number of polling places. It was argued that this would maximize national and international observers’ ability to keep an eye on things, to assure that voting was both fair and safe. But it also meant that many people would have to walk for hours to cast their votes. Our two hour walk from Matenwa to Zetwa was typical on Lagonav. Plenty of people had to walk farther than that.
And when people started picking up their registration cards, many discovered that they had been registered to vote a long way from their home, even if there was a polling place nearby. For example, most residents of Zetwa, where my friends voted, had been sent to vote in Zabriko, a long uphill walk for them. Most of my neighbors back in Ka Glo had been sent to Fermat he, either a hard two-hour hike along mountain paths or an even longer trip down into Pétion-Ville, where one could get transportation up the Fermat he road.
But people seemed really determined to vote. They put up with the long walks, the waiting. They ignored their own skepticism. When our group got to Zetwa at 6:15 or so, long lines had already formed, and the lines did not noticeably diminish as the first hours passed without a sign that the polling stations would open.
Finally, all but one of them did open. The organizers decided that the best way to reduce the number of voting sites would be to set up multiple polling stations at single sites. So there were eight separate sites in Zetwa all in the same school, and by 9:00 all but one of the lines was very slowly moving.
The eighth station hadn’t opened by 11:00, and we were really beginning to wonder. A rumor was finally spread by the candidate-appointed observers on duty that they had refused to allow the station to open because the election officials in charge of the station had already signed their stack of blank ballots. This, the observers felt, could easily be a first step towards stuffing the ballot box. It was almost noon when more important election officials arrived from some more central location backed by heavily-armed Argentinean UN soldiers. They marched into the closed ballot station – the local officials had barricaded themselves in – and in a few minutes voting started.
Throughout the day, the atmosphere was festive. Children ran through and around the lines. Friends spoke with friends whom they might rarely see. Vendors sold snacks: cookies and crackers; peanut butter on bread or cassava; fried sweet potato, plantain, and fish; plates piled high with beans and rice; and drinks of various sorts.
It was after 2:00 when all my friends from Matenwa had finally cast their votes. Mèt Abner, the Matenwa school’s principal, was the last, because he simply refused to push or be pushed in a line. He was willing to stand in line for almost eight hours to exercise his civic duty, and that long wait was preferable to any sort of jostling. It’s a sentiment I very much admire.
On the way back up the hill, under the hot tropical sun, we talked about what might come of the election, who would win and who would lose, which races would come down to run-offs in March. It was a slow, dusty trip. There’s been very little rain since early December, and dust covers Lagonav’s roads. It’s several inches deep in places. I spent most of the way chatting with Gertrude, grandmother of my newest godson, born February 3. Gertrude supports her children by walking to the various markets around Lagonav and trading. She rarely misses a day of work, hiking to distant markets nearly every day, so the walk down to Zetwa and back up to Matenwa was nothing remarkable for her. She was dressed up in her best Sunday dress, hat, and shoes. Like Abner, it took her a long time to vote, but she would not be denied the opportunity.
It’s encouraging, but also a little embarrassing to see the commitment to voting that Haitians showed. Consistently low American voter turnout, in a place where it really is easy to vote, belies the “of the people, by the people, and for the people” rhetoric that seemed so important at the beginning of our republic. One wonders what possibilities for change would be open to us if we could learn to engage in the electoral process as Haitians do.