Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Shakespearean Lesson from a Bumpy Ride

I lived and worked in Haiti for a good portion of my adult life when I was a very sure-of-myself thirty-something who knew my fellow Americans very well.  I knew they would never elect a celebrity to the Oval Office. That was 1980 ... and they did.

When I lived there, Haiti did not have elections. They had a President for Life. I was reminded of this on my way to and from work twice a day by the huge billboard on the Champs-de-Mars across from the National Palace.  Nobody in Haiti voted for him.  His dying father made him president while he was still in his teens. Nobody in Haiti ever called him "Baby Doc" - ever!  Sometimes American tourists would use the term, and we would gently whisper corrections.  You never knew who might be listening. "But I have freedom of speech," they insisted. Nope, not there you didn't.

When I sensed trouble coming in the early 80s, I left. In 1986 Jean-Claude Duvalier was overthrown and also left. Haiti embarked on the long, rocky road to democracy. It was and is very bumpy ride - sort of like a ride on a Haitian tap-tap.

A president was elected, then overthrown by the army and exiled, and then returned again to fulfill his elected term.  N.B. We did not install Aristede, and he was not our "puppet."  President Clinton 42 merely restored the elected Haitian president to his rightful post.  Just saying because I have heard that allegation.

On January 12, 2010 a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 200,000 people. Colleagues told me, when they heard early estimates of one-tenth that many, that they did not think that toll was possible and must have been an exaggeration.  They did not know Haiti, and they did not know Port-au-Prince.

Our Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton was on the ground in Haiti within days, the first foreign official to arrive.  The President at the time, Réné Préval, met with her at the airport. It would take him 12 additional days to finally show his face on the Champs-de-Mars where thousands of homeless Haitians congregated in a makeshift tent city in front of the collapsed National Palace.  It was an astounding abdication of leadership.

Elections were scheduled for later that year. Once again Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a visit and met with the three run-off candidates. One of the candidates was a popular performer - a bit of a naughty boy with a distinctive head-style that became shorthand for his candidacy (têt kalé - or "shaved head" meant Martelly during the election season).  Another was a woman with a Sorbonne degree, experience in government, and former First Lady.

Mirlande Manigat was the presidential candidate for the Rally of Progressive National Democrats (RDNP) centre-right party. On October 18, 2010, Dr. Manigat also received the endorsement of the Collectif pour le Renouveau Haïtien (COREH).
Her platform for the presidency includes a focus on education of the youth of Haiti, and lifting the long-standing and restrictive constitutional conditions on dual nationality. She specifically promotes opening government positions for members of the Haitian diaspora. Manigat also aims for a more independent Haitian state, one less reliant upon and subject to foreign governments and NGOs. - Wikipedia
The winner was Michel Martelly with no government credentials or experience.

Martelly's journey to the presidency is documented in the film Sweet Micky for President which is currently available on demand at Showtime. Given my love for and attachment to Haiti, of course I watched.

I was unprepared, however, for the parallels that emerged between the 2010 Haitian election and the election season we are experiencing.  Our democracy is so much older.  Theirs is like a toddler who runs before he can get walking under control.  I never thought our presidential campaign events could resemble some of the anger and violence that erupt during third world elections.  But then we have to look to the candidates and the way they run their campaigns.  That is where the similarities lie.

Older and wiser now, I know that yes, Americans absolutely will elect a celebrity for reasons perhaps very similar to those for which Haitians elected "Micky" Martelly.  I have learned never to underestimate what Americans will do in the privacy of the voting booth, never to trust what they might do with their precious ballots, never to assume.

Martelly fell into disfavor with the populace. It was probably inevitable.  In January 2015 protesters in the streets angrily demanded his resignation.  He resigned office in February of this year.  We will never know what Mirlande Manigat might have done as the first woman president of Haiti. I doubt that she will ever make another run.  I do know that we have a chance make our decisions based not on celebrity and visibility but rather on issues, plans, and policies.  Strutting and fretting your hour on the stage leads to being heard no more, after all, and ending up just a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing.

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