Originally: Prominent Haitian Businessman Charles Henri Baker says he is the one to lead Haiti out of its chaos.
PORT-AU-PRINCE – He is a pro-business presidential hopeful, a tobacco and tomato farmer with little political experience who has promised to pull Haiti out of its security and economic chaos.
But Charles Henri Baker’s chances to upset frontrunner René Préval in the ballot Tuesday will depend, analysts say, largely on whether Haitians can set aside the color and class disputes that have long affected politics in this poverty-stricken nation.
”Charlito” Baker, a leader of the political, business and civic coalition that helped force President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004, has emerged from a field of 32 as the second-place presidential contender in public opinion polls.
A CLASS QUESTION
”One of the problems of Haiti is the lack of involvement of the mulatto elite. You have an elite that has economic means — and education — that is living in Haiti like foreigners,” said Pierre-Marie Boisson, a friend and Harvard-trained economist. The 50-year-old Baker says he prefers not to focus on his status as a member of Haiti’s mulatto elite, the great grandson of a white Englishman who married an African, and a factory and farm owner who speaks flawless English and Creole.
”The fact there is insecurity, the fact there are no jobs, the fact women are dying because they don’t have a doctor to go to when they are giving birth, the fact that three-quarters of the cities don’t have a hospital, don’t have any policemen, don’t have a judge, these are the things that are important to the Haitian people. Not my color,” said Baker.
Baker gained prominence as a leading figure in the anti-Aristide Group 184 coalition. But he quickly became frustrated with the U.S.-backed interim government put in place after Aristide fled the country to arrange new elections.
”I was hoping we were getting an interim government that would set us on the path to democracy,” Baker told The Miami Herald this week in a lengthy interview in his walled Port-au-Prince home, protected by armed guards. “I realized nothing was being done. It was same old, same old.”
Within six weeks he had garnered 120,000 signatures to get onto the ballot. Later he aligned himself with one of Haiti’s most powerful peasant organizers, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste. A one-time Aristide supporter, Jean-Baptiste also supported Préval, who served as president from 1996 to 2001, before becoming disillusioned with both men.
A CID-Gallup poll in December showed Baker a distant second to Préval with 10 percent compared to the former president’s 37 percent. His supporters, the pollsters reported, “can be found outside of Port-au-Prince, those with high school studies and those who self-declare themselves as independents.”
Baker’s detractors admire his courage for standing up against Aristide but they question his ability to lead Haiti out of its chaos and his image as a successful businessman, saying his wealth was all inherited.
Baker told The Miami Herald that he owns about $2 million in lands he inherited and a garment factory that makes uniforms for a U.S. client.
In his spacious home, where supporters have gathered to talk strategy, boxes are piled with campaign give-aways. There are packets of M&Ms with Baker’s campaign sign, the number 44, and calendars showing a colorfully decorated Haitian bus and the slogan in Creole, “There is room for everybody.”
But in a country where the perception of class and color remains important, Baker has found himself on the campaign trail dropping proverbs in flawless Creole, hoping to show his audiences that despite his light skin and silver hair, he is as Haitian as them.
”If the people vote Charles Baker to be president, that means they don’t have a problem with my color,” he said. “If they don’t want someone from the upper class or supposedly the elite to be president they won’t vote for me. I am willing to take that chance.”