Project Report 2: Lena Jackson

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Democracy in Haiti
Project Report 2: Lena Jackson

Lena Jackson, co- Director and co- Director of Photography for the Democracy in Haiti film, arrived in Haiti, for a second time, just before the highly anticipated second round of presidential elections took place.
In this report she summarizes the political climate and shares stories from the Democracy in Haiti production team.

[Election Poster found in Port-Au-Prince.
Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

Lena Jackson, April 6th, 2011, Guatemala:

A lot has changed in Haiti since the first round of the presidential elections in November; a lot hasn’t. There has been an air of uncertainty leaving many people unclear about how the tense political climate would play out after the upheaval that unraveled after the early December announcement that Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestin would compete in the spring run-off for the nation’s next president.

Things were hot when I arrived in Port-au-Prince in mid-March. The second round of the elections was just around the corner and two former presidents were either back in the country or en route. Jean-Claude Duvalier (aka Baby Doc), the former President of Haiti who ruled the country from 1971 until his overthrow in 1986, had made a surprise comeback in January after living in exile for 25 years. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the liberation theologian turned Haiti’s first democratically elected president, who had also been in exile since he was forcibly removed in 2004, was planning a contested return to the country, against the advice of the American government and much of the international community. American progressives Danny Glover, actor, and Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now, escorted him back days after I landed and days before the March 20 election date. The cholera epidemic, which has been plaguing the country since late 2010, was starting to show signs of slowing down and reconstruction efforts by the Haitian government and the many international aid organizations that have been in the country since the January 2010 earthquake were making slow and steady movements forward. In late February, in a decision made by the OAS and other factions of the international community, Jude Celestin was disqualified from the 2nd round. The race would be between Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly, leading many to question its legitimacy and fairness. Would the election results be representative of the wants of the Haitian people or of the international community?

On one of my first nights back in PAP, Peter Berlus, Mackendy Jeune and I hit downtown to shoot the Michel Martelly concert, which would be one of his last hoorahs before ending his campaign efforts. He was joined by Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel (both formally of the hip-hop trio The Fugees) and spoke to a crowd of thousands of fans. The crowd was vibrant and passionate and made up mostly of young people, who could probably relate more with a former Kompa singer than Manigat, a former first lady, senator, and law professor. There was tet kale (Martelly’s campaign slogan, which means “bald head”) fever that night and all over the city of Port-au-Prince. People wanted change and were putting their bets on Martelly.

[Martelly Election Posters.
Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

We took to the streets on Sunday, March 20, Election Day. We arrived at a polling station at around 9am to find crowds of people waiting outside (they open at 6am). Peter and Mackendy scouted the situation and discovered that people were outside because ballot sheets had not yet been delivered. Minutes later, a storm of UN tanks came rolling down the street. Getting out of their armed cars, the MINUSTAH representatives explained the situation to everyone waiting and assured them that the necessary supplies were on their way. About half an hour later, more cars pulled up and the crowds of people that were gathered in the streets now rushed to the front gates of the station, eager to cast their ballots. Aside from this slight misstep, everything seemed much calmer than the fervor that took the streets last Election Day. There was no 2pm press conference called to contest massive fraud, people still waited hours to vote, but not for as long, and by 5pm, when voting stations were beginning to close, streets were relatively quiet for Port-au-Prince. Now came the wait.

[Boxes of votes. Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

After the elections were over and the wait was on, we focused our attention on our characters. We were able to reconnect with many of the artists we followed during my last trip and have been following since. From Jerry, the PAP-based graffiti artist, to EUD, one of the few female MC’s in the Haitian rap game, to Jonas, a singer, musician and young activist, these talented artists seemed more motivated to work on their art given the rather crazed societal context.

[A recent piece by M. Jerry Rosembert. Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

[Hip hop artist, EUD. Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

[Young musician and activist Jonas Attis. Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

Jerry was painting more than ever and was getting commissioned by all sorts of people for various campaigns; EUD had just wrapped two albums, and; Jonas was not only recording but working as a youth volunteer for the election council. Whether the election results and the new president will bring change is unclear, however, these young people were taking action in their own way and inspiring others around them.

