Hours before flying back to Haiti to begin a marathon final month of his campaign, Haitian presidential hopeful Charles-Henri Baker sat in an unmarked studio at the back of a Boca Raton office park, getting makeup dabbed on his face, reading lines from a TelePrompter in Creole. He was recording television commercials to run in Haiti, denouncing the current regime and promising hope for the future.
Baker doesn't smile at all in his television spots or billboard photographs. He explained this to a staffer: "You have the people in Haiti looking up at the billboard, and they say, 'We're under these goddamned tents, and this sucker's smiling?!'"
The political terrain is different in Haiti, and not just because of the earthquake. The election commission, under sitting president René Preval, forbade any candidates from making public appearances before October 15. The election is on November 28.
"It's clear and evident that the panel does not want people to vote. [Preval is] doing everything he can to frustrate the candidates," said Baker, who ran for president in 2005 and finished with 8.24 percent of the vote.
While recording his lines, the Haitian-born Baker would occasionally trip over a Creole word or phrase. He was happy to start again, taking orders from the filming crew: "Up until the seventh of February, I'm a soldier," he quipped under the lights. "Then I become president. Then they have to do what I say." He cracked a smile.
Bob McGowan, a South Florida resident,
has been organizing Baker's local appearances. When we spoke on the phone last week, McGowan expressed a distaste for the current regime as well as sympathy for the reign of the Duvalier family: Papa Doc and Baby Doc. Papa Doc declared himself "President for Life" under a totalitarian regime and scared the hell out of dissidents through his secret service, the "Tonton Macoutes," or bogeymen. His son is currently living in exile in Paris. [SEE UPDATE BELOW]
"Papa Doc ruled with an iron finger only because he had to," McGowan told me, noting the antipathy of the regime that preceded him. "He had to stop a flood." [SEE UPDATE BELOW]
Consequently, I asked Baker if his Respe party is generally supportive of the Duvalier regime. "We are not," he said. "We support all Haitians no matter where you come from."
Not content to put my foot in my mouth just once, I asked Baker what seemed to be an obvious question: How were Haitians reacting to the prospect of being led by a wealthy white industrialist? This question failed, however, to take into account the antiquated and terrifyingly complicated racial spectrum in Haiti.
"First of all, I am not white," Baker said. "By the American standards, if you are over 1 percent black, you're not white. I'm like a lighter Barack Obama. I've visited Haiti, and I'm all over the country. People will notice, obviously, that I'm lighter, but it's not an issue. I won't be the first mulatto president in Haiti."
So what about the wealthy industrialist part -- will people see him as an ally or an exploiter? Baker currently runs a garment business in Haiti after working in business and agriculture. "I left business because of contraband," he says. "There are a lot of crooks and drug dealers there. The crooks don't want Charlie Baker in power."
Baker wants to reinstate the central bank that provides loans to farmers. He blames the country's lack of agricultural subsidies for the glut of foreign products that have taken over the local economy. "The country has been heading down the drain for the past 20 years," he said.
Some of that foreign food is still sitting at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, misallocated aid from the aftermath of the earthquake disaster. Baker mentions this when he explains that he understands why $1.5 billion of pledged aid from the United States has been held up in Washington, D.C.: "If you're dealing with one of the most corrupt governments in the world and you know the money will not go to the people, why send the money?"
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Baker flies back to Haiti tomorrow and on Friday will finally be allowed to make public appearances in the country. His TV spot will be produced and sent over to the island, and millions of Haitian-Americans living in Florida will keep an eye on the election.
"We want those people calling their families and telling them to go vote," said Baker.
Update 10/14: I got a phone call from the Baker campaign today expressing strong distaste for the quotes and opinions that were given to me by McGowan. Raoul Pierre-Louis, who is affiliated with the campaign but did not state his official position, said that "his statement shouldn't be part of this." McGowan got on the phone and said "I don't feel I'm qualified to make any statements about Papa Doc."
I quoted McGowan's statement because he appeared to be affiliated with Baker's campaign in an organizing capacity. The Palm Beach County Commission chambers were booked for Baker's appearance earlier this month under McGowan's name. He was my only contact for setting up the interview with Baker. I asked McGowan during a phone conversation if he was a "campaign organizer," and he responded that he was helping to organize the campaign in America but declined to provide a title. Pierre-Louis emphasizes: "He was just helping. But that does not mean he is an organizer." Given that no factual errors were identified beyond McGowan's position with the campaign, New Times stands behind its reporting.