Haiti candidates add cholera to list of problems

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CROIX-DES-BOUQUETS, Haiti (AP) — The campaign rally is charging down the street, drums beating, hot-pink signs waving. People mob the candidate, trying to grab a piece of his hand or touch his bald head, his smile a half-moon shining in the dusty afternoon light.

Suddenly the mass turns toward a park where thousands more supporters are waiting for the evening’s big speech. The chants get louder, but they aren’t singing about the election anymore.

“Cholera! Cholera!” they sing in time with the music, throwing in a few mocking words to express their displeasure.

The candidate, popular singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martely, throws back his head in defiance and joins in the song.

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With less than two weeks left before the country’s elections, the rapidly spreading disease is even infecting the presidential campaign, with candidates trying both to protect themselves and prevent fear of cholera from distancing them from voters.

“We campaign just like there is no cholera because we need to reach out to the people and make them feel confident,” Martely told The Associated Press. “So we embrace everybody, we stick together with them, we walk with them … hoping with them that we don’t catch it.”

He squinted a bit. “Just hoping.”

Holding an election on Nov. 28 was always going to be rough.

Ten months have passed since an earthquake killed as many as 300,000 people, destroyed voter rolls, polling places and most of the election headquarters. Rubble is still on the streets. Bodies are still in the rubble. A hurricane this month killed dozens and destroyed roads.

All this in a country that arguably has held just three or four fair, democratic presidential contests in its two centuries as a republic.

Then came cholera.

Until mid-October, there had never been a case of the disease in Haiti — miraculously, some aid workers say. Then it broke out along the rural Artibonite River, and spread rapidly.

Officials say the bacteria and its attendant fever and severe diarrhea have killed more than 1,000 people and sent more than 16,000 to hospitals. Independent aid workers say the those figures may understate the scope of the disease.

The bodies of two people who died at Port-au-Prince’s central Champs de Mars camp, astride the collapsed presidential palace, were found this week in pools of their own waste. They lay for hours as authorities debated what to do with them.

The outbreak has highlighted the dangers from the country’s lack of sanitation or clean drinking water, and the difficulties of getting medical care in rural areas, urban zones and slums.

Some politicians are using it to inflame opposition to the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti, a foreign force of troops and police that has been the dominant security force in Haiti since 2004. U.N. peacekeepers are in charge of security for the elections.

Several global health experts suspect that a contingent of Nepalese peacekeepers brought the disease when they arrived in early October, shortly before the first cases were reported nearby. A number of candidates, including Martely, share that view.

Protests broke out in the second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, on Monday and spread to several other cities. Demonstrators burned cars and stoned U.N. bases to demand the soldiers leave the country.

The Organization of American States and the U.N. say they are confident that the elections will go off as planned, and that the cholera outbreak should not force a delay.

“If we don’t have elections, we will have a political vacuum of power that would probably even worsen the situation in the country,” U.N. peacekeeping mission spokesman Vincenzo Pugliese said.

Martely is not so sure.

“If the health ministry thinks that we are helping the expansion of the cholera (by campaigning), they need to tell us,” he said.

His wife, Sophia, went further, calling the cost of the election “outrageous.” ‘’It could have been spent on the people in the tents, or cholera,” she said. But as long as the vote stays on the calendar, she said, he would have no choice but to continue.

Cholera only adds to the complications of the election, which started under the shadow of boycott threats.

Exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party was disqualified before even presenting a presidential candidate. Other opposition groups accused President Rene Preval of rigging the vote.

Nineteen contenders survived a midsummer round of disqualifications, including the popular bid of Haitian-American rapper Wyclef Jean.

There is no clear front-runner, with polls contradictory and unreliable. Among those on the ballot are two ousted former prime ministers, a garment factory owner and the wife of a former president who served briefly under a junta that ousted him in coup d’etat.

Jude Celestin, head of Haiti’s state-run construction company, leads by at least one measure: the number of high-priced billboards and posters slapped on walls in Port-au-Prince, along with the backing of Preval’s increasingly unpopular Unity party.

Martely also is making a strong bid.

The longtime “president of kompa” has ruled the jazzy, Latin, African and R&B-infused genre in recent decades with sensuous love songs, anti-authoritarian wisecracks and a routine that consisted in large part of pulling his pants down on stage.

Those stage skills have served him well.

After his march through the dusty capital suburb of Croix-des-Bouquets, Martely found himself in front of thousands. Introduced to wild applause by one of his backup singers, “Sweet Micky” slung his trademark sweat towel over his left shoulder and took the microphone.

“I always used to sing about rice and beans, but none of you listened,” he said, an image of his own face beaming from his T-shirt. “You were all too busy grinding to the music!” He gyrated his hips and the crowd went wild.

His stump speech flowed through the crises facing Haiti: hunger, the lack of housing, the lack of health care, the lack of jobs.

He made a play for the youth-vote mantle left by the disqualification of Wyclef Jean, a Croix-des-Bouquets native who can still play kingmaker in the race. A mention of Preval got a chorus of boos.

Martely briefly mentioned cholera, then said the U.N. peacekeepers would not leave Haiti until the country can provide its own security. Haiti’s own army was dissolved by Aristide after he was restored to power following a 1991 military coup.

“The army had problems, but we could have fixed them,” he said to his audience — young, mostly unemployed men too young to remember Haiti’s string of military juntas. “You could have been soldiers, captains, colonels! Instead we’re paying a foreign army a lot of money!”

They roared. One young man took the stage to cheer for the candidate and denounce foreigners for bringing cholera to Haiti.

Some in the audience said they were sitting out the election altogether. Dieu-Juste Keller, 25, said it was unlikely any politician could handle all Haiti’s current crises or fix what ails the nation — disease, disaster or otherwise.

“I don’t think anything can change this time,” he said, rocking to another burst of music. “I’m St. Thomas. When I see it, I’ll believe it.”

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.