A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
The Episcopal Diocese of Haiti, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Haiti, and The Organization of American States jointly sponsor the new Bishop Desmond Tutu Reconciliation Center, which they dedicated after the Mass at the Cathedrale Sainte Trinite in Port-au-Prince on Sunday (2/12/06). Bishop Tutu was the preacher. I was in Haiti to represent the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church at this occasion.
The next day, Monday (2/13) I was part of a small group scheduled to go with Bishop Tutu by helicopter to Cap-Haitien, the second largest city in Haiti. Many waited there for him to speak as he had done on Sunday.
By 7:30a, we were assembled in the lobby of Hotel Montana, but by 8a were told to expect delays. Demonstrations clogged roads, and the pilot could not reach the helicopter. Leaders of the OAS among us used radios and cellular phones to monitor demonstrations throughout Port-au-Prince. As we waited, some of us moved about the roof and balconies of the hotel, which sits on the top of a tall mountain and commands views of much of the capitol.
By 9a we heard a demonstration far below us on one side of the hotel. Then we spotted the demonstrators, at least a mile away.
At 10a we heard louder shouts much nearer, from a different group altogether, down the hill from the front of hotel and moving towards us. Ten minutes later 10 they reached the hotel gate, already firmly shut and surrounded by security officers. Our group moved into the Bishop Tutu's suite and watched from his balcony on the top floor.
The demonstrators chanted "Préval! Préval! Préval!"
René Préval was by far the most popular candidate in the election for Haiti's President held six days earlier on February 7th. Like almost everyone in the country, the demonstrators were weary with delays in counting the votes and in discerning the official winner. Rumors were rife that some members of the electoral college do not like Préval and were manipulating the results to prevent his having the 50% plus one vote required to win. Short of that count, Haiti's constitution demands a second ballot. Leslie Manigat, the next candidate behind Préval garnered only 11.8% of the vote.
The mood of the demonstrators seemed more jubilant than angry. More ominous were the occasional sirens sounded by one of heavy vehicles of the U.N. forces in the middle of the street surrounded by the demonstrators. Thousands of peaceable people crowded into a very small space can all too easily be manipulated by one or more persons with a more volatile agenda. Police and soldiers were ubiquitous, some with rifles and guns. We heard reports that a Jordanian in the U. N. special forces had killed a person in a demonstration near the airport, half an hour from us.
At 11:10a, after an hour, the crowd in front of the hotel had grown to 6,000 or more. Those in the front began to rock the huge gates, farther and farther with each push, until the gates tumbled under the weight and the crowd moved into the large parking and garden areas in front of the hotel. "Préval! Préval! Préval! "Lespwa! Lespwa!" Lespwa is the name of Préval's party and the word "hope" in Creole."
Some of the demonstrators jubilantly hoisted a picture of Préval together with a Haitian flag on one of three flag poles in front of the hotel. Great cheers went up. From the balcony many of us waved and gave thumbs up. Re-living these scenes two days later, I have . not been able to remember a time that I was afraid. I wondered whether I misremembered our mood, but pictures developed today show us enjoying the occasion:
It seemed to me that we were witnessing democracy at work.
About twenty minutes after the demonstration had moved into the yard of the hotel, Bishop Tutu went downstairs to a the first level above the entrance and warmly greeted the crowd.
"Bonjour!" he shouted.
"Bonjour!" those nearest to him responded.
Most at a distance could not see what was happening. He raised his hands to his ears and with a big smile again said, "Bonjour!"
More joined in responding delightedly, "Bonjour!"
After several such efforts, the crescendo had engaged a large block of the demonstrators, much as he had engaged the country's interim president, interim prime minister, and the entire diplomatic core with his sermon at the cathedral the day before. Bishop Tutu congratulated Haiti on having had a peaceful election. He recalled how important peaceful elections had been in South Africa. He stood in solidarity with the people's desire to have an expeditious conclusion to the elections, and urged the Electoral College to act fairly and promptly.
Then on the platform where he had spoken to the crowd without amplification, some members of the hotel staff produced a lectern and tested microphones to use with it. Had they not known that Bishop Tutu had finished speaking? Were they anticipating others to speak? Their testing of the microphones caught the attention of those leaving. They stopped, and again the crowds shouted "Préval! Préval! Préval!"
Almost exactly one hour after they had toppled the gate, they entered the hotel. They were not intent on vandalism. Long after they left I could not find examples of any willful destruction. But the sheer force of thousands of people moving into the space produced a mess. Part of the lobby has no wall separating it from "outside" but tall vegetation. As some of the crowd moved through the vegetation, they found themselves needing to step on a table and a wood chair to get to the floor level as others nudged at their backs. The seat of one wooden chair gave way and the vegetation disappeared.
It took several minutes for the crowd to work its way over the huge hotel. They did not try to break into a single room nor vandalize the hallways. We heard knocks at the door of the Bishop Tutu's suite. A security person inside with us connected with a security person watching from outside. The bishop told them to invite a couple of the demonstrators to some in and have a chat with them. Two entered. He greeted them warmly and kindly. They looked like deer in headlights, said nothing, and almost immediately left.
Throughout most of the demonstration, many UN helicopters circled close to the hotel. After the demonstrators left the bishop's suite, he was told that a helicopter had landed on the helipad at the top of the hotel and could take him away to safety.
He explained that he felt quite safe and would stay as originally planned until the next day. No one could claim that unrest had threatened him or frightened him away.
That evening Hotel Montana put under the door of the rooms of those of us staying there a letter saying, "Dear guest, We take this occasion to sincerely thank all our guests for their support, calmness and understanding during today's manifestation. In view of the event, the hotel cancelled its agreement with the United Nations Media Results Center (UNOPS) and they will no longer be renting a conference room at the Hotel Montana."
American Express, spotting that my card had been used at the hotel, called my home machine to say the hoped that I was safe after the activities at the hotel. Likely they also wanted to hear from me if someone else had stolen my card and used it there.
American Airlines canceled all flights into and out of Port-au-Prince indefinitely. Bishop Tutu and I made our way out of Haiti on Tuesday as planned, using private air transport.
I am very proud of Haiti, very proud of the strong church leadership there, especially that of Rt. Rev. Jean Zache Duracin, Bishop of Haiti. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. The Diocese of Haiti is behind only Virginia and Texas in the number of its baptized members. The diocese operates many schools and medical facilities. It is one of the few stable institutions in the country, and its priests serve well with often limited resources.
Haiti has been abused again and again by outside exploiters and by a history of dictators. So much hangs in the balance of this election. A major portion of the populace turned out to vote. Pray for peace, for fairness, for good will, and for prosperity in this place.
Louie Crew, 377 S. Harrison St., 12D, E. Orange, NJ 07018.
The Bishop Desmond Tutu Center for Reconciliation and Peace
Rt. Rev. Zache Duracin, Bishop of Haiti
Seminarians arrive for the mass and dedication with the dean, Very Rev. Oge Beauvoir
Bishop Desmond Tutu and Louie Crew
Please sign my guestbook and view it.
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