Bringing Dallas to Port-au-Prince

Texas-based candidate Dumarsais Siméus takes his US-style campaign home to Haiti.

He is the epitome of the American dream. Born in a two room shack with an aluminum roof in the Haitian countryside, Dumarsais Siméus, came to the US as a student, and, through hard work and smarts, built up a $100 million food empire. He is today one of the wealthiest black businessmen in the US, and a pillar of his Texas community.

The American system and style suits Mr. Siméus.

And so, when he decided to go home to run for president of Haiti a few months ago, Siméus, 65, went for an American-style campaign complete with top-notch American consultants, focus groups, media strategies and the rest.

But here in Haiti, neither Siméus's "go-get-em," "can-do," "show me the money" attitude picked up during 40-odd years in corporate America, nor the hot shot consultants and their relentlessly upbeat press releases behind him, have turned out to be the assets he had hoped for.

Despite his consultants' best efforts, the interest in Siméus here has, so far, focused on the length of time he spent away - rather than what he learned while there.

Haiti's electoral council (the CEP) blocked Siméus from running last month on constitutional grounds. Article 135 of the Haitian Constitution states a presidential candidate must be a native-born Haitian, never have renounced Haitian nationality, and have resided in the country for five consecutive years before the election. Siméus, who has a US passport and who has lived and worked in Texas in recent years, insists he never renounced his Haitian citizenship, and always kept a residence in Haiti.

Rob Allyn, the Dallas-based GOP political strategist who leads Siméus's election team, says the current government and "insiders" around it are out to get their candidate.

"They don't want someone in office who truly signifies change," says Mr. Allyn, over lunch in Port-au-Prince. "They want to hand-pick the candidates so they end up with someone who won't threaten the status quo here."

Perhaps, Siméus suggests, interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue "is afraid of clean government."

"There is one [candidate] who arrived in Haiti with a US passport ... and signed a sheet saying he was a US citizen. And anyone can understand that he's not allowed to take part in the elections," explained Mr. Latortue last week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointedly suggested, at the same press conference, that "any candidate who wants to participate in the elections," should be allowed to do so.

Twenty-three other candidates, besides Siméus, have also been rejected by the CEP, each on different grounds. There are currently 32 candidates running in the elections, scheduled for Nov. 20 but expected to be delayed.

He is challenging his rejection by the CEP, and plans to take his case all the way to the Supreme Court. His consultants - or team "Natif Natal" ('Native Son' in Creole) as they call themselves - are filing legal summonses, sending out press releases, and even drumming up an e-mail campaign.

"If you believe it is time for a change in Haiti ... now is the time for action!" reads the mass mailing, giving e-mail addresses of members of the electoral council and government, and urging supporters to write in and demand Siméus be added to the ballot.

But some wonder whether such trusted US campaign tactics suit the country they are being employed in. "Lately, we have had a lot of down days for the Internet," Latortue's spokesman Jean-Junior Joseph says, describing a normal occurrence in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. That might explain why he had not seen any of the Siméus campaign e-mails supposedly directed at his boss. "What works in Texas does not always fly here," he says.

Allyn, who has worked on campaigns in countries ranging from the Bahamas to Indonesia, disagrees. "It's an art form," he says of political campaigning - which can be tweaked for different countries, but nonetheless applies everywhere. "A key to our business is listening to and understanding the local market," he says. "And then using tested methods."

US political consultants have, over the past decade, taken this art and fanned out around the globe. Dick Morris, one of Bill Clinton's advisers, was a consultant to Viktor Yushchenko and the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine last year. An earlier Clinton team - Stan Greenberg, Bob Shrum, and James Carville - parked themselves in Israel for a couple of months in 1999 and helped Ehud Barak unseat Bibi Netanyahu, who in turn was being advised by Arthur Finkelstein, a well-known Republican consultant.

More recently, in 2005, a horde of John Kerry's advisers from the 2004 election in the US decamped to the UK to work on Tony Blair's campaign for a third term.

"It's not that we invented this," says Mr. Allyn. "Its just that we figured it out first.... It's like Hollywood and the movies." America has more elections than any other country and spends more money on those contests for votes, he explains. And, as a result, it has a larger, more wily cadre of professional campaign consultants.

"My international experience should be a cause for celebration," argues Siméus, giving an evening interview in shorts and a T-shirt on the terrace of his hotel suite where he has been living since August. "Haitians should all be saying, 'this candidate is better for his pluralistic viewpoint, we need a man of his background to break the cycle of bad models we have had before....to fight the corruption and cronyism of the past, and to bring in investment, know how, innovation and reform.'"

