"Aba Bob ("Down With Bob") read the spray-painted words on a downtown building, a reference to Robert Manual, who resigned recently as Haiti's secretary of state for public security after months of political pressure.
But in a kind of graffiti tit-for-tat, across the street on Rue Pavee, "Vive Bob" ("Long Live Bob") was emblazoned on a Port-au-Prince storefront amid a haphazard patchwork of unrelated political slogans.
Throughout this decrepit capital, political graffiti are everywhere, transforming Port-au-Prince into a virtual Creole billboard of social expression on issues ranging from today's leaders to the Haitian police to the United States and the legacy of Haiti's past dictators.
Schools, churches and cemeteries have been heavily daubed, and the back of the Legislative Palace is caked with swatches of political protest and advocacy. One can even find short political essays scribbled in chalk on building walls.
The graffiti, which are abundant as well in other cities, towns and hamlets across Haiti, are mostly the work of political organizations and parties that use the streets to disseminate their views in an impoverished nation where most of the 7.5 million people do not have television sets, radios or telephones. Street scrawlings also have become a form of political campaigning, as many candidates have emblazoned their names along busy thoroughfares.
Despite the 54 percent illiteracy rate in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, the graffiti are thought to be easy enough to understand. "Graffiti is a way of doing things here; it is a form of political fighting and debate, a method of talking to the people," said Gerard Phillipe-Auguste, president of the Organizational Movement of the Country, one of Haiti's numerous opposition parties. "It is an expression of democracy without order. It is all over the place."
Observers noted that there has been a marked increase in graffiti since 20,000 troops, mostly Americans, dismantled a repressive military regime here five years ago and reinstalled Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. While the country has subsequently struggled to build a functioning democracy, Haitians have largely been able to enjoy their newfound right to freedom of expression. And in the case of graffiti, political groups as well as individuals have taken that liberty a step further, knowing that the undermanned Haitian National Police are grappling with more serious matters and that the government does not have the resources to clean it up.
Most of the recent blitz is associated with next year's presidential election and the candidacy of Aristide, who remains popular among Haiti's poor and is heavily favored to replace his handpicked successor, President Rene Preval, in 2001. "Aristide or Death. Power to the People," reads one sample, a few doors down from another reading "Titid 2001," a sentiment incorporating an Aristide nickname and one that can be found on countless buildings around this city. But an opposing point of view was captured, too, in "Wilt Aristide."
On one main road that connects Port-au-Prince with the relatively upscale town of Petionville, graffiti on several walls even evoke the infamous name of former Haitian dictators Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, proclaiming: "Bring Back Duvalier" and "President Duvalier 2001."
At the same time, there are ample wall expressions protesting the presence of the United States and other countries here as part of the international effort to develop democracy in this country, revitalize its economy and address its manifold social woes. "Deliverance for Haiti from the white man colonialists. Smash them," one blotch of graffiti said. Another asserted: "The occupation must leave the country now. Freedom and peace for Haiti."
Other smatterings decry the surge in crime roiling the country or refer to allegations of human rights abuses by segments of the U.S.-trained Haitian police force--particularly the crowd control unit. But not all the graffiti are political; there are numerous expressions of religious faith, such as "Jesus is the only solution."
Overall, it's become a sort of urban wallpaper, blending in with the background. Said sidewalk vendor Aleus Michelle, 29, who was sitting in front of a block of graffiti that praised police commanders: "There is so much graffiti around here that most of the time I do not even notice it anymore. It just adds to the filth of the city and shows how many problems Haiti still has and how things never change here."
CAPTION: Graffiti has turned building walls in Port-au-Prince into billboards of political expression. Sentiments range from assessments of current leaders to a longing for past dictatorships to unflattering views on U.S. aid forces.
CAPTION: In Haiti, almost any blank wall is an invitation to graffiti artists to express their political sentiments.