As a fellow missionary and I approached the polling station, people called out in Kreyol, “Nou blan ap vote!?” — “Are you white people voting?”
“Wi,” I would joke in reply, “I’m voting for you!”
As Haiti held its first round of elections this past Sunday — after a year of fraud accusations, mass riots, and a deadly hurricane following its discredited 2015 vote — I was allowed inside a polling station mainly on the basis that I have white skin. Those inside were exuberant to vote, an inspiration to me as, for nothing else, the empowerment of a nation in which a majority of the people are unemployed.
Though no major infractions on democracy’s finest process have been discovered thus far, nearly all Haitians remain skeptical regarding the validity of their ballots.
Since its independence in 1804, Haiti, the second sovereign republic in the Western Hemisphere, has held 10 elections, total. Three unfairly elected a dictator or military junta, three were subsequently overthrown by military coup d’états, one failed to elect anybody, and nearly all have brought some degree of violence to the beautiful shores of this mountainous Caribbean nation.
It is no surprise that, regardless of whether voters cast ballots for the left-leaning Maryse Narcisse, agriculture-minded Jovenel Moïse, or any other of the 27 candidates on this year’s downsized ballot, their answer when asked to explain their choice of candidate boiled down to one attribute: change. This word was central even to those with whom I talked who chose not to vote. They disparaged the chance that their voices will be heard or that change will come, regardless of whether they fill in a bubble.
Seemingly, the only other option for Haitians, if one was not born into the bourgy upper-class, is following the black smoke of burning tires to the protests, where protesters are likely to be shot down, literally and figuratively, by the Haitian National Police.
It is beneficial to view the widespread election chagrin in America just now with a bit of perspective. Protests on highways and in college towns, and glorified assertions of defiance on Twitter and on stage, while well-intentioned, do not pass bills in Congress, will not replace President-elect Trump, and, further, will only continue to alienate the voters whose alienation caused them to vote Trump into office in the first place.
Living in a developing nation has taught me perspective in ways I could have never imagined. Included on that list is appreciation for an effective democracy. Our democracy is not upheld by presidents alone, nor can feared discriminatory and ignorant measures be implemented without the consent of a government of the people. Every American has the right and the ability to project his or her voice, to write local newspapers, to join community organizations, to contact representatives and to advocate for an educational system that teaches students what it really means to be a Muslim, why it is necessary to pay taxes and how the earth is changing in ways that affect us all. Each can donate to human rights organizations, and otherwise seek to advance and elevate the values of our nation.
While President Trump will be able to expand on the precedent of executive orders, no order is immune to being dismantled by the president who follows him or by the passage of a reversing bill by a Congress filled with well-meaning Republicans reluctant to support their new party leader (such as our own Rep. Erik Paulsen). They will surely be even less reluctant to resist if they receive a barrage of constituent mail encouraging a protest vote.
The responsibility that comes with these rights, of course, cannot be overstated — to resist judging Trump supporters the way liberals have accused conservatives of judging minorities, and to listen to voices that differ from one’s own. These are the responsibilities that come with an open society.
Tonight, the sounds of church services fill the air in Delmas, a Port-au-Prince slum, as they do every night — as if to say, in response to the election, “This republic will be fine.” Ours will be, too, so long as the people who support it continue to participate in it in a productive manner, creating the change they want to see in their government, as they have the right and ability to do.
If the voiceless masses of Haiti could send a message to all Americans who brandish a kind of loudspeaker at their fingertips, it would contain just two words: “Use it.”
Sam Pahl, of Eden Prairie, is a long-term missionary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.