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Haitian voters go to the polls in just over a month, and outside observers are already voicing concerns about whether the country is ready for an election. We’ll get up to speed on the key issues at stake and preview The Kojo Nnamdi Show’s upcoming reporting trip to Haiti.
- Johanna Mendelson-Forman Senior Associate, Americas Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
- Brendan Sweeney Producer, The Kojo Nnamdi Show
- Donna Edwards Member, U.S. House of Representatives (D-MD, 4th Congressional District)
Video Preview of Kojo’s Trip to Haiti
Join Kojo for a series of special broadcasts from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, from November 8-11, 2010:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, skin color in East Africa, we learn about attacks against people with albinism in Tanzania. But first, inside the competition for one of the most challenging jobs in the world, 19 people are vying to become the next president of Haiti. Campaign posters are everywhere amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince and no clear frontrunner has emerged in the race.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIMeanwhile, the to-do list for the next president is daunting. Ten months after the earthquake that killed some 200,000 and left another 1.5 million homeless, collapsed buildings are still everywhere and many people are struggling to survive. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" will be in Port-au-Prince November 6 through 11 for a series of broadcasts on life in Haiti. And joining us now for a preview of that series is producer Brendan Sweeney. He joins us by telephone from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Brendan, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. BRENDAN SWEENEYHi, Kojo. How's Washington, D.C.?
NNAMDIIt's raining cats and dogs in Washington, D.C. right now, Brendan. So you're probably happy to be where you are, where it's probably bright and sunny. But tell us, first, about your first impressions of Port-au-Prince.
SWEENEYWell, it's a loud and confusing and intense city, very beautiful. It's a city of a lot of concrete, a lot of walls and a lot of -- unfortunately, a lot of buildings that have collapsed and lots of rubble. It's really a pretty fascinating place. And the one thing you take away, immediately when you get here, is that things are incredibly complex and it's very difficult to kind of figure out what is going on. I heard in your intro referencing the 19 people running. The posters, political posters, are everywhere across the city.
SWEENEYAnd there's also a intense amount of street graffiti with either the term aba or viva associated with political candidates' names. The aba means down with and viva means up with. And apparently, there are paid street gangs or paid political groups that go out at night and do street art -- it's not like street art, really kind of graffiti tagging, in favor of their chosen candidate.
NNAMDIYou mentioned that it's loud, confusing and intense. You should feel right at home because that sounds like a description of the offices of "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." So you should be right at home.
NNAMDIYou're down there to explore whether we can do live shows from Port-au-Prince. What are you learning about the city's infrastructure in the process?
SWEENEYWell, before the earthquake, the common answer is that the infrastructure was pretty bad. My understanding was roughly 30 percent of the country had access to, electricity before the earthquake. After the earthquake, pretty much every functioning business relies on generators. And the Internet is not quite as strong as what we're used to. Although, I have to say, we have been surprised by the quality of broadband access and penetration here.
SWEENEYThe mobile network -- I don't know what it sounds like, but the mobile network has also been pretty impressive. We visited quite a few radio stations to see if there were any -- in comparison to our gear at WAMU, we actually found one which looks like it's quite promising.
NNAMDIAnd that's the one we will likely be broadcasting from when we are there. We will be there November 6 through the 11. The name of that station is Radio Metropole. We're talking with "Kojo Nnamdi Show" producer, Brendan Sweeney. He is in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, trying to break ground for our arrival there next month. And you can join the conversation at 800-433-8850 or go into our website, kojoshow.org. Brendan, you did several interviews yesterday. One of the people you spoke with is an artist named Jerry Rosembert. Tell us about Jerry and his art.
SWEENEYWell, as I said, there is a political graffiti all over the place, literally in all the major towns that we've been hitting. And there have been a number of images that have struck us, that were actually very different from that, that real, sort of formal street art that is akin to sort of graffiti that you'd see in New York or Washington, D.C. Jerry is a 26-year-old. He is actually pretty well known for an image that he scrawled across Port-au-Prince about two hours after the earthquake, which was an image of the image of the island with a tear coming out of it.
