There are precisely 3 times in my life that I have witnessed circumstances where external/current events have visibly impacted the mood and behavior of an entire big city, through and through.
In 1994, I was in Italy with my family during the World Cup, and in addition to the cheers and cries accompanying every goal, near goal, and opposing goal scored, each Italian victory resulted in a citywide block party, with people pouring into the streets.
The second time was September 11th, which I spent in New York City. Streets like Fifth Avenue were so deserted of cars that we walked right down the middle of it. People basically rioted to get onto uptown buses on Third Avenue, as I saw it.
Last night in Port au Prince, here was another such night. I had only been in this city for two nights previous, but the difference was obvious. And it is because of national politics.
The cast of characters includes Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady, Michel Martelly, a popular singer, and Jude Celestin the hand-picked successor of the incumbent leader of Haiti, René Garcia Préval. All tossed their hats in to be the next prime minister of Haiti.
The election was tightly contested, and the margin was close enough that a run off election was mooted. But Celestin was unpopular and was expected to come in third.
At this, an attempt was made to push Martelly, the most popular candidate, off the runoff ballot in order to make room for Jude Celestin, who accumulated far less popular support. This resulted in riots and violent demonstrations popping up all over the island.
The runoff was postponed several times while the government and its electoral body, the CEP tried to figure out what to do. Clearly, Preval wanted to put his own man in power, and once he saw he could not advance Celestin through electoral corruption, my conjecture is that he phoned Aristide, invited him home, and agreed not to disperse the large pockets of demonstrating Aristide supporters in exchange for his own inclusion in any power deals Aristide makes.
Preval’s involvement in destabilizing Haiti seems obvious to me because constitutionally, he is due to step down on February 7th, or, Monday. Aristide is expected to return on February 7th, or, Monday. As of Monday, there is no constitutional leadership, but an old leader with tremendous amounts of backing is “coming to the rescue” after 17 years. So if, failing in installing Jude Celestin, Preval can coattail Aristide back into power, that might be just as good.
But last night, at issue was which candidates will ultimately stand in the runoff election, slated now for March 20. The CEP had yet to certify a result.
Aristide supporters demonstrated, and others prepared for riots as well. Yesterday was a day of high alert for most of the time, though we moved freely about our neighborhood. Starting yesterday, we each kept one bug-out bag packed. We had seats reserved on flights home. If Celestin nudged out Martelly, we expected the nation to explode. And if the election was nullified, it would have been perceived as undue UN/US influence, and the nation was primed to explode.
So apart from pockets of large demonstrations, tire fires, and a few rumored and alleged shootings, the streets which are normally teeming with people and activity at night were completely deserted. Businesses closed early. Banks closed at 2. Every ATM had been bled dry of cash and currently, I am one of the only people in my compound actually holding any much local currency.
While many people watch Twitter feeds on issues out of empathy, curiosity, or even sincerity, I joined a small group of English speakers following Haiti from inside an NGO compound on the actual island. We all had our bags packed. I decided to add to the #haiti, #cep, and #election feeds with sardonic humor, and several other Haiti-watchers were grateful to me for lightening the mood.
Before leaving my computer, I tweeted:
#haiti plays “Don’t Stop Believing,” cuts to black. #election
Ultimately, the CEP delayed its announcement, promised for Feb 2. until many hours into February 3rd, so we had to wind down without knowing the results. We posted firewatch on the roof, and I took first shift, 1-3AM, sitting on our roof, staring out over a city which was silent and empty except for the wild dogs, dyslexic roosters, and the occasional trash fire. (The darker the smoke, the more likely the fire is related to unrest, eg. burning tire barricades).
Fortuntely, their announcement was of the uncontroversial variety — Martelly and Manigat will contest the runoff. It is, however, unclear who rules Haiti as of the 7th. It is also unclear whether Aristide will arrive during my window here, or what sort of anti Americanism this will spawn.
But at least we didn’t have to flee.