Friday, April 24, 2009

Observations of this Election Monitor

It's taken me longer to get around to writing this post than I had hoped, but after an exhausting weekend of monitoring and the subsequent writing of a 6-page report in Kreyol, I haven't felt like reliving it in English. As a whole, the experience was a huge disappointment. Not because we didn't see any action (on the contrary, flying rocks, rubber bullets and torn up ballots abounded), but because it left me wondering if democracy in Haiti is a totally hopeless proposition. Have I mentioned that all of my coworkers at POHDH (theoretically one of Haiti's leading human rights institutions) think Haiti would be better off with another dictator? They argue that under Duvalier, less people were starving, the roads were in better condition and electricity was readily available. Knowing the atrocities carried out by the Duvaliers, it's been hard for me to stomach this analysis, but then I'm not Haitian... In Haiti's case, the right to food, shelter and clean drinking water probably should supersede the civil and political rights that come with "democracy."

But back to the subject at hand: the April 2009 Senatorial Elections in the Artibonite Valley.

By 6 AM Josh, Yvon, Leronal and I are at the voting center in Desarmes (the National School) to watch it open. All centers are supposed to be open from 6AM-4PM. The local officials running the election are just starting to show up (and so are voters), ballots haven't been counted, a list of registered voters' names hasn't been posted and the center is in chaos. There are 2 Nepalese MINUSTAH (UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti) soldiers and 1 PNH (Haiti National Police) officer stationed at the center.

Voting opens a little after 7 AM, by which time some of the earliest voters to arrive have already left. Each classroom is divided into at least 2 voting stations, with very little privacy. The mandate (candidates' party members who are present for monitoring purposes) stand too close to the voters and we see several attempting to influence people's votes. Illiterate voters (about 60% of the population) must announce to the room which candidate they intend to vote for and the mandate for that candidate comes forward to show them where to mark the ballot.

Voting stations are divided alphabetically, but most voters don't know this. There is no list of voter's names posted outside of the classroom doors, and the guides funded by EU and USAID money to direct voters are nowhere to be found.

I am astounded by the number of people with voters registration cards that are turned away because their names do not appear on the list of registered voters. There also appears to be some confusion among voters as to whether they are supposed to vote in Desarmes or Valere (several kilometers away, up a mountain). I meet one woman who has walked from Desarmes to Valere and back to Desarmes trying to to find out where she is registered to vote. She never does figure it out.

In a way, none of this matters because by 2 PM independent party members have stormed the center, ripped up and/or stolen all of the ballots and someone has been shot.

Valere 9:00-ish:
Similar issues but less chaotic. A fight breaks out among several mandate while we're here. At one point I'm in a voting station where no-one is voting and for lack of anything else to do, I write "Everyone is staring at me" on my notepad.

Enroute from Valere to Verettes 9:30-10:00AM:
We are behind 3 UN trucks near Douen and an angry crowd is building a roadblock. We are told that a group of independent party members just stormed the voting center in Douen, fired shots in the air and stole the ballot boxes. It appears that the UN are here to pick up the soldiers that were stationed at the center. The crowd is throwing rocks at the UN vehicles and Josh backs up. Several soldiers jump out, fire rubber bullets into the crowd and dismantle the roadblock. The crowd lets us pass with no problems. We encounter several more crowds and roadblocks before Verettes and try to keep our distance from the UN vehicles.

Verettes 10 AM:
More of the same until a group of about 10 unarmed young men (teenagers, really) enter the center. They divide up, force their way into the voting stations, overturn furniture to scare people and start ripping up ballots. Onlookers tell us that they are with the independent party whose candidate, Michelet Louis, is featured as a tractor on the ballot (there are photos on the ballots as a way to help voters that can't read or write recognize their preferred candidate). The armed MINUSTAH soldiers at the center do nothing to stop this and I seriously start to question the point of having them posted at each voting center. I don't see PNH officers anywhere. The boys steal the ballots that they don't rip up and rumor has it they take them off to burn them. I walk into an empty voting station, the floor covered with torn ballots and I almost start crying, I'm so frustrated.

Late morning. We pull up just in time to see another group of guys, older this time and angrier looking, storm the center. They miss three stations, but less than 20 ballots have been filled out in these stations and no-one else is going to come try to vote now. The UN soldiers stationed here look bored.

Uneventful 2-hour drive to Gonaives. Aside from a few UN tanks and a pickup truck here and there, we're the only vehicle on the road. Public transportation has been banned country-wide today for security reasons, so many voters have to walk for miles to reach the center where they're registered to vote. Most don't bother.

