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Watching the Dawn of a Democratic Day in Haiti

December 21, 1990|HUELL HOWSER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Huell Howser, producer/host of "Videolog" on KCET-TV, was one of the observers. He filed this report for The Times

Last Sunday Haitians went to the polls in their first free elections and named as president Jean-Bertrand Aristide . During Haiti's last attempt at democratic elections in 1987, more than 34 people died and voting was canceled. This time there was some violence and a woman was killed during a post-election celebration, but overall it was relatively peaceful. During the election, several thousand people from around the world and from different walks of life went to Haiti as election observers. Huell Howser, producer/host of "Videolog" on KCET-TV, was one of the observers. He filed this report for The Times.

I had to step around two hogs rooting in a huge pile of garbage and then walk down a dark alley filled with flies.

But once I turned the corner in this slum of Port-au-Prince, what I saw was worth it: Lines of Haitians voting for the first time.

This whole adventure started last week with a phone call from Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne), who asked if I'd like to be part of an international observer delegation for the upcoming Haitian elections. I didn't know how they were picked, but I remembered seeing election observers before on the news. I also was up enough on world events to know that Haiti has had more than its share of problems over the years--especially when it comes to politics. But, I felt honored to have been asked, and instinctively said yes. Two days later, I found myself on a plane headed for this little Caribbean island republic, not sure what was going to happen, but ready for anything.

Well, I didn't have to wait long. When you step off the plane at Port-au-Prince, you're stepping into a world--a Third World--that literally envelopes you with sensuousness. I'm not talking about sipping a cool drink by a cool pool. This is no Club Med.

This is a country described as American by geography, French by language and African by tradition. A country still largely rural, illiterate and poor. A country which lays rightful claim to being the second oldest independent state in this hemisphere, but whose political past has been anything but democratic. A country that for a long time was ruled absolutely by the dictator Duvalier family and their dreaded private army, the Tontons Macoutes.

But now the Haitians wanted to forget about Papa Doc and Baby Doc. They wanted free, fair and open elections where the government would be chosen by ballots, not bullets. In October, more than 80% of the eligible voters had registered and now it was time to put up or shut up.

Would there be violence? Would the mere threat of violence keep people away? Would the government even allow the elections to take place? All of these were very real questions as we awoke at 4:30 on Election Morning and prepared to spread out across the country to observe the unfolding drama.

I had done my homework. I'd attended all the briefings by the U.S. State Department officials, the U.S. Embassy officials, the Haitian election officials and had read my briefing book from cover to cover. I knew the names of the players and the rules of the game. I knew that all the observers had been invited by the Haitian government to watch the process and to report any irregularities. Our special badges allowed us access to any voting area, but only as an observer, not as an actual official.

Being "briefed" was one thing; what I witnessed firsthand was another.

I had been assigned to one of the slums of Port-au-Prince. Even now, it is very hard for me to explain how I felt when I first saw the lines. The lines that stretched around city blocks and out into the dusty streets. The lines that were so tightly packed that you couldn't see daylight through them. Lines containing 18-year-olds voting for the first time and 80-year-olds voting for the first time. Lines full of people dressed in their Sunday best. Lines that formed hours before the polls opened at 6 a.m. Some polling places were as much as eight hours late in opening because of a lack of ballot materials. But during all those hours, the lines didn't budge. No one left.

Port-au-Prince has some of the worst slums in the world, and on Election Day those slums had the longest, straightest lines. Lines filled with people imbued with a sense of dignity and determination to stand--however long--and be counted. You could see it in their eyes. You could feel it. It was like that all day, all over the country.

And after they voted and had their thumbs dipped in bright purple ink by election officials to show that they had voted, they proudly displayed their thumbs as a symbol to family and friends.

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