Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Port-au-Prince Wednesday, leaving the city crippled after the results of the November 28th presidential elections were announce late Tuesday night. The protesters, many of which were supporters of Michel Martelly who was left out of the country’s January 16th second-round run-off, erected roadblocks at practically every major intersection in the city. By using burning tires and cars, as well as rocks and rubble, the streets quickly became completely impassable for anything other than a motorcycle.
Ben and I traveled around the city with the help of an awesome moto-taxi driver who seemed to know every single person at every single road-block. At one point a group of protesters surrounded us holding rocks and demanding we give them gas from the motorcycle so they could light a barricade on fire. He looked around and found someone he knew who quickly explained to the people that we could pass, and we drove away safely before they got the chance to use their rocks. Bottom line, he’s a keeper.
We maneuvered through protests and barricades, as Haitians ran through the streets holding Michel Martelly posters, and in the mean time destroying Jude Celestin and Mirlande Manigat posters along the way. Businesses had boarded up their windows and doors, and the entire city was practically closed down, but the streets were packed with people chanting, “We don’t need Celestin! Down with Preval! We want Martelly!” in Kreyol.
And while many of the protesters marching the streets were peaceful, some resulted in violence and destruction. At the Port-au-Prince campaign headquarters for Jude Celestin, protesters broke in and looted the building before lighting it on fire. Local firemen (which I didn’t even know existed) sprayed down the smoldering remains of the HQ, which was filled with piles of burning Celestin campaign posters.
Unfortunately, it’s acts like this that detract from the real message, which is that these people feel that their democratic process has failed them yet again. Like I said yesterday, it appears that the real results of the election actually included Martelly in the top two candidates who would move on to a run-off, winning over Celestin by over 10%. They have the right to fight for that, but they should not do it at the expense of those whose personal property is now being destroyed because of it.
We traveled further downtown to the presidential palace, which had a peaceful march of a couple thousand Haitians. “Celestin bought his votes, he bought this election,” explained one of the protesters as he passed by the palace, “But we don’t need money, we need a president that can lead our country.” We doubled back towards the Delmas region, which holds one of the main arteries of the city. Our moto-taxi driver expertly maneuvered around rubble that had been thrown into the street, and we came across one of the offices of the Provisional Electoral Commission (or the CEP). Remember, these are the guys who ran the elections, and are also the ones that many hold responsible for having reported fraudulent results.
UN troops were standing guard at the CEP office building when suddenly rocks and bottles came raining down on their heads. The protesters, who had been peacefully held back until this point, started to approach the line of troops, and the UN engaged. Using flash grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets, the UN troops pushed back an increasingly violent crowd that was slowly creeping towards the CEP. The rocks came from all directions, and the UN troops were outnumbered. They jumped into their tanks and drove full speed towards the protesters, temporarily scattering them before they would quickly reconvened.
Tear gas filled the air and we left the area, heading up the hill towards the CEP office in Petionville. There we found another protest that, while much smaller, proved to be much worse. About a dozen protesters were throwing rocks at UN troops there, but the UN response could only be characterized as irresponsible. Rubber bullets flew past the protesters and into crowds of people surrounding the area. A tear gas canister also missed its target and landed in the middle of a nearby tent camp, causing it’s residents to flee from the toxic fumes.
And then, just 10 feet away from Ben, a flash grenade exploded right underneath one of the protester’s feet. He hobbled away from the intersection and looked down at his foot, which was now riddled with shrapnel and bleeding profusely, and then collapsed on the sidewalk. He started to moan as fellow protesters assessed his wounds. His foot was badly injured, and the first layer of skin on his legs had been burned off. We helped him up, and then carried him to a clinic nearby where we left him slumped on a chair as he waited for medical attention.
The question now is whether the protests will continue with this intensity. President Rene Preval spoke on the radio this afternoon asking for protesters to stop the violence and accept the results. Michel Martelly came out with a statement of his own saying that the people have the right to fight for their vote, but also asking that the violence end.
The city will remain on lock-down until this dies down, but that could take days, if not weeks. American Airlines has canceled its flights for today (Wednesday) and tomorrow, and the US embassy has warned American citizens to avoid the streets. There are less gunshots tonight than last night, which is a good sign, but only time will tell if that means that order is being restored, or if the people are just resting for yet another day of chaos in Port-au-Prince.