November 25, 2010
In Haiti, Waiting for the Grand Bayakou
By AMY WILENTZ
In Haiti, there’s a worker called a bayakou. The bayakou comes in the middle of the night to clean latrines, which generally get shoveled out only once every year or so.
Few people ever see a bayakou. In fact, he has a status somewhere between a magical, fairy-tale figure and an untouchable. To get a bayakou to come and do his work, a homeowner must negotiate with a middleman who arranges the assignment, but won’t let you know exactly when the cleaner is coming. You tell the middleman where you want the sewage from the latrine buried; he tells you that during the next three nights, you shouldn’t worry if you hear a noise in your garden. And then one night, the bayakou comes and the following morning, there’s a heap of freshly turned earth in a corner out back, and a clean latrine. You pay the middleman.
With presidential elections scheduled for Sunday, it’s fair to ask who will be the grand bayakou for Haiti now. The place surely needs a figure of mythic status who’s willing to come in and get real work done. Yet as the country tumbles into the electoral morass, it’s hard to imagine that someone will arrive in the dark to engineer a cleanup.
It’s not only the aftermath of last January’s earthquake that is troubling the still-embryonic democratic process in Haiti — although it’s not easy to promote elections amid mass displacement and homelessness, to say nothing of all the electoral identification cards lost in goudou-goudou, the quake’s onomatopoeic Creole nickname.
What has Haitian political heads spinning right now are the billions in international aid that have been promised in the disaster’s wake. Misery is Haiti’s stock in trade, more so now than ever. With every announcement of a further katastwof, or catastrophe — an aftershock, the rainy season, a cholera epidemic, a potential hurricane — the chink chink chink can be heard from across the sea.
In a way, misery is a natural resource as corrupting as any diamond or gold mine, or the discovery of a lake of oil beneath a desert. This realization may in fact explain the inaction of Haitian leaders so far, including the bizarrely silent and invisible Haitian president, René Préval. As long as the people are homeless and hungry and sick, money will keep on flowing from the outside.
Haitian politicians are traditionally talented at only one aspect of the exercise of power: enriching themselves. This is not surprising. For most elected Haitian officials, their job in the legislature is their first ever regular job, and the salary they receive is often their first ever regular paycheck. A foreign diplomat with long experience in Haiti told me that the average number of hours per day that a Haitian legislator spends on the job is two.
For such novices, and for old hands, the aid money coming in is an irresistible prize. The next leader of Haiti will preside over coffers the likes of which his predecessors have only dreamed. The temptations for this leader and his cohort will be great. One example: for months already, customs has been holding back supplies that were to go to various nongovernmental groups, arguing that papers have not been properly filed. (It is not a stretch to see this as a tacit call for under-the-table payments.)
In other countries, such attempts at malfeasance can be offset and even overcome by government or independent institutions that help distribute foreign largess and monitor the overseers’ management. In Haiti, however, the few weak institutions that existed were ravaged by the earthquake.
Government reform is not high on the list of priorities for many Haitians, at least not compared with daily survival. A cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,400 people so far. A traumatized people at the very edge of survival — ever since goudou-goudou, food, water, cooking oil, charcoal, shelter and health care are expensive or hard to get or to maintain — now feels pushed over the brink by the spreading illness.
To complicate matters, Haitians are starting to look toward the outside world with increasing suspicion. In a trick of almost literary irony, the cholera bacterium itself has been linked to the controversial United Nations stabilization troops who have been the sole force of order in Haiti since 2004, and who are providing security and logistics for the elections. Demonstrations calling for the ouster of United Nations troops now take place alongside political rallies.
Onto this sulfurous stage, no surprising players have emerged to act out the drama. Mr. Préval, who has managed to do next to nothing with considerable means at his disposal, is pushing the candidacy of one of the front-runners, Jude Célestin, a virtual nonentity who, it is assumed, would simply continue the non-policies of the Préval regime. Another front-runner is Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady of Haiti (for five months in 1988, until her husband was deposed) who is associated with the small Haitian middle class. There’s also Michel Martelly, a popular local musician with an eccentric performing style (he has been known to wear diapers on stage), and Charles Baker, a candidate with support from among the business elite.
And there are 15 other candidates, each commanding his or her small coterie. None is truly beloved, none generates much excitement. Indeed, there hasn’t been an important Haitian election in decades greeted with as little enthusiasm as this one, in part because the party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is still revered, was not permitted to participate.
People like to say that Mr. Aristide, who has been living in exile in South Africa since he was ousted in 2004, is the most popular politician in Haiti, even though he’s not in Haiti. His hand hovers over these elections, even though his party cannot put forward a candidate and he has not endorsed anyone. (Haiti’s active rumor mill says he supports Jean-Henry Céant, a former close associate.)
With Haitians focused on basic survival, the candidates have spent a significant amount of time courting the Haitian diaspora, which has its own agenda — most notably the desire to be able to vote in future Haitian elections. Thanks to technology, the more than two million Haitians who live outside the country and send money back to family and friends are within reach of text messages and robo-calls. Mr. Martelly in particular, with his distinctive voice, has been urging diaspora Haitians to get their people inside Haiti to vote for him, with an implicit promise that he will work to give them the vote.
Herein lies a ray of hope. A diaspora vote could change the political scene in Haiti — ushering in a new generation of leadership and blowing some fresh air and fresh ideas into a fetid situation. The diaspora is educated, and has seen what it means to live inside economies that function. Although diaspora Haitians can sometimes be unrealistic about what’s possible in the country, their standards and hopes are high. For this reason, Haitian politicians are uneasy about encouraging the diaspora to take part in Haitian politics, even as some enlist its help.
So what will happen on Sunday? In all likelihood, the outcome of the election will be ... no outcome. There will be low turnout and probably a runoff between two candidates in a month or so, prolonging Haiti’s political purgatory and postponing the already late arrival of needed assistance. (Foreign organizations want to wait to see who will be in charge; meanwhile, children will die of cholera, a treatable disease.)
It’s easy to see what Haiti needs now, of course. What the situation requires is a responsible manager, someone capable of executive decision-making, and at the same time incorruptible. Someone from the diaspora, perhaps, who wants to give up his day job; who cares about Haiti; who’s not a dictator. Let’s continue to fantasize: someone who’s strong enough to push through to the heart of hundreds of problems and address them on behalf of the Haitian people, but who can also work with the international community.
Many of the candidates would claim that this description fits them, but we have already seen more remarkable men fail when faced with the resistant web of Haiti’s many problems. It will take a person of extraordinary character, subtlety and honesty to rise above the muck. After this election, Haitians will probably still be waiting for the bayakou.
Amy Wilentz is the author of “The Rainy Season: Haiti, Then and Now.”