Thankfully, we miss the biggest incident in Gonaives by about an hour: a serious fight among party members in one of the voting centers. By the time we get to that center, it's practically under lock-down.
We visit 3 voting centers. Voter participation has been low and everyone seems bored. I walk into one station where all of the officials are asleep. We get complaints from people working in the stations that they haven't been brought any food or water and voters here still have to visit several centers to find out where they are registered (I see the same woman in all 3 centers), but at least here they don't have as far to go between centers. One of the centers that we visit, L'Ecole Ebeneezer, actually has guides directing voters to the correct stations!

Saint Mark 3:30-4:30:
When the polls close at 4:00, we're in Saint Mark to observe the counting of ballots. It doesn't take long: the station that I'm in only has 34 ballots to count. Each voter has had the right to choose two candidates or to mark a blank box, indicating that they do not support any candidate. The station's president holds up each ballot to be viewed by me and the mandate that are present and reads aloud which candidates have been selected. The secretary keeps a tally. At the end, they add up the votes and compare the official results with the tallies the mandate have been keeping. One of the mandate has come up with different numbers, so everyone recounts their tallies and agree.

It is announced that they began the day with 481 ballots. After counting the blank ballots that are left, they come up with a total of 488 ballots. If anyone notices the discreptancy, they don't mention it. As a monitor, all I'm allowed to do is watch and take notes, so I don't say anything either.

Driving back through Verettes at the end of day, the only sign that an attempted election has taken place is a a flattened ballot box in the middle of the road. The UN vehicles that we were following earlier, now dented from being hit by rocks, are in front of the police station.

This election cost $16 million.

If you're interested, here's the UNDP's take on the elections: UNDP audio slideshow

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Here's to the care and restoration of our earth:


"The biblical concept of peace embraces personal peace
with God, peace in human relations, peace among nations
and peace with God's creation."
- Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, 1995

I recently reread the excerpt that I posted in November from the Cry for Suffering and was touched again by the truth and beauty in it. Since Earth Day is intended to inspire awareness and appreciation for our environment, what more fitting day to reflect on whether or not we as individuals are at peace with creation?

A reminder:
Because we believe that God has created all and that which was created is good, we believe in loving stewardship of the physical world:

As images of Christ, we are co-creators with Him, taking care of that which has been given to us, being active in creating and forming instead of consuming and destroying. The world is connected, no matter how much we try to separate it. All that we have comes from the earth. And so we learn to see the connections between living and eating, eating and working, working and loving. Life is sacred, revealing its beauty, pointing us to Christ and His Kingdom that is growing around us and in us.

As followers of Christ, we enter into the world and see its beauty, wanting to conserve and create more of the beauty of the world for those who come after us. This stewardship might mean driving less. It might mean not using air conditioning or turning down the heat. It might mean buying less and having a smaller variety of foods. It might mean planting a garden or taking fewer showers. It might be political or economic involvement that struggles for conservation. Those things are not an end in themselves but are a testimony to our hope of redemption.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Election Day

is tomorrow, but it doesn't look like voter turnout will be very high. In general (and with reason), Haitians are pretty disillusioned by the electoral process. Given Haiti's history of electoral violence, others are simply too scared to go out and vote. It's unclear whether that fear is well-founded, although anti-government and CEP demonstrations are being predicted. I will be acting as an election monitor in and around Gonaives, Saint Mark and Desarmes, so I hope that those areas stay calm.

In a February blog post I discussed some of the controversy leading up to these elections. If you're interested in follow-up reading, here are two fairly good articles I've come across:
Haiti's Senatorial Elections Already a Fiasco
Haiti: Fanmi Lavalas Banned, Voter Apprehension Widespread

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Unfortunately hope for Haiti is still dependant on America?

A comment, if I may, on the much-lauded Hope II Act: what in the world? Creating a friendly environment for sweatshop labor that increases Haiti's dependency on foreign markets aka neocolonialism (and let's not forget the insidious link between free trade and foreign aid) is going to stabilize this country? C'mon, let's try to do something that doesn't only benefit us for a change.

