Short on solutions, Haiti’s presidential candidates debate in South Florida

Mathias Pierre, left, takes notes as fellow candidate Steven Benoit answers the first round of questions. Eight Haitian presidential candidates participated in a live debate at North Miami Senior High’s auditorium on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015.
Mathias Pierre, left, takes notes as fellow candidate Steven Benoit answers the first round of questions. Eight Haitian presidential candidates participated in a live debate at North Miami Senior High’s auditorium on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2015. cjuste@miamiherald.com

Haiti’s presidential debate opened with the three Es: economy, energy and education. But the four well-known Haitian journalists posing questions struggled to get precision from the eight candidates who took center stage Sunday afternoon at North Miami Senior High School’s auditorium before a cynical and raucous crowd.

“Tell me, how do you go about it,” a frustrated Lesly Jacques of Radio Haiti Amerique International Network asked, struggling to pin the candidates down on their plan for integrating the country’s diaspora into the political life of Haiti, if elected.

With Haiti scheduled to hold elections on Oct. 25 for president, legislators and local mayors, Haitians living outside of the country are not among the country’s 5.8 million registered voters. Despite promises and changes in the country’s constitution, the Haitian diaspora still cannot vote. But that doesn’t mean, however, that they cannot influence relatives back home, which organizers of the debate and the presidential candidates are hoping.

But if South Florida’s audience is any indication, candidates could find themselves in for a tough sell in the final weeks of the campaigning.

As candidates answered questions, audience members debated their responses — and lack of solutions — among themselves. They commented on who was was winning and losing as they booed some, applauded others and criticized the responses they didn’t like.

“Two of them know something, but six of them are lost,” one audience member said, refusing to give his name.

On the stage, Jacques and fellow journalists Jean Monard Metellus, Euvrard Saint-Armand and Valery Numa sought to enlighten voters with their questions. Meanwhile, moderators Patrick Eliancy and Elisabeth Guerin found themselves at times improvising and struggling to cut candidates off as they violated the two-minute time limit.

“It’s not possible for everyone to talk at the same time,” Guerin fired back at one point as the candidates all tried to answer a question about the diaspora at the same time.

When Eliancy interrupted Sen. Steven Benoit’s criticism of President Michel Martelly’s tally for the number of students enrolled in the government’s free school program, the crowd screamed to allow him to finish.

“Your money has been badly managed. No one can give you a report on the $116 million” collected between November 2012 and August of 2015 from the telephone tax the government collects, Benoit said. “The Central Bank can’t give you a report.”

But while the audience in the room were mostly Haitians who live in South Florida, candidates were clearly pandering to the voters back home who were listening live on Radio Television Caraibes and following a live stream. The Port-au-Prince-based radio program sponsored the debate along with New York-based Friends of Haiti diaspora organization.

“A lot of effort was made to convince people,” said Franck Junior Jean, 36, a sales manager who traveled from Port-au-Prince for the debate. “But I go further than beautiful promises. I look at what realistically can be done.”

Jean said none of the candidates earned his vote. Even still, the debate was impressive, and candidates had clearly taken it seriously.

“They came prepared and knew what points they wanted to make,” he said.

Some candidates were more impressive than others, evoking their names in the third person and pushing their themes: political stability, the fight against corruption and national production.

There were no huge differences between candidates, though some were more willing to detail programs than others. For example, on how to fix Haiti’s anemic economy, former Sen. Samuel Madistin pushed import substitution while lawyer Aviol Fleurant said he would promote rice and coffee production.

Eric Jean-Baptiste, showing his socialist stance, said he’s proposing for the state to take control and dictate where farmers would plant and when they would plant.

There were also blanket statements.

Unlike another gathering of Haitian presidential candidates that took place in Washington last month where candidates were asked to speak in English, this debate was all in Creole.

“I think there was a lot of good exchange that could benefit the country,” said Marc Lamothe, a retiree who was twice jailed during the Duvalier family dictatorship and now lives in Miramar. “They were patriotic and showed they understand the reality of the country and are armed politically. The question now is will the person implement these things once they reach in power? There are always a lot of empty promises.”

Jacqueline Charles: 305-376-2616, @Jacquiecharles