We were also able to re-visit a young writer’s workshop, KoJePens — the Konbit
des Jeunes Penseurs (Gathering of Young Thinkers in English), run by two young women, one American, one Haitian. The group meets every Saturday afternoon for several hours and was formed by these two women, Laura and Marlene, who simply gathered young, interested men and women from Marlene’s Cite Soleil neighborhood, and started meeting to share their experiences in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. The group focuses mostly on writing short stories and poetry. These kinds of things are popping up everywhere in Haiti. Young people, frustrated by the current situation and the unreliability of the Haitian government and international organizations, have turned to each other. We can only hope that these sorts of grassroots projects will continue to grow and merge to form a stronger youth coalition that will help change the course of the country.

[Young female poet and student, Assephie Petit-Frère. Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

However, not all young people have these sorts of outlets. Jerry is one of the only, and certainly the most popular, graffiti artists in Haiti. As mentioned before, EUD is one of the only female MC’s in the country. Young people are still grossly disenfranchised, which is probably why, at least from my experience in Port-au-Prince, Michel Martelly was the buzz. There is a huge sense of frustration and discontent amongst the majority of the Haitian population, especially the youth, who feel very disconnected with the establishment. Martelly, for some reason or another, represents a rebel, a political outsider, who may or may not be able to shake things up and really invoke some change. A lot of the support may be bogus and unfounded, for Martelly is a far cry from an angel, but the youth’s attachment to him reminds me very much of my generation’s attachment to President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. After years of feeling underrepresented and a growing apathy towards politics in general, Barack Obama brought a new light to the political table. He was running on a campaign of change and was targeting young people, who he knew wanted to see this change most of all. Popular amongst the poor and younger generations who want to see that kind of change as well, Martelly has vowed to focus more on education, reestablishing the Haitian military, and a proper distribution of the billions of dollars of aid money promised to the country over a year ago.

Two days ago, preliminary election results came in, saying that Michel Martelly had had a landslide victory against Manigat, getting nearly 68% of the vote. Although Martelly has been thought to be the favorite over the last few weeks, lots of people were still unsure about what the results would be, given the large percentage of the population without voting cards and the overwhelming majority of people eligible to vote who did not actually go to the polls. However, Monday’s announcement speaks incredible truth for the desire to change. Manigat may have been a more qualified candidate, but Martelly was a new face, a face that many Haitians feel they need.

The final results will be announced in another two weeks. Things are taking longer this time because the Electoral Council wants to make sure that as few irregularities occur as possible. If Martelly ends up with meaningful ways to transform the country and being the clean politician he is claiming he will be, fantastic. However, I have a feeling most people aren’t going to be relying on that. Young Haitians will be relying on their spray cans, their words, their music, themselves, because these are the things that have gotten them through their lives so far and will continue to get them through. Many of the young people I talked to and interviewed have a tremendous amount of hope in themselves and their abilities; however, they realize that change will not just come from hoping. It comes from a continued effort in organizing at a grassroots level. It comes from properly guided foreign assistance that actually reaches the Haitian population, instead of going through layers upon layers of bureaucracy, and that provides educational training and job opportunities. It comes from a sustained, systematic approach to agriculture that both trains Haitians in integrating new techniques with new machinery and allows them to become self-dependent. And at the most basic level, it comes from a focus on rebuilding the public education system, to create an educated class of Haitian people that will be devoted to work towards infrastructure development. Change can come to Haiti, and with the majority of its population being under 30, it is up to the young people to take those steps forward. Haiti’s future is dependent on it. After hanging out around some pretty inspiring young folks during my time in Port-au-Prince, I have faith that this change will come, but it may not come from a Carnival singer or a professor, it comes from within.

[Kids roller blading and playing soccer in front of the Cathedral, which was destroyed by the earthquake.
Photo Credit: Lena Jackson]

Please visit Democracy in Haiti on Facebook for MORE PHOTOS

Written by Lena Jackson, in Guatemala.

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