For those of you who don't know about Hope II and are interested: the Hope II Act is U.S. trade legislation that grants Haitian exports free access to U.S. markets with the intention of revitalizing the Haitian economy, the garment industry in particular.

p.s. Regardless of whether or not I am not a proponent of free trade (I'm not): Per bilateral free trade agreements already in place, shouldn't Haiti and just about every other country in this part of the world already have free access to American markets? And if it's not free, but rather preferential access that Haiti is being granted - isn't this in conflict with said trade agreements?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Campers

the view

Along with just about every other outdoor activity, camping is one of the pastimes we sadly gave up when we moved to Port-Au-Prince (though granted, everyday life here sometimes feels like camping). But on a recent hike in the mountains above the city, we realized that maybe just maybe we could pull off camping in Haiti. On Good Friday we and the Thompsonowaks packed up what limited camping gear and warm clothes we have here and set out for the Wynn Farm. Turns out that yoga mats make great sleeping pads.

Happy Campers 1
Sunset over the mountains

Camp stove Ben cleverly made from 2 soda cans:

Happy Campers 2 (note how happy we are to be laying in grass!):

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Some Local Eats

'Cuz it don't get more local than your backyard! (Or in our case, cement terrace). It's supposed to be below freezing in North Carolina tonight, but we're eating home-grown tomatoes here. Don't worry, you'll get your revenge in a few months when it's too hot here for us to do anything but lay around in our underwear.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Riding Uphill

I just left home for the second time on my Ukranian mountain bike (a hand-me-down from a USAID guy that Alexis met on Thanksgiving). I stopped at the end of my street and paid somebody 25 cents to pump up the tires. Then I dove into traffic and 95-degree-exhaust for my ride uphill. The great city we live in is literally built on one long hill, which makes for great riding half of the time. The first few pedal strokes went well but as the novelty of pedaling wore off, I grabbed onto the bed of a passing pickup truck. I had a nice conversation with the three construction workers sitting in the back of the truck as I held on for dear life. I've seen lots of cyclists holding onto trucks heading uphill here and they make it look so easy... As a teenager, I thought I was being stupid holding onto friends' cars going 45 MPH, but it turns out that that was just practice for being stupid later in life. The construction workers were thoroughly entertained. And who wouldn't be by a skinny white guy on a bicycle skitching on their truck? Pretty soon I had to let go to make a turn. On the next short hill, I nearly died. It's been so long since I exerted myself in the heat that I thought I was going to throw up. After a long break I made it up the hill, then coasted down Route Delmas to my office where I drank gallons of water and felt sick for an hour. My total trip distance was about 2.5 miles.

Tim, when you come visit please bring my helmet and the seat and handlebar off of my mountain bike. Thanks.

PS: I once rode my bicycle 4,000-miles. If you don't believe me, click here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What's in a Name?

The former Prime Minister is a controversial guy whose name, Alexis, is featured in graffiti all over this city. At first it was fun to see my name everywhere (if not a little egocentric, since obviously no-one had me in mind when they wrote "Alexis" in 3-foot-tall letters on the side of that building), but I'm OVER it.

It's ironic that I have spent 75 % of my life living in French speaking countries where the name Alexis is never, ever a woman's name. Upon hearing my name, Haitians assume one of two things:

1. It Is my last name, which inevitably produces the following conversation:
New acquaintance: What is your name?
Me: Alexis.
NA: No, your first name.
Me: Alexis.
NA: You don't understand my question. I know Alexis is your name. But what is your first name?
Me: My first name is Alexis. My last name is Depp.
NA: But that is a man's name.
Me: In Haiti (and yes, in every other francophone country in the world), it's a man's name but in the US, it's a woman's name.
NA: (shock, disbelief and discomfort)

There are people I have known for months here that don't believe that Alexis is my first name. They usually call me Madame Alexis or try to avoid calling me anything at all. One coworker periodically calls Ben by my name. Since Ben and I are married, it must be his last name, too, right? Recently at the National Consultation Panel for Deportees meeting, a guy whose last name did happen to be Alexis was trying to get my attention from across the room. It took me a long time to realize that "Dip" was supposed to be me. ("Depp" is hard to pronounce with a Kreyol/French accent.) Sigh.

2. I am a man. I can't tell you how many work emails I receive addressed to Mr. Depp. This assuming that I am a man thing usually only happens when I'm not meeting someone in person. However, in Desarmes a friend recently asked Sharon something along the lines of, "Her name is Alexis? Is she really a girl?"

On the bright side, my parents did not name me Kenlove, Kencheri, Lovedarling, or Cherilove like the parents of the children Ben met on Lagonav. There's a child named Makenlove on the island, too. In Desarmes, friends recently met a Bitchin and a Mylove. I hear Obama is also a trendy name these days.


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