SWEENEYAnd he basically has been towing an interesting line. He is sort of radically anti-political. He really believes that he should be using street art to inspire people, to appeal to that (unintelligible) with the sort of volatile political season coming up. He's actually found that he's having trouble maintaining independence, as just a guy who likes to put art on the concrete.
NNAMDII'm glad you said he's anti-political. But one of the people who is running for office spray-painted his name over Jerry's art, implying that Jerry Rosembert is endorsing that candidate. And here's what Jerry Rosembert had to say about that.
MR. JERRY ROSEMBERTI was really, really upset to see -- I create my things and then somebody -- just to use it for his campaign. And it was like me, inspired by all the people in the camps, all the people that suffer and try to give them hope. Not to put faces crying, but to give them hope, with the kids and the older person, too. To take the lead and to say, we won't die. We have to stand. But I was really upset and say, oh my God, why put his name? Why pay for putting his name? And where he comes from with the "Haiti Won't Die," because that was my graffitis all around Port-au-Prince. And some of the people thought that I'm paid for doing "Haiti Won't Die" for him.
NNAMDIThat was Jerry Rosembert explaining to producer Brendan Sweeney his feelings about people putting, over his anti-political graffiti, the name of a presidential candidate. Brendan, tell us about some of the other people you've met.
SWEENEYWell, we just actually wrapped up a trip to one of the biggest internally displaced people camps. It's called Parc Jean-Marie Vincent. It's actually a camp that is on a former sports complex downtown. And we spoke with Dr. Corbel Du Beek (sp?) who's the medical director of one of the clinics from down there. And it was actually pretty fascinating to hear him talk about his anxieties about the coming political season. He basically indicated that he was worried. He's seen campaigners for both -- for many of the different political candidates. And he's kind of worried that, in the absence of real or substantive change in the camp, it's possible that the camp themselves could become factionalized and that there could be violence within the camps.
SWEENEYEarlier in the day, though, we spoke with George Sassine, who's the executive director of a government commission that oversees manufacturing. Haiti is trying very hard to access the U.S. market for textiles. And he had a much more positive spin on it. He seems to think that even though, you know, there may be a little bit of turmoil as the election approaches, he seems to be thinking that the city is on more sustainable ground. We've also spoke with the CEO of Digicel Haiti which is the biggest company in Haiti now. It's actually a multinational corporation, but it has the biggest cell network here.
SWEENEYAnd yesterday, we also attended a mass at Hospital Saint Francois de Sales, which is a Catholic church-run hospital that was destroyed by the earthquake. They are now in the process of clearing out the rubble. And apparently, there are more than 70 people, who perished in the earthquake, who are still among the rubble. And so they had a mass with the archbishop there to sort of say blessings and to remember the people who died. It's very moving.
NNAMDIWe are talking with "Kojo Nnamdi Show" producer Brendan Sweeney who is Port-au-Prince, Haiti because we will be traveling to Port-au-Prince on the 6th through the 11th of November. Brendan is there looking at facilities and talking to people. Brendan, you mentioned earlier about how you see signs about this upcoming election with 19 presidential candidates all around Port-au-Prince. Why is this election so contentious?
SWEENEYYou know, it's interesting. I mean, part of it -- we were speaking with the people at Radio Metropole, who in some ways seem like they're actually very similar to WAMU and "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." They are trying to arrange a debate among all 19 candidates. And I...
NNAMDIHow do you arrange a debate with 19 candidates?
SWEENEYWell, that's part of what they're grappling with. And they're also grappling with the question of polling, and do you exclude people, based on what they're polling at. And...
NNAMDII think we just lost connection with Brendan Sweeney, who is in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Brendan, I can't hear you. Can you hear me? Let's try that one more time. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation, either with Brendan Sweeney or with our other guests who have been looking at the situation in Haiti and in some cases, have been active in Haiti. But you can still call us, 800-433-8850 or join the conversation at our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDILater in the broadcast, we'll be talking about attacks against people with albinism in Tanzania. But we'll continue our conversation now about Haiti and what's going on there. Joining us now by telephone is Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She's a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Maryland's 4th congressional district. She is a Democrat. Congresswoman Edwards, thank you for joining us.
