Brooklynites campaign for Haitian Presidential Candidates

Sat, Nov 27, 2010

Dr. Fannel Alerte, in his campaign 'war-room' in Flatbush. Alerte is backing Haitian Presidential candidate Jean-Henry Ceant. (Manuel Rueda/The Brooklyn Ink)

Dr. Fannel Alerte, in his campaign 'war-room' in Flatbush. Alerte is backing Haitian Presidential candidate Jean-Henry Ceant. (Manuel Rueda/The Brooklyn Ink)

By Manuel Rueda

From 9am to 5pm, Felina Backer works as an assistant principal at a middle school in Brownsville. But since Haiti’s campaign season began in August, she has used her spare time to campaign for Presidential candidate Charles- Henri -Baker, a successful garments impresario and tobacco farmer, who is promising to improve security in Haiti and bring foreign investment into the poorest country in the hemisphere.

When Baker visited New York in October, Ms Backer helped organize three town hall meetings that also doubled as fundraising events. She regularly uses the internet to forward election news to members of Brooklyn’s Haitian community and occasionally calls potential donors to talk about the campaign.

“I’m not expecting anyone to do miracles,” she admits, “But he wants to see a change. I’ve spoken to him personally and you can see his willingness to do something good for the country.”

Haitians living outside their homeland cannot vote in this Sunday’s elections. But with the help of local volunteers like Backer, Haiti’s top presidential candidates are reaching out to the Diaspora in Miami, Boston and New York. They seek financial and political support that could be crucial in an election that is still too close to call.

With Haitian Americans sending approximately $1 billion in remittances to their country –whose GDP did not surpass $12 billion in 2009– it is easy to see how the émigrés’ economic clout can turn into political influence.

“Anybody who finances your daily life, will have a certain influence over you and certainly over the way you vote” says local Haitian Radio host Rico Dupuis.

In a recent poll commissioned by a Haitian business group, the Economic Forum of the Private Sector, Baker came in at fourth place with an estimated 9 percent of the vote.

Polls are difficult to conduct in Haiti and they are sometimes unreliable due to the large number of people without phones.

Other leading candidates who have visited the borough include Jean Henri Ceant, a real estate lawyer who helps U.S. companies investing in Haiti, and front-runner Mirlande Manigat a former first lady who led the Economic Forum poll with a paltry 23 percent of the vote.

Elections at a Glance (Source: Haiti Economic Forum, BRIDES)

Elections at a Glance (Source: Haiti Economic Forum, BRIDES)

Michel Martelly, a singer who is also known as the “president” of Compas music, ranked third in the poll with 10 percent. He also came to Brooklyn in October and organized a fundraising dinner attended by about 200 people.

According to the World Bank, three quarters of Haiti’s 8 million inhabitants live on less than $2 a day. Unemployment figures are not available, but the State Department estimates more than two thirds of the population doesn’t have formal jobs. Illio Durand, a columnist for Brooklyn based newspaper the Haitian Times, says the dire economic conditions at home, prompt candidates to come to the U.S. in search of funding from the wealthier Diaspora.

Haitian-Americans volunteering for candidates in this year’s election, say they are also trying to tap into immigrants’ influence over friends and relatives back at home.

“We want to connect with the people here, and when we do that it will have an effect,” says Fanell Alerte, a retired doctor and Brooklyn resident who campaigns for Jean Henri Ceant.

Alerte has raised about forty thousand dollars for Ceant’s campaign at town hall meetings in Brooklyn and through his connections with Haitian American businessmen.

He feels it is also important to create “awareness” about the candidate and his policies among Haitians who do not donate money but who could simply talk about the candidate to friends and relatives in Haiti. “On November 28th, the issue will not be how much money you have” he says “but how many votes you can mobilize.”

Illio Durand says there is a lack of interest in these elections amongst Haitians in the United States, because there is no high profile candidate to energize voters. “In 1990 when Jean Bertrande Aristide was running for the first time it was different,” he says, because Aristide represented a popular movement that sought power after almost forty years of military rule.

Many Haitians in Brooklyn are disappointed with their country’s political leaders. In Flatbush, most Haitians approached by The Brooklyn Ink were reluctant to speak about the November elections. “I don’t even know those people” said baker Marie Mangolat, when campaigner Felina Backer asked for her views on the upcoming vote. “I love my country,” she concluded, “but I don’t see any hope.”

Radio host Ricot Dupuis explains that Haitians are often hesitant to express their political views in public, due to their country’s violent political history. Dupuis contends that in private circles, however, it is an issue that everyone is talking about.

Radio Optimum’s Eder Debas has interviewed some of the country’s 19 presidential candidates on Haiti D’abord, a daily talk show out of Flatbush. Listeners flood the two-hour program with calls when Debas talks to leading candidates like Mirlande Manigat.

“They ask about people living in tents in the city. They ask about education. They ask them about the lack of electricity and how they’re going to solve that problem,” explains Debas. When Manigat was on the show, he took twenty calls in about ninety minutes.

If they are going to participate in the elections, Haitian Americans also want to hear what candidates have to say about the country’s high crime rates and the rising number of kidnappings.

“What I want to do is to be able to invest in Haiti” said Dr Fannel Alerte, when asked what motivated him to campaign for candidate Jean Henri Ceant.

Alerte has 200 employees working at Citi Health, his home services company in Flatbush, and feels that the lack of security prevents him from setting up any sort of company in his home country.

“I want to go to my country and come back peacefully without worrying about having to be shot at because there is a kidnapping, or getting sick because the water is dirty,” he said, as if attempting to envision another destiny for his disaster stricken homeland. “I just want to go hiking and snorkeling there and do the same things you do in any other country.”

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