Black comedy as Haiti goes to polls

Guns, goons and voodoo . . . Phil Davison reports from Port-au- Prince on election day
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The Independent Online
IT'S NOT a sound you like to wake up to, the click and clatter of magazines being slotted into automatic rifles. But it has been my wake- up call all week. Outside my ground floor hotel window, almost within reach, an unusually overfed Haitian snores upon a chaise longue, a big Colt .45 heaving on his belly with each breath. Four of his friends are awake, loading and unloading their AK-47s by the swimming pool's fish- shaped fountain.

We are in the rickety, gingerbread, whitewashed Oloffson Hotel in Port- au-Prince, immortalised as the Trianon in Graham Greene's novel The Comedians. The pool is where Philippeaux, Greene's fictional activist against the Duvalier dictatorship, was found floating dead. Mr Colt .45 and the other barefoot, early morning gunmen are bodyguards who protect another, real- life anti-Duvalier activist, Port-au-Prince's mayor Emmanuel "Manno" Charlemagne.

As a balladeer he won popular support with a Georges Moustaki voice and Dylanesque protest lyrics during the Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier regime. And he is security-conscious to say the least. He is black, like President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the vast majority of Haitians, as opposed to the mulatto (mixed race and light-skinned) elite which has traditionally run the country and still has most of the guns.

He packs a pistol himself, an automatic tucked into his belt, changes vehicles regularly and slips into the Town Hall at night to get on with the business of running a city so primitive that there is little that can really be run. When gunmen recently shot up the building, he ran into the street himself, pistol blazing. His answer to getting through Port- au-Prince's horrendous traffic jams is to pump bullets into the air. It rarely fails.

Apparently he feels safer in the hotel. Perhaps he feels foreign newsmen will serve at least as a symbolic human shield. He is living in Room 14, along the corridor from the "Graham Greene suite" where the writer was inspired to produce The Comedians.

Come next February, Mr Charlemagne is likely to be more powerful still. The word on the street - more reliable than any other source in this land of voodoo drums and sorcery - is that the man almost certain to be elected president today, Rene Preval of the Lavalas (Waterfall) party of the outgoing President Aristide - will name the folk-singing mayor to the pivotal role of head of both Interior and Defence ministries when he takes office on 7 February.

After all Haiti has been through in the past 10 years - the downfall of the Duvalier dynasty, the successive juntas, the upsurge of the little Catholic priest called Aristide, his ousting by the generals and his return courtesy of US troops - it is a strange little election. Few Haitians - 85 per cent of them illiterate - care. Most see it as a Washington-mixed concoction to put the final signature on President Clinton's "Operation Uphold Democracy" on the eve of a US election year.

Despite Mr Aristide's Friday call to vote and his first public endorsement of his former prime minister, Mr Preval, diplomats expect barely a third of the electorate to turn out. Haitians are more concerned with their bellies. Last September's US intervention, followed by the arrival of a UN peace-keeping force, may have reduced the nightly killings but little else has changed. Much is worse.

Much of Port-au-Prince, by far the poorest city west of the Atlantic, and perhaps the poorest in the world, has become an inhabited rubbish dump as more and more people migrate from the countryside to find fewer and fewer jobs. An estimated 85 per cent of the population have no job or simply sell their wares on the streets. The majority make less than pounds 10 a month, while some 200 mulatto families who control the economy frequent the casinos, jazz clubs and lobster restaurants in the lush hills above the city.

It is ironic that the first place where Christopher Columbus landed for any length of time, 503 years ago this week, is now the most neglected land in the western hemisphere. Nor is that the only irony. The descendants of the slaves brought here by the Spanish and French were the first blacks to overthrow their masters. They ousted the French and created the world's first black republic in 1804.

As in North America, the colonialists hired blacks to oppress blacks, creating a tendency that has remained, most recently in the Duvaliers' dreaded Tontons Macoute and militia groups such as the Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti, or Fraph.

At least, as the locals in slums such as Cite Soleil or Brooklyn will tell you, there are relatively few rats - because the stench is too bad even for them. Street-wise rodents have moved to the swankier areas uphill where streets exist. In the slums, men, women and children crouch in the open, within touching distance of one another, to defecate without embarrassment while the foreign visitor averts his gaze.

Rubbish has become a kind of architecture, lining alleyways and left to biodegrade. In downtown Port-au-Prince the trick is to keep your mouth shut for as long as possible, like swimming under water. To open it is to retain a nauseating taste of filth on your palate for the rest of the day.

Hoteliers warn foreigners to wash their hands after handling local banknotes, or gourdes, which often feel like cloth or are crumpled up in balls.

Through the black mud of downtown "streets", lean men with glistening muscles haul giant cartloads of flour. Locals complain of the recently quadrupled price of sugar not because they drink coffee but because they chomp on 2ft sticks of sugar cane as their main daily meal.

Despite this, they retain a gaiety rarely found elsewhere and reflected in brightly painted tap-tap taxis and buses which ply the city and countryside carrying slogans from "Christ the Redeemer" to "The impatient soul is like a flower without perfume".

They also retain their traditional faith in voodoo and sorcery despite centuries of attempts to repress it and widespread attendance of both catholic and protestant churches. Last week, angry neighbours burned alive two women they believed were loups garou or werewolves, after a baby was found dead. The neighbours had seen two black cats near the baby which later entered the women's house. They assumed the women had turned into the cats in order to kill the baby. It was an everyday, rather than exceptional story here.

Last week, rumours abounded that political opponents had tried to poison President Aristide but that he had survived by taking a voodoo antidote.

Meanwhile, back at the Oloffson hotel, used as a US marines' hospital during an earlier American occupation from 1915 to 1934, a character in The Comedians is in his usual place, immaculate in suit and silk cravat, his cane resting on the mahogany bar that was once half of a marines' billiard table.

Aubelin Jolicoeur, who calls himself Mr Haiti, was the prototype for the character Petitpierre, the "greeter" at Port- au-Prince airport. "Truman Capote introduced me to Graham and it was I who told him that we Haitians are all comedians, actors, mythomaniacs," Mr Jolicoeur said yesterday over the inevitable Rum Punch.

"Tell your readers that the Americans have done nothing here. At least in 1915-34, they improved the infrastructure and got things done. The Americans clearly despise us. This intervention was an act of high treason by Aristide. It was he who brought the forces of occupation here.

"As we say over here, the Americans were trying to bandage a wooden leg. When they leave, everything will be back to square one.''