CONGRESSWOMAN DONNA EDWARDSThank you. It's good to be with you.
NNAMDIAlso joining us by telephone is Johanna Mendelson-Forman, senior associate with the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She will also be traveling to Haiti with us in November as an adviser on Haiti's reconstruction and politics. Johanna, thank you for joining us.
MS. JOHANNA MENDELSON-FORMANOh, thank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJohanna, this has been described as the most significant election in Haiti in two decades. What's at stake in this round of voting?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I think every democratic election is a significant one for Haiti. And, I think, the first thing we have to look at is, there has been a process when Preval was elected in 2006, which was democratic. And I think the goal is to continue a transition that is peaceful and non-violent. There are lots of challenges. And, of course, Brendan has described the terrible conditions under which this election will take place. But it's not the only place in the world that's done elections in adversity. I mean, look at the Balkans in the '90's after the Dayton accord.
MENDELSON-FORMANUm, I know -- and I'm sure Congresswoman Edwards will discuss a letter that she signed onto that Congresswoman Waters put forth about concerns and I think those concerns are very legitimate. But we also have to believe that people want to see peaceful change in a country that has been totally turned upside down, literally and figuratively, by this terrible natural disaster.
NNAMDICongresswoman Edwards, it was mentioned that you're among a group of lawmakers who recently sent a letter to Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, voicing concerns about the election process. What specifically are your concerns?
EDWARDSWell, I joined with 44 of my colleagues, spearheaded by Congresswoman Waters, and sent this letter to Secretary Clinton expressing our concern, actually, about the fairness and inclusiveness of the elections that are slated for November 28. I mean, I think our concern is that the exclusion of political parties, one of which is the Lavalas party, which is a, you know, a significant presence in Haiti. And the deeper concern that there'd be legitimacy to the government that's established for all the responsibilities that has to be carried out over these next several years to rebuild Haiti.
NNAMDIWhy specifically has the Lavalas party, which was the party of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, been banned from participating in the election, Johanna Mendelson-Forman? It's my understanding that Haiti's former ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph, has also been blocked from running.
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, there are lots of people who have been blocked from running and those are the two you mentioned, as well as Wyclef Jean who was the goodwill ambassador that President Preval had put forward and still is a goodwill ambassador. There are many issues around Fanmi Lavalas, some of which are legitimate concerns about appropriate procedures and others that represent bias among the other candidates. I think the other thing to be aware of is that people who are part of Fanmi Lavalas have also broken off into other parties, some of whom are represented in this election.
MENDELSON-FORMANI think the biggest issue, and it's talked about in the letter that Congresswoman Edwards mentioned, is that the electoral commission did not revisit some of the exclusion issues. But the fact that there are these large number of candidates who, I think, are quite representative of a huge segment of society, also speaks to the need to move forward in Haiti. These elections were postponed from last February because of the earthquake. So essentially the government is operating under almost a state of exception in the sense that they do not have a congress that is in place.
MENDELSON-FORMANThey need to have parliamentary elections. They need to look at a revamping of the constitution. And I think the inclusion issue is clear, but I think there are other pressing issues, as well, that need to be revisited. And a new government may be just the cure that makes this move forward.
NNAMDICongresswoman Edwards, do you think the U.S. should be giving Haiti money to support this election?
EDWARDSWell, I mean, the reality is, I think, as Johanna's pointed out, it really is important to be able to go forward with elections, but those elections also have to confer legitimacy. And precisely because the United States, along with other international partners, has made such a substantial commitment in terms of rebuilding Haiti, it is really important that they have legitimacy. I mean, after all, even the exclusion of Lavalas -- and it's true people have moved from, you know, one party to another. And that's fine, but the exclusion of a party or any party without a real explanation from the electoral commission, I think, is really critical.
EDWARDSAnd it's important. And these elections are about how Haiti moves forward. If you have significant exclusions, if people feel that there's not participation, if as, you know, goes forward, there might be, you know, potentially boycotts of the election. That will then jeopardize the government that's established. And so, I think, many of us want a fair and open process for the election. And we also want a legitimate election so that the $2.9 billion that the U.S. Congress actually passed in August of this year actually goes to the use that's put forward and there's legitimacy. And so, I think, Johanna and I would both agree, while it's really appropriate that we proceed with elections and not postpone them, it is also important for them be legitimate, for the international community, but also for Haitians.
