Haiti's desperate tent dwellers pin hopes on election
Port-Au-Prince (AFP) March 17, 2011
Perhaps no one is as invested in the outcome of this weekend's presidential election in Haiti as the hundreds of thousands of homeless still sheltering in the capital's squalid tent cities.
Destitute Haitians who have subsisted for more than a year now in flimsy shelters of tarps and sticks see their best hope of a return to normalcy in the election of a leader who will make their desperate plight a priority.
"We need the elections because nothing will happen in this country until we have a new government," said Franc Miot, a Haitian who works as a contractor for international aid groups.
The miserable tents cities, said Miot, are the last place anyone would choose to seek refuge, and the desperate hundreds of thousand who continue to shelter there have no options.
"People remain in the tent camps because is that is where they receive help every day. They have food, water and power as never before," he told AFP.
Haiti is still recovering from the 7.0 magnitude quake in January 2010 that killed more than 220,000 people, left 1.3 million homeless, and the capital in ruins.
Return to normalcy has been hampered by another calamity, the outbreak of cholera that has killed more than 4,000 people since mid-October.
But the ramshackle tent cities stand as the most visible reminder of how little progress has been made in recovering from the devastating quake.
Crammed with humanity, affording little privacy and lacking in adequate sanitation, they can be seen outside the Haiti's main airport, in the hills, and around the destroyed presidential Palace.
Residents of the encampments that have taken over much Port-au-Prince fear that Sunday's presidential election may bring little relief to their dire situation.
The vote pits popular singer Michel Martelly against former first lady Mirlande Manigat in a bid to replace President Rene Preval. It is a final round of an election marred by violence and allegations of fraud.
Manigat, 70, was the top vote-getter in a first round in which only 20 percent of the 4.7 million eligible Haitians cast ballots.
But Martelly, 50, now leads Manigat in the polls and enjoys broader support with the country's slum dwellers and tent city denizens with his more populist appeal.
So far, despite the squalor and misery, the camps have been relatively peaceful.
But there is concern Friday's return of former leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- a shantytown priest who rose to power as a champion of the poor -- could stir up a country prone to election violence and political upheaval.
His return from exile in South Africa seemed certain to re-open old wounds and grudges dating back to his 2004 overthrow and forced exile from the country -- allegedly with tacit US support.
"We are all worried that the election can turn into another problem instead of a solution," Shanti Matiste, a Haitian woman who works for the local Red Cross, told AFP.
Aristide has said he has no political ambitions and plans to work in education, but critics note that he has many scores to settle, and raise the question of why he so urgently wants to return before Sunday's vote.
His Lavalas was barred from competing in the polls, and his numerous supporters, among them many camp dweller, feel disenfranchised and their anger could easily be channeled into violent protests.
Supporters, who long have pined for the deposed president's return, are planning a huge rally Friday at the international airport in Port-au-Prince to welcome him home.
But the impromptu welcoming committee is almost certain to include some of the thousands still waiting for shelter in the makeshift camps.
"It's going to be an event. He will arrive on a private plane," his spokeswoman Maryse Narcisse told AFP.
Flyers written in Haitian patois heralded the imminent return of "Titid," as he is affectionately referred to by his supporters.
"Tomorrow at 8:00 am, tell everyone that we're going to be at the airport to show our support for President Titid."
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