Running for President of Haiti, but Stumping in U.S.

BOSTON — It was a typical late-October campaign event, with spectators straining to see a candidate, talk of change and pleas for support, but with one major difference — no one in the room could cast a ballot in the election.

The candidate, Mirlande Manigat, is running for president of Haiti. Like most of her 18 opponents nearing the Nov. 28 election, Ms. Manigat’s campaign trail stretches northward from Port-au-Prince to Miami, New York, Boston and Montreal in hopes of garnering money and influence from the large Haitian diaspora.

“I know you can’t vote because you’re American citizens,” Ms. Manigat told a Creole-speaking crowd of about 200 people listening intently at a community center in the Dorchester neighborhood here, most eschewing a spread of food and some chastising audience members who were chatting during the speech.

“But I know you’re thinking about your country,” she said.

While Haitians in the United States and Canada have long played a role in elections in Haiti, foreigners have emerged as an especially key constituency this year as more attention has been paid to the role Haitians abroad can play in rebuilding after the January earthquake.


A candidate for president of Haiti, Jean-Henry Céant, at Wingate High School in Brooklyn.CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Candidates are hoping foreigners vote with their pocketbook and persuade friends and families back in Haiti to support their favored candidates.

“We are almost one million people who are living out of Haiti,” said Ralph Myrthil, 41, who hosts a Haitian radio show in Boston. “They need our voices even though we can’t vote. When I send money to my mom or girlfriend or little brother, I’ll say ‘vote for whomever.’ We play a key role in the campaign in Haiti, and that’s why the candidates come to the diaspora.”

Haitians living abroad send more than $1 billion back to the country each year, according to the Haiti Project at Trinity Washington University in Washington, and the opinion of a friend or relative sending money is highly valued, many Haitians said.

“If you can gain the support of one person in Boston, it can translate to 10 people in Haiti,” said Mark P. Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University who has studied Haiti.

That is exactly what Ms. Manigat was hoping for here, laying out her plans for shoring up basic services, fixing small problems that lead to large ones — like a lack of gasoline — and developing the economy. “I want to listen to you, and I want to know what you want and what I can do to fix the problems with you,” said Ms. Manigat, vice president of Quisqueya University, which is the most respected in Haiti. She spoke for more than three hours here.

“It’s Saturday night, and instead of playing with your kids or going drinking or partying, you decided to leave everything and listen to a woman coming from Haiti,” said Ms. Manigat, whose aides passed out envelopes in which supporters were asked to insert a check and send to a party representative.


Posters for Lesly Voltaire, Charles Henry Baker and Jean Hector Anacasis on display outside Haiti’s National Palace.CreditRamon Espinosa/Associated Press

Gosue Saint Fort, 68, of Brockton, Mass., came to see Ms. Manigat because he supported her husband, Leslie, when he was president briefly in 1988 and later exiled.

“They are good, intelligent people,” Mr. Saint Fort said. “And she’s well known to the Haitian community here.”

Ms. Manigat came to Boston from a campaign stop in Montreal, and was the fifth candidate to visit the city in about a month. A rally was held at a Somerville Holiday Inn in early October, and hundreds of Boston-area Haitians gathered at a union hall to see Michel Martelly, a candidate and musician best known by his stage name, Sweet Micky.

In Brooklyn, dozens of people sat in the auditorium at Wingate High School on Halloween night, watching a performance of bongo drums while waiting for a candidate, Jean-Henry Céant, to take the stage.

Mr. Céant held three events in the New York area that weekend, including a dinner with a suggested $150-per-person contribution in Westbury. A seat at the presidential table was $1,000.

Mr. Céant said he had raised about $10,000 from the United States and Canada before his New York fund-raisers, and was “convinced 100 percent that in order to save Haiti, the diaspora has to be involved.”


Mirlande Manigat has a bid. CreditOrlando Barria/EFE, via European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Céant and other candidates are appealing to the diaspora by pledging their support for a long-controversial issue: allowing dual citizenship so Haitians abroad can vote in Haitian elections, which would require a constitutional change.

“The Haitian Constitution essentially rules out any possibility that Haitians living overseas who have given up citizenship can be active politically as candidates or voters,” said Robert Maguire, director of the Haiti Project.

Mr. Martelly’s campaign has been sending text messages to cellphone users who call Haiti, saying in Creole: “Do you want dual nationality? Tell your family which Haiti is for them.”

Professor Maguire said the nationality issue and nudges from the diaspora might backfire with some who want to keep Haitian citizens in charge of politics and the political process.

Despite that, Professor Maguire said, there has been a “very strong receptivity in Haiti to what the diaspora can contribute” post-earthquake, something that had been “more heat than light” before, he said.

Some in Brooklyn, however, wondered how involved Americans would be after candidates returned to Haiti.

“All those candidates, they come pick up our money and go back,” said Jean-Junior Joseph, a media blogger and former press secretary in the prime minister’s office. “When they’re there, they forget us. They do the fund-raising, and then they go back.”

Frantz Alexis, 54, a social worker from Brooklyn, has lived in New York for 38 years, but is listening to candidates because he wants to help Haiti rebuild.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve been here 10 years or 30 years, once you’ve identified yourself as Haitian the burden is put on you to help,” Mr. Alexis said.