By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 13 -- Haiti's hopes for a peaceful presidential election exploded Monday in a torrent of violence as mobs overturned cars, set piles of tires ablaze and built elaborate roadblocks across major highways, protesting delays in the vote count and alleged fraud in last Tuesday's balloting.
Demonstrators paralyzed cities across the country, from Cap-Haitien in the north to this impoverished seaside capital, where tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand that Rene Preval -- a former president and favorite of this city's poor -- be named president.
Haiti's distinctive "tap-taps," the colorfully painted trucks that ferry hundreds of thousands of passengers a day, were effectively stilled by roadblocks, set up by armed thugs demanding bribes, on the major arteries connecting cities.
In Port-au-Prince, at least one protester was killed, a luxury hotel was occupied by demonstrators and the international airport was closed. There were reports that U.N peacekeeping forces had shot into the crowds, but U.N. officials here said they had fired only into the air.
U.N. troops did not intervene when a boisterous crowd burst into the Montana Hotel, where election results were being prepared, and ran through the halls and jumped into the pool.
Hoping to quell the unrest, Preval -- who is far ahead of all rivals with 90 percent of votes counted -- flew to the capital late Monday on a U.N. helicopter from his home town in a remote mountain village. Preval had urged calm in recent days, but he had also stoked emotions among followers by accusing Haiti's electoral commission of lowering his vote total to force him into a runoff and by mockingly singing, "They're stealing our votes," on his porch.
"We have questions about the electoral process," Preval told reporters late Monday after meeting with the top U.N. official in Haiti and ambassadors from the United States, France, Canada and Brazil. "We want to see how we can save the process."
Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue also appealed for calm, saying in a nationally broadcast address: "People, don't stay in the streets. I'm asking you to go home. . . . The transitional government is not stealing your vote."
Transportation between cities almost completely stopped with more than 100 roadblocks on main roads between Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince. Thousands of Haitians walked for hours along this nation's pitted highways. Others idled at roadblocks, arguing politics and trying vainly to squeeze their pickup trucks or cars past the barriers. Some of the roadblocks were marvels of rapid-fire construction, with stacked stones and looping chains. In other places, protesters dragged the rusted frames of buses and trucks into the roadways, piled logs or set fire to old tires.
The chaos flourished in the almost total absence of law enforcement, except for selected areas of the capital. Political protest gave way to economic opportunism in many rural areas, as young men with pistols stuffed into their belts collected tolls at roadblocks and set up byzantine systems for ushering those who were willing to pay from one checkpoint to the next.
"That's Haiti," Melais Dieujuste, 40, said dejectedly at a roadblock in St. Marc, a small town west of Port-au-Prince. "Everybody does anything they want. They kill people, block the road, anything."
Smoke was already rising above the mountains before dawn Monday near Preval's home in Marmelade, where he had been monitoring the vote count for almost a week. At a crossroads less than an hour's drive from Preval's home, a lanky teenager named Pierre Jacky thrust his fist into the air as another pile of tires went up in flames.
"They are plotting to keep Preval from being president," Jacky said of Haiti's electoral commission. "We are going to show the world that we are behind our president."
Preval, who was president from 1996 to 2001 and came out of quiet retirement to run for his old job, has an overwhelming lead in the presidential race. But his advantage has shrunk each day since partial results were first announced on Thursday, dipping from 61 percent to 48 percent.
If that last figure holds, Preval will be forced into a risky runoff, in which he could face a coalition of opposition groups. Violence is also feared because of the increasingly tense mood since the election in Port-au-Prince's huge slums, where Preval is popular.
A member of Haiti's electoral commission said this week that he suspected the commission of manipulating the vote totals to prevent a first-round victory for Preval. Suspicions have been raised because of a huge number of invalidated votes, topping 7 percent of all votes cast, according to partial results.
Word also has been spreading about a "quick count" conducted by international observers, which used sampling methods applied in elections in Latin America and the Caribbean. It gave Preval 54 percent of the vote.
A successful election has been viewed as crucial to returning Haiti to some semblance of political and economic order. The election was held two years after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic former priest turned politician, was forced from power and fled into exile in South Africa.
Preval is not considered nearly as flamboyant, but the depth of his popularity was on display more than ever on Monday.
At a roadblock outside Gonaives, the thugs weren't budging, but a Haitian driver displayed a photo on his cell phone of him next to Preval. A cheer went up. And the roadblock disappeared.