NNAMDIDonna...go ahead, Johanna.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd I'd like to -- you know, and I agree with this completely. I think the challenge moving forward also has to do with inclusion. The turn-out rate in the last election, which really was terrible, was three to six percent. The biggest challenges that are faced, and putting the party issue aside, is getting people, the 1.2 million people that are still displaced, some kind of voter ID cards. Now, we've dealt with this in other countries and the OAS with CariCom has been charged to manage this. My biggest concern is that we have a participation rate, not only in Port-au-Prince, but around the country where people are aware of what is happening.
MENDELSON-FORMANThat will convey legitimacy as low turn-out will make it more problematical. And so my hope is that the U.N. with the OAS and CariCom, under Colin Granderson's leadership, move forward to try and get the widest participation possible right now. Because I don't know how much we can go back on what the electoral commission has done. But we certainly have to make sure people know what the conditions are, of whom they're voting for and have a fair discussion around those.
NNAMDIJohanna Mendelson-Forman is a senior...
EDWARDS(unintelligible) people that are displaced actually have -- that the people who are displaced have the potential to vote, that the voting locations are cleared of folks, that folks who are situated in the encampments have the ability to get their identities verified and voting to proceed. So, I mean, there are a lot of hurdles, not the least in order to make to this a legitimate election. And, I think, the United Nations and the United States and the international community have to be aggressively involved and making sure that that all can take place by the target date.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones. Here's Suma in Bowie, Md. Suma, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUMAYes, thank you for taking my call, Kojo.
SUMAMy main area of concern is what -- has -- is the French, who are more or less historically responsible of dragging his feet to the current state it is by imposing millions of debt on them seeking freedom, what is it that they are doing to morally pay for their own responsibilities? Is there anything we (word?) through the United Nation or INS or World Bank or directly from a French government, those are some of the messages that people should be (word?) about so that people know that the people of Haiti are not in this, not because they are dumb, not because they are stupid or they cannot manage themselves, it's because, historically, that we are forced and drug into that situation.
NNAMDIAnd, of course, there is that history, Suma, and we don't want to not learn from the lessons of history, but, as Johanna likes to say, moving forward in this situation, we've got to look at what's likely to take place in the current election. But I don't know, Johanna, is there any significant French involvement at this point at all?
MENDELSON-FORMANAs far as a part of the donor group, absolutely. I don't think the French are involved in any significant way politically. The United States, the United Nations and the CariCom Nations are the main actors right now, under the auspices of the OAS.
NNAMDIAnd you should know, Suma, that we'll be doing an entire hour on history -- on Haitian history on Monday, November 8th. That is in the 1:00 p.m. hour while we will be in Haiti. So thank you very much for your call. And I would suggest that you listen then. Congresswoman Edwards, outgoing President Rene Preval has said he is concerned the candidates will try to destroy their rivals, rather than focusing on their ideas. But others say, it's Preval who's keeping the election from being free and fair. What is your understanding about the role he is playing?
EDWARDSI don't know, but I'll tell you this. I mean, I was with President Preval on a trip in August of this year, just after the Congress passed our appropriation for Haiti. And talked to him about these issues and really, you know, tried to encourage him. As members of Congress, I traveled with majority leader Hoyer there really to encourage him to allow these elections to proceed, not to be in the way of them because Haiti needs a legislative governing body in order to be able to put the international community's commitment to use in rebuilding, not just Port-au-Price, but rebuilding all of Haiti under the legitimacy of the Haitian government. And that's certainly what we reinforce with President Preval and we'll continue to do that.
NNAMDIWhat are the allegations made about President Preval, Johanna Mendelson-Forman?
MENDELSON-FORMANI'm sorry. I couldn't hear you.
NNAMDIThe people who say it's Preval who was keeping this election from being free and fair, what role is he playing, it's your understanding?
