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Notes From Haiti's Long Hot Summer

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Throughout what has been a dolorous summer in the Haitian capital, the image of the Caribbean nation's new president has gazed out at passersby from billboards and murals affixed to walls that did not topple during the country's apocalyptic January 2010 earthquake.

Depicting a man with a bald pate and broad smile, with messages such as "Nouvelle Haiti" and "Bienvenue au pouvoir" stenciled painstakingly next to them, the murals' optimism belies the intense political struggles of the first three months of the rule of Michel Martelly, a well-known singer who performed under the moniker Sweet Micky.

"I love President Martelly, I voted for President Martelly, so did my mother and my sister," says Carlos Jean Charles, who resides in Camp Toussaint, a 2,800 person collection of fragile tents set up in front of Haiti's once-grand National Palace, which still lies in ruins 18 months after the tremor.

"I think Martelly has a good heart," Charles says, echoing the statements of others in the camp. "But the problem is the parliament. Those people have been doing this shit for 25 years, fighting for power. They don't give him a chance."

A day after he was sworn in this May, Martelly announced that he was submitting the name of Daniel Rouzier, a businessman and devout Catholic, to serve as his Prime Minister, only to have the nomination rejected by parliament a month later.

On July 6th, Martelly announced that his new pick for Prime Minister would be attorney and former Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse, at which point 16 of Haiti's 30 senators announced, before the nomination had even been considered, that Gousse was also to be rejected, which he was earlier this month.

So the country, where an estimated 634,000 survivors of the quake still live in makeshift settlements in and around the capital, remains without a government.

II.

The situation is reminiscent of the the first mandate of the man that Martelly replaced as president, René Préval, in the late 1990s. During that era, following the resignation of Préval's Prime Minister, the post remained vacant for nearly two years as an opposition-dominated parliament rejected successive nominees in an effort to deprive the Préval government of oxygen.

It is a modus operandi that is being repeated today in Haiti, but under much worse conditions and this time with the parliament dominated by members of Préval's own coalition (several of them elected in highly disputed circumstances), though the amount of control the former president still exerts over the disparate group of legislators is a matter of some debate.

"The population who voted for Martelly perceived the change he offered as drastic change, a complete rupture from the way things were done in the past," says Marilyn Allien, the director of La Fondation Héritage pour Haïti, the Haitian chapter of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

"But the way things were done in the past was very good for some people. There are people who thrive when corruption and impunity prevail, and it doesn't serve them at all if a new leader comes in and tries to institute the rule of law."

A political novice who ran on an education platform and whose very distance from Haiti's rancid political class was a large part of his appeal, Martelly has relied on a close circle of advisors, some of questionable reputation, to give him counsel when dealing with parliament.

Lurking in the background to all of this are Haiti's two recently-returned former leaders, Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Duvalier, the scion of a family dictatorship started by his father François that ruled Haiti for 29 years, was chased out of the country in 1986 amidst an uprising that has yet to fulfill its promise of democracy, social and economic justice. He returned to Haiti from his long exile in France in January to the outrage of those who suffered at the hands of his regime.

Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was at the forefront of the anti-Duvalier movement and became Haiti's president in 1991, only to be ousted in a military coup seven months later.

Restored to the presidency by a US-led military intervention in 1994, Aristide turned over the reins of government to Préval in 1996. He was returned to power during a violence-wracked ballot in 2000, with his second mandate marked by high levels of official corruption and political violence before he too was overthrown by an armed insurrection after months of large-scale street protests against his rule.

Since his return to Haiti from exile in South Africa in March, Aristide has been largely silent, though some in the camps and elsewhere have darkly suggested they see his hand in the parliamentary maneuvers currently underway.

Further complicating the mix, the 12,000 person United Nations mission in Haiti, in place since June 2004 and known by the acronym MINUSTAH, has probably reached the nadir of its reputation during its time in the country.

Once welcomed as a bulwark against political chaos, the mission has seemed adrift since the earthquake, which killed nearly 100 of its personnel including the head and deputy head of the mission.

A cholera epidemic which has killed more than 5,800 people since last October, has been linked to the mission, with a June report by a group of of epidemiologists and physicians in the journal of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that evidence "strongly suggests" that the cholera strain had been brought to Haiti by UN peacekeepers.

Often unfairly derided as "turista" (tourists) by Haitians, the mission now appears to be largely living up to the scathing sobriquet, with some of its members a feature in some of the capital's more expensive hotels, getting loudly intoxicated and carousing often only feet away from the meager encampments of those made homeless by January 2010's tremor.

III.

Shortly before I visited Haiti this month, I had made plans to visit with an old friend.

Jean-Claude Bajeux, the co-founder of the Centre Oecuménique des Droits de l'Homme (CEDH), was also a former Minister of Culture, a militant for human rights and democracy and a great Haitian patriot.

Virtually his entire family had been killed by François Duvalier, sending him into a long exile during which he received a PhD from Princeton University in the United States, and lived and taught in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

He fought against both the Duvalier family dictatorship and the military juntas that followed and, in more recent times, against the violent anarcho-populism with which Aristide attempted to rule the country. Well into his twilight years, when most men of his age would be playing with their grandchildren, I would see Bajeux bravely march in demonstrations at times when it was physically dangerous to do. Lately he had provided an important analytical voice to Haiti, critiquing not only Haiti's political machinations but those of outsiders involved in the country, as well.

Bajeux passed away, if not exactly unexpectedly, then rather suddenly, earlier this month at the age of 79, before I had a chance to see him. His goal of an inclusive, transparent and just political system in Haiti is still an unrealized dream.

Shortly before he died, in a conversation with a friend, Bajeux had time enough to deliver a simple charge.

"My generation is passing away," Bajeux said. "We did all we could. Now it is up to you."

IV.

There can be a sense of tragic timelessness in Haiti, an impression that one gets when driving northwards from the capital along Route Nationale 1, where tent camps now ring either side of the road, and which meanders along the Côte des Arcadins and into the agricultural heartland of the Artibonite Valley.

As one drives, to the left the Caribbean Sea glitters blue-green, and resorts from when Haiti was once a tourist destination - now largely empty save for Haiti's wealthy and the moneyed foreigners in the country - front the ocean. Skiffs with canvass sails ply the channel between the mainland and the immense, isolated Île de la Gonâve in the bay.

Back in the capital, ebullient Creole evangelical hymns still reverberate in the mornings from the mountainsides and ravines that crisscross the city, and radios still pump out a non-stop diet of sinuous konpa music of the kind that first brought Michel Martelly to prominence along with the driving racine rhythms of vodou and endless political chatter.

Given the long odds he faces, there is something moving about the faith of ordinary Haitians that Martelly is the figure who will transform their immensely difficult lives. And, despite what one may read, the Haitians, even in the wake of the extraordinary amount of suffering that has been foisted on them in recent years, are not a defeated people.

The mood in Haiti today reminds one of the wanly flickering orange glow of the kerosine lamps that Haiti's market women - known as ti machann - use to illuminate their wares as they work late into the night. One can see them by the roadside, hoping for one more customer, one more sale, one more ray of life.

Haiti is like that, too, persevering ever onward as long as the slenderest flicker of hope remains.