It's been a month since my last entry and all I can say is "Thank all the gods that ever were and ever will be that it's all over!" In all that time I didn't have enough time to scratch my ass never mind sit down and entertain all of you. But now that it's done I'll fill you in on the highlights of covering an election in Haiti.
For one thing try to understand that the normal rules of the universe do not apply here. Time, for one thing, is rolled up and squashed together and at the same time strung out like carnival candyfloss. Every day feels like a week yet every month flashes by in an instant. So now, when I look at my calendar I'm at once amazed that a month has passed and at the same time feel as though I have been running frantic for a year. My body and mind are at complete odds. All I know for certain is that I need sleep in the way a newborn needs to shit.
So, to the story.... It all started many months ago. When I arrived here my mission was simple; cover the first democratic elections since President Jean Bertrand Aristide was summarily evicted in February 2004. By Haitian constitutional decree the elections should have taken place 90 days after Aristide's departure, but as I've said, time doesn't work normally here. The original election date was set for October of 2005. I was sent in July to set the groundwork for a seamless coverage. No problem. As it is obvious, they didn't happen as planned. They also didn't happen the second, third or fourth time they were planned. For that entire time I'm reserving rental cars, hotel rooms, drivers, telephones, then canceling them, then re-reserving, then canceling, then ... anyway, you get the picture. It was nuts.
So finally they get set for February 7th and the powers that be scream, "They will not be postponed again!" despite the fact that the electoral council that was set up to organize the elections couldn't set up a piss up in a brewery. Not matter, the powers declared, these elections will happen. Trust me, I was happier than anyone. Just get the damn things over with, I prayed. Really, there are only so many rallies and counter rallies you can cover without feeling like you're in some vicious loop of rhetoric and banner waving.
When it became clear that all was a go, the rest of the crew showed up, pumped up and neurotic. Gotta get the story, gotta beat the competition, was the mantra.
I must be stupid. I thought that with a crew of 5 cameramen, two producers and a logistics person I might be allowed to do my shooting and be done with it. As it was, it was like a hive of bees had invaded the country. For a month straight we ran screaming, trying to make sure every event; every news conference, every rally, every counter rally, every political speech, every reaction to a political speech was covered. It didn't matter if the person being interviewed had anything to say, or if we'd already covered 5 rallies that day, it had to be done. So we did it. And finally Election Day came. And people voted. No violence, no shooting, no machetes, nothing, just people doing the usual push and shove in an attempt to carry out their democratic right to elect someone who most likely won't be able to change this sorry country.
And guess what, the international news agencies felt like they were ripped off. So they left. Before the results were even in, mind you. It's not over, I kept telling them, a storm's brewing. Thankfully my company listened to me and stuck around. And this is where I get to say my favorite line; I fucking told you so.
What happened was that despite a smooth vote, the super competent electoral council was dragging their feet on handing out the results. A week after the vote, only a partial count was available. Their big mistake was releasing results at the 20 per cent mark that showed that Rene Preval was leading with sixty some odd per cent of the votes counted. Then a few days later releasing results that had him down to fifty some odd. Then a few days later they had him below the 50 per cent level. This did not go down well with the Preval supporters. You see, many of the trouble areas, what the UN calls the red zones, are Preval supporters. They are considered the base, or the people of the country - not the elites or even the middle class, but those who live on less than a dollar a day and share their neighbourhoods with gangs and kidnappers and general trouble makers. So when these people smell a conspiracy they don't just call their congressman, they barricade streets with burning tires and destroyed cars. And that's what they did. They entire capital and a lot of roads leading in and out were made impassable. Dark, toxic smoke rose over the city and people took to the streets heading for, of all places, the Montana hotel.
Let this be a lesson to any hotel in a volatile country; do not have anything to do with the electoral process. And for God's sake, don't set up a press center where are the results are released from. You are asking for trouble.
The Montana sits atop a hill overlooking the city. The country's elite stays there as well as every journalist that can get a room. You can swim, play tennis and get an massage in the gym. It really is the antithesis of all that the base is.
You can imagine the surprise when thousands of people showed up at the flimsy gate and demanded entry. Chaos, that's what. But here's the thing. After they'd overrun the few UN guards posted at the bottom of the driveway and stormed the gate and entered the hotel proper, they didn't go nuts. They broke very few things, and those things were an accident. They didn't force their way into rooms and rape and pillage. They did, however, overtake every floor in the hotel. It was a show of force. A reminder that others may have the money, but they have the numbers and the will.
Now just to be clear, I didn't see any of this first hand. I was in the city where it was burning but safe. I'm basing all this story on the accounts of those there and on the photos and video I saw.
My favorite clips by far were when the people started to leave. A few hundred, though, decided that after the long walk up the hill a swim would be very nice indeed. And so these few hundred plunged into the Montana's pristine kidney shaped swimming pool. There was much splashing and covorting and jumping around. Some even found soap and turned it into a public bath. From stories I was told, some didn't even know they couldn't swim until they jumped in. Other people jumped in and dragged them out just to watch those same people hurl themselves once again into the now cloudy water. Their enthusiasm and joy had overtaken any fear or common sense.
Then they all left. They just up, said thanks for the swim, and walked the eight or so kilometers back to their respective neighbourhoods.
The next day everything had settled down. Most roads were clear. Most tires were mere circular smears on the roads. And most people were going about business as usual. But the lesson had been learned. The Montana closed down the press center and vowed never to have anything political take place in their hotel again. Ever since the "invasion" they've been reinforcing their gate and have even begun building another one that looks like it could turn back Alexander's armies.
I'm sorry this is taking so long, but it's not over. A night or two later I get a very excited phone call from one of the gang leaders in Cite Soleil (a very, very red zone). We've found ballots in the garbage dump, he said breathlessly. What? Oh fuck. To me this was a worst-case scenario. This could be the spark that sets Haiti ablaze. Can you come down, he asked. What, now? I asked. Yes, of course now, he answered, we finally have proof.
Proof of a conspiracy, is what he claimed to have. Proof that some body or some group was trying to derail the elections, trying to stop another popular president fro taking power. It wasn't only the base people who believed this. Many of us were of the same opinion. There was definite monkey business afoot. Word was that the powers that be wanted a run off (an election between the two leading contenders should neither one of them break the 50 + 1 vote count needed for a first round victory). Why is anyone's guess? Some said it had to do with making everyone feel like they actually participated - which makes no sense to me. Another more plausible reason is that whoever won would have had to cooperate with the other parties in order to gain the support through the second round leading to a less dictatorial government. Whatever the case, these ballots were a shit storm waiting to happen.
But again, calmer heads prevailed. The powers that be, seeing the brown clouds on the horizon decided to cut their losses. They conferred with Preval and after what I'm sure was what they call a "marathon" session, they came to an agreement and declared him the winner with just over 50 per cent. Not fair, you say. What about the second place candidate? Yeah, he had 11 per cent and the third place guy had 8 - so we are not talking a close race here kids.
So now, finally everyone ahs gone home and I can resume my peaceful life in Haiti. That is until the inauguration, of course. Can't wait.