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Haitian presidential candidate courts Montreal diaspora

Communities split over ability to effect change

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Haitian presidential candidate, Mirlande Manigat, addressed a community centre packed with supporters in St. Michel this past Saturday in a last minute bid to garner political and financial support.

Manigat’s visit to Montreal, which included a press conference on Friday, a $250-a-head fundraising dinner Friday evening as well as the rally Saturday, was part of a tour to pick up diaspora support before Haiti’s March 20 presidential runoff.

The first round of presidential elections, last November, were marred by low voter turnout and allegations of vote rigging and fraud. Its results led to widespread protests throughout Port-au-Prince, the nation’s capital.

The November elections included 19 candidates. Jude Célestin, candidate for outgoing President René Préval’s Lespwa party, placed second in the first round of elections behind Manigat, but was excluded from the runoff after Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council ruled that his campaign was marked by corruption.

Manigat, age seventy, and Michel Joseph Martelly, a popular Haitian musician better known as “Sweet Mickey” who is twenty years her junior, will now face off in the upcoming runoff.

Election officials hope to prevent a repeat of November by hiring and training thousands of new poll workers. The United Nations police force will also reinforce the Haitian police throughout the second round of elections, although the UN has said that they do not expect trouble.

Haiti is still reeling from the January 2010 earthquake that killed approximately 300,000 people and displaced over 800,000, according to UN estimates. The country was further devastated by an outbreak of cholera, which Haitian government figures report has caused over 4,000 deaths since the epidemic began in October.

The campaign

Manigat’s platform centres around sustainable development and educational reform.
“When you think in terms of sustainable development, you can’t go far if the public is not educated. We’re not just talking about basic education, Haiti also needs electricians and carpenters and engineers to rebuild the country, it needs professional schools,” she said in French.

The personality of the candidates and the breakdown of the youth vote will likely determine the outcome of this election. Voters aged 18 to 30 make up 60 per cent of the population, and both candidates have fairly similar centre-right platforms. In a recent poll by a private Haitian research group, Martelly is leading in popular support with 50.8 per cent support, with Manigat trailing at 46.2 per cent.

A Sorbonne-educated law professor and former First Lady, Manigat has tried to contrast her political and academic background against Martelly’s lack of political experience.

At the press conference on Friday, Manigat stated that voter turnout would be a critical factor in the election outcome. She spoke to the fact that many Haitians are more concerned with survival than participating in the political process. She also acknowledged that some voters may feel disenfranchised by the fraudulence of the initial election. However, Manigat stated Friday that she believes she will win if voter turnout reaches 50 per cent.

By raising strong objections to the fact that the Haitian constitution disallows dual citizenship, Manigat hopes to win the support of Montreal’s Haitian community. She promised, if elected, to amend the constitution, to allow members of the diaspora to vote in presidential elections. The Montreal-Haitian community is currently around 85,000 people strong.

“Haitians cannot vote, but they can influence family, friends and neighbors in Haiti to vote, of course for me,” said Manigat at the press conference.
Reactions to Manigat

Although the community hall was packed, and the crowd excited to hear Manigat, the Haitian community remains divided on whether her candidacy will make a difference.

Serge Joseph, a member of the Haitian community and history professor, noted in French that, “There are a lot of people in the community, and for a Saturday night it is nevertheless exceptional.”

“Firstly, after the earthquake there are 1.5 million people who are living on the grace of time. The next president will have a lot to do to fulfill the economic and sociopolitical situation,” said Joseph, “So it’s a rendez-vous with history [concerning] the circumstances and the sociopolitical situation in Haiti.”

Majorie Villefranche, general director of La Maison d’Haiti – an organization dedicated to the education and integration of new Haitian immigrants – was less optimistic about the process and did not attend the rally.

“It’s not new. It’s not the first time,” she said in French, in reference to Manigat’s campaign promises and the potential of a female president. “If you don’t change the system, nothing will change because the system will produce the same thing.”

Villefranche pointed to the ouster of former president Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 and noted that, though the dictatorial president is gone, his system remains.
She also spoke to the “enormous” risk of sexual violence Haitian women face. She described Haiti’s current social and political system as “very, very chauvinistic.”

However, Villefranche also explained how it is common for women to occupy important positions.

“It’s a paradoxical situation, where women are so important in the country’s economy because all the market is based on their work. … But at the same time they don’t have decision-making power,” she said. “Even if the law changed, women do not obtain justice when they are subjected to violence.”

“What we hope is that she will really have influence with respect to the feminine condition,” Villefranche said. “The most that we are hoping for is that she is capable to break the system and give more power to women and change the feminine condition.”

Cynthia Nelson, cofounder of Haitiennes de Cœur, a foundation that aims to integrate people with disabilities into society, attended Saturday’s community rally. She was critical of the expectations placed on Manigat.

“I perceived a kind of impatience tonight because so many people are looking for a saviour or that she will resolve the country’s problem. But the problem is so vast, and I think it’s a lot of hope for one person,” Nelson said in French.

Villefranche explained that candidates come to visit the diaspora primarily to shore up financial support.

“We do not influence the vote in Haiti really. The day Haitians in the diaspora can vote – that will be different,” said Villefranche.

She also expressed her skepticism of Manigat’s platform, saying that the promises had been made before.

“During the campaign they promise a lot of things. We’re just hoping that something will happen,” she said.