But that is not what they are all saying.

"A law is a law and the constitution says he can't run," says human rights advocate Jean-Claude Bajeux.

While it is true Haiti does not always manage to keep to its laws, he continues, "...it does not befit a candidate - no matter how excellent - to begin his campaign asking for laws to be broken for him."

Siméus tries to downplay the importance of his American consultants. Instead, he talks of team building, transparency, and job creation. He waxes poetic about fiscal reform, microcredit, and revamping of government institutions. He has a plan for earning credibility on the international market, floating bonds, privatization and starting investment funds for entrepreneurs. And, he promises to stay "involved and on site," even if he is not allowed to run, or is able to run and loses.

When Allyn first met Siméus, the consultant told the aspiring politician he could get him elected but worried about what would come next. "Haiti is so troubled. There is so much to do there," Allyn told him. "Where are you going to start?" To which Siméus responded: "Don't worry, you can leave that to me. All I need you to do is get me there."

While it is true Haiti does not always manage to keep to its laws, he continues, "...it does not befit a candidate - no matter how excellent - to begin his campaign asking for laws to be broken for him."

Siméus tries to downplay the importance of his American consultants. Instead, he talks of team building, transparency, and job creation. He waxes poetic about fiscal reform, microcredit, and revamping of government institutions. He has a plan for earning credibility on the international market, floating bonds, privatization and starting investment funds for entrepreneurs. And, he promises to stay "involved and on site," even if he is not allowed to run, or is able to run and loses.

When Allyn first met Siméus, the consultant told the aspiring politician he could get him elected but worried about what would come next. "Haiti is so troubled. There is so much to do there," Allyn told him. "Where are you going to start?" To which Siméus responded: "Don't worry, you can leave that to me. All I need you to do is get me there."

Would-be candidates of Aristide's party watch from behind bars

As Haiti moves toward elections, one of the most charismatic figures is off the electoral rolls: Gérard Jean-Juste, a staunch supporter of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a well-known Haitian rights activist in Miami who returned home in 1991 to minister to the poor.

His many followers pushed him recently to become a candidate for Aristide's Lavalas Family party - but the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) has blocked him, on grounds he needed to be physically present to register for the ballot.

This is an impossibiliy - as Mr. Jean-Juste is in jail, accused of ordering the kidnapping and brutal killing of prominent Haitian journalist and outspoken Aristide critic Jacques Roche.

The priest insists he was in Miami at the time of the killing and that he and other Lavalas members are being persecuted for political reasons by the interim government and others. The government dismisses the notion, but many others are skeptical. Amnesty International has called Jean-Juste a prisoner of conscience and 29 US congress members have sent letters to the US and Haitian governments demanding his release.

Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting Haiti last week, mentioned the priest, and called on the courts to "accelerate justice on high profile cases."

She spoke also of former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, another Aristide ally, who has been in jail - the same one as Jean-Juste - for 16 months without trial. "Justice has to come in a timely fashion," she said at a press conference. "I told the Prime Minister that it should not be the case that anyone interpret any political motive here."

"The president and prime minister are behind my arrest and troubles. They are scared of the will of people," explains Jean-Juste. "I hear the people calling for me," he says in an interview from his small two-story prison, "but there is nothing I can do.... We try to meet and they attack us. They bar us from talking on radio and TV. They forbid us from having demonstrations."

The "political establishment" he says, does not really want Lavalas to participate in the elections at all. "But they are stuck - because they know our strength, and need us in the process to give their elections legitimacy."

After Jean-Juste's candidacy was rejected last month, the Lavalas party threatened to boycott the elections altogether, but finally ended up fracturing and fronting two candidates - former Lavalas senator Gérald Gilles (whose candidacy was later also rejected by the CEP, which deemed his registration papers were incomplete) and former Prime Minister Marc Louis Bazin, who is actually from another party that only recently allied itself with Lavalas. He is not accepted by many of Lavalas' more radical members.

"But this is not our real representation," says Annette Auguste, a popular singer and grassroots Lavalas agitator known as Só Ann, who is spending her days in a prison up the mountain from the prison where Jean-Juste and Neptune are being held.

Arrested on Mother's Day 2004, Ms. Auguste is accused of stockpiling weapons and using voodoo against Aristide critics, but, like Jean-Juste and Neptune, has not been formally charged.

"The jails are filled with Lavalas Family," she says, running her fingers through her cropped, graying hair. "They are scared of us and trying to break us." This country is filled with magui, she says, using the Creole word for monkey business. "We have no faith in these elections at all."

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