MENDELSON-FORMANWell, I mean, I've met President Preval and he's the leader of his party and I think he's doing, to the extent that party leaders do, trying to back a slate of candidates that obviously represent the agenda he had in Haiti, which, until the earthquake, was certainly trying to move the country forward. If it's the best agenda, I think the people of Haiti will have to vote on. But it is interesting that his choice candidates are not the ones who are ahead in some of the polls. I just read a poll that was done this month, earlier this month, that does not show his candidate's ahead.
MENDELSON-FORMANIn fact, they show Mirlande Manigot, the widow of a former President and a well known activist and opposition to Preval moving, as well as Shas (sp?) Becal (sp?) who was one of the candidates who's a businessman. And the third part -- person coming in this pole is the candidate that was backed and represents Preval's party. So to the extent that he's manipulating this, certainly people who are in leadership positions try, but I'm also believing that there is an opposition based on this initial polling data that I'm reading.
NNAMDII should mention that President Preval is not allowed to run for a second term. And in case you're just joining us, there are 19 people who are competing to replace him. Realistically, do you think there is any chance this election might be postponed, Congresswoman Edwards?
EDWARDSI would hope not. What I do hope is that -- I think that there is enough time between now and the target date for the elections for the number of these issues to be resolved, for the oversight to take place that enables displaced people to be -- to have their identities confirmed and them, you know, registered as required to vote. I think there's every opportunity for that and for Haitians citizens who've lost their identity cards to be able to vote. There's every opportunity between now and the 28th.
EDWARDSAnd so I would hope that the international community, particularly CariCom, the United States, would step forward -- and the United Nations -- and make sure that this takes place in a way that will carry the legitimacy that's necessary to do what we all know in this hemisphere needs to be done to rebuild Haiti.
NNAMDIJohanna Mendelson-Forman, the UN mission in Haiti is voicing concerns about the reported distribution of weapons in advance of the election. Have you heard anything about this and what chance is there that this election could turn violent?
MENDELSON-FORMANYou know, I think there is always a chance of violence in Haiti because weapons are still freely flowing into the country. And even though many were buried with the ruble in the earthquake, people are getting access to them. The bigger issue is that the challenge of moving ahead with this election, and I'm sure the Congresswoman agrees, is we've got to get people out of camps. We've got to get them back into normal living circumstances so that the tensions can be eased.
MENDELSON-FORMANAnd, I think, any delay in the elections, as your questioner asked, would be a disaster. But I also feel that -- I'm very confident with the good representation we have in our Congress and at the U.N., that we will get to a point where we can move forward. The guns are an issue. There is violence. Women are being raped in camps. This is not new and that's why we've got to get through these elections and get people onto the ground with an administration there that is viewed as legitimate so we can make room for people to rebuild their lives.
NNAMDITime for one more call. Here is Serge, in Washington, D.C. Serge, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SERGEYes, Kojo, how are you?
SERGEI just a quick comment. You said that the Preval was not -- cannot run for a second term. I just wanted to say that this is his second term. He...
SERGE... traditionally doesn't have the right to run anymore.
NNAMDIYou are absolutely correct.
SERGE(unintelligible) but to go back to something else. You were asking the question, why that there is no clear leader now among the candidates? Just, I will comment. I just wanted to say one question that we -- one problem that we have is that we have a situation where the leaders on the seat now have been so discredited, a majority of them, and that is why the people are not sure yet who deserves their vote. And that that is why they so much inserted a year on top of the other (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDISerge, Serge, you presumably are Haitian yourself?
SERGEYes, I am Haitian, yeah.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for...
SERGEAnd I am following this -- that is the problem. But I don't have any doubt the elections will take place, but what kind of election will we have? There's still a lot of doubt.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. And I'm afraid that's all the time we have in this segment. Congresswoman Donna Edwards, thank you very much for joining us.
NNAMDIDonna Edwards is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. She represents Maryland's fourth congressional district. She's a democrat. Johanna Mendelson-Forman, thank you for joining us.
MENDELSON-FORMANThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIJohanna is a senior associate with the America's program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She'll be traveling to Haiti with us in November as an advisor on Haiti's reconstruction and politics. We'll be taking a short break. When we come back, we'll be talking about attacks against people with albinism in East Africa and the reporter who went undercover to get the story. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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