FIGHTING HAITI'S GRAFFITI POLITICS
(Miami Herald) - By Jacqueline Charles
Political graffiti has sprung up on many of the vacant walls near the palace in Port-au-Prince and throughout the city and country sides.
On a white wall surrounding a government building, spray-painted scribble is evidence of an underground war of words: During the night, "Aba Préval''(Down With President René Préval) mysteriously becomes "Viv Préval'' (LongLive).
Weeks before Friday's start of public campaigning for Haiti's upcoming presidential and legislative elections, supporters and opponents have been battling unofficially with graffiti on walls all over the capital.
It's a spray paint smackdown -- a war of words in a country where the illiteracy rate is more than 50 percent.
"It's a very cheap way of doing propaganda for your cause," said Jocelyn McCalla, a political strategist who has been following the writings. "Thecity looks like a mess."
Last week, the head of Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) implored candidates to stop the graffiti.
"For God's sake, stop dirtying up people's walls," Gaillot Dorsinvil said at a candidates gathering.
"There are other ways people can campaign."
Then, raising his voice, he issued a stern warning: "Watch it. Even though the CEP doesn't have enforcement powers, don't be surprised if there are sanctions taken against political parties that don't respect the law."
Port-au-Prince, already teeming with tents and tarps from the Jan. 12 earthquake that left an estimated 300,000 dead and at least 1.5 million homeless, is now smeared in red, blue and black scrawls. Nineteen candidates jockey for the presidency, and more than 900 are running for 110 parliamentary seats.
Few candidates, if any, will admit to sanctioning the graffiti campaign.
For $35, a candidate -- or political operative -- can hire someone, arm him with a dozen cans of spray paint, and set him loose around town in the middle of the night.
"Even churches are not respected," said an enraged Haitian konpa music star and presidential candidate, Michel "Sweet Micky'' Martelly.
"My country is dirty enough; we don't need to make it dirtier," he said.
"You don't see that in other places. We need to bring order."
Joseph Lambert, the national coordinator for Préval's INITE platform and former president of the Haitian Senate, said the coalition is also opposed to fighting out Haiti's campaigns on the walls. After all, he said, parliament passed a law banning it.
"We've asked our supporters and candidates not to do it," Lambert said.
"It's not effective."
Still, when lawyer and contender Jean-Henry Céant showed up on a Saturday in Arcahaie, a small town north of Port-au-Prince, he couldn't escape freshly painted Viv Jude Célestin greetings. Célestin supporters also went on a writing spree after backers of former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis began showing their support for Alexis on walls throughout the capital.
Célestin's presidential campaign says the scrawls are not endorsed by the campaign or the candidate, the former head of the government's road-building agency who was tapped by Préval to be his successor. The campaign points out that most of the graffiti is created, or "tagged," by one of three groups.
Tagging is a fairly recent phenomenon that was once used mostly by protesters to send a message to the government. It has now become a way to let candidates know which groups support them.
Just days before hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean filed his candidacy, the oversized words Jèn Kore Jèn (Youth Supporting Youth), written in bold red letters, began taking over the walls of private homes and businesses.
Even the protective barricades along a new highway leading into the Central Plateau were not spared.
"If it were up to me, we would never write on people's walls," said Gary Bodeau, 32, the leader of the youth movement that initially backed Jean, whose candidacy was rejected by the electoral council.
But Bodeau said graffiti is used because a billboard campaign costs between $5,000 and $10,000.
"That's the thing of the bourgeoisie," said Bodeau, who announced last week that his group was now backing Célestin. "It's the youth who painted the graffiti so they can get their message out."
The graffiti phenomenon started in Haiti as the Caribbean nation ended 29 years of the Duvalier dictatorship and began to usher in democracy in 1986.
It also appears to have coincided with a critical mass of Haitians finallyaccepting Creole as a written language, and with the wall-building frenzythat occurred after the fall of the dictatorship.
Those security walls were emblazoned with political murals and messages of peace and hope.
But whether the current scribbles are a true barometer of Haitians' feelings remains debatable.
Take, for example, the graffiti calling for the ouster of Préval and his government that covered a wall not far from the crumbled National Palace.
"People are suffering in the streets," said Daniel Pierre-Louis, 32, who sells used tires. "When they write this, it's a way of letting everyone knowhow we feel."
Still, Pierre-Louis concedes that despite his own disgust and desire for change, nothing on the walls will motivate him to change his mind about Nov.28, election day. "I won't vote," he said. "I don't think this country will ever change."
Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., said the writings carry weight inside political camps.
"Political operatives pay very close attention to the writing," he said.
"It has always struck me that the handwriting of any single message often is the same -- as if one guy with an ample supply of spray paint can wield alot of influence or at least be very visible."
Fritz Lebon, who runs a popular cleaning business, said he, too, has noticed the similarity in the writing when called on to whitewash walls.
He said he has been trying, without much success, to get people whose walls have been defaced to erase the graffiti as soon as it's put up. That way, he said, the scribblers won't return.
But the best solution, he said, is for politicians to speak out against the practice.
Lebon said he doesn't understand why politicians don't deliver a more forceful anti-graffiti message: "No one has said 'Stop it.' It would be a good message for someone to say, 'Stop this.' ''