By Dennis B. Roddy
My first robo-call of the new political season landed on my cell phone last week. It was in Creole and asked me to support Michel Martelly for President of Haiti.
Precisely why I should support Martelly was not altogether clear. I have no vote, speak no Creole and could only suss out what the caller wanted because the recording was preceded by two text messages.
Those urged me, in English, to tell my relatives back in Haiti that Martelly was the one man to move the stunned and struggling nation forward. I was touched by this devotion and wanted to fly to Port-au-Prince, start a third family and tell them how to vote but the week somehow got away from me and here I am, all worked up but lacking the franchise.
Martelly is also known as "Sweet Micky," is a Haitian "kompas" musician, a brand of Caribbean sound done in the language of the island and the rhythms of Africa. He learned to play piano by ear and, after high school, tried to study medicine but ended up in music. He sometimes punctuates his act by shucking his pants.
"This guy is a serious contender for president. He can get the crowds out. But he's an entertainer known for mooning his audiences. Sean Penn would actually have some gravitas compared to him," said Elizabeth Abbott, a Canadian writer and academic who spent years in Haiti and watched the succession of howling mad Presidents-for-life, thugs, progressives and kleptomaniacs dance across the national stage, each indistinguishable from the other. Sean Penn, the actor, has done real relief work on behalf of the Haitians. He's not eligible to run.
Martelly is chasing after the presidency as a sort of replacement candidate for Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-born American singer who would have made a perfect president for Haiti save for his lack of qualification, training and actual residency in the country he would lead. He viewed these as mere subtleties and everyone was surprised when Haitian courts decided that, for a change, the law was the law.
That an American was getting a cell phone robo-call from a Haitian politician seeking office as a replacement for a disqualified American hip-hop star nicely encapsulates the deeper message that is Haiti: nothing works there but the technology.
"I've been wracking my brains," said Tim Aston, a friend who spent 10 years working in Port-au-Prince and left this past summer, burned out and a bit shellshocked after nearly dying in the quake. We both noticed on our visits to Haiti that the border between it and the adjacent Dominican Republic was literally visible by color. On one side was green and trees; on the other, a brown swatch of desolation.Jean-Claude Duvalier, or "Baby Doc," the wastrel who succeeded his father, the longtime President-for-Life Francois Duvalier, once pointed out Haiti's three major problems: land, water and money. In short, he noticed that nothing worked because they lacked resources and, of course, what money reached the place went into the overseas bank accounts of the thieves in charge. Jean-Claude became so good at it that he had to eject some of the passengers on his getaway plane during the 1986 coup to make room for more loot from the palace.
The people who threw out Duvalier are many of the same people now living in tents and lean-tos in public squares, empty waste grounds and even traffic islands. They cook on charcoal, subsist on aid from the relief organizations that are Haiti's de facto government and they have cell phones. They get robo-calls.
Just because Haiti has a history of misery doesn't mean misery must be its lot. The problem is that, between relief agencies – NGO's they're called – and a wide-open atmosphere that lets anyone come in and open a school, a hospital, a quasi-governmental settlement without restriction, the country has been under occupation of one sort or another for more than a century.
The same could have been said for the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but even after 30 years of an equally godawful dictator, Rafael Trujillo, the DR managed to progress.
How did the DR move ahead where Haiti just fell down?
"Somehow," ventured Aston, "they seem to have accidentally or by some design realized that there's more money to be stolen in a better economy."
I don't know. Abbott, who wrote – and will soon re-release – one of the best accounts of Haiti's turmoil ("Haiti: The Duvaliers and Their Legacy"), remains fascinated and frustrated and in love with that impossible little place where a pants-dropping singer can pass as a statesman.
"In my view, nobody in their right mind would run for president anyway," she said.
Maybe Martelly's counting on that.