PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — One senator warned of a panic. Another said things were going to be hot. Neither gave any details, but that didn't matter: Within minutes of their comments on the radio, hundreds of shops closed, schools canceled classes and seemingly everyone rushed home.
Port-au-Prince, a city of 3 million people, abruptly shut down. There were radio reports of injuries in the scurry home and even a few shootings.
This month's scare was another example of how Haiti's national grapevine, the "teledjol" — Creole for "telemouth" — can quickly add yet more chaos to this already messy country.
It's also a reminder of just how fragile Haiti remains a year after presidential elections marred by violent protests paralyzed the capital and halted reconstruction efforts following the 2010 earthquake.
Haiti has long been vulnerable to radio-fanned rumors, driven by the lack of reliable information, widespread illiteracy and a government with a long history of being opaque. Now, there are new elements, including social media outlets such as Twitter adding to the fray, as well as what appears to be an orchestrated effort to undermine President Michel Martelly, who has been in office for nearly a year.
"We take the teledjol very seriously," said Marvel Dandin, a popular talk show host with the privately owned Radio Kiskeya. "Most of the time it has something true but you have to dig for it. You also have to confirm it."
The latest rumors — a product of political agitation, really — come at a delicate time in Haiti following Prime Minister Garry Conille's sudden resignation last month because of behind-closed-doors sparring with Martelly. Rumors persisted for weeks that the two were on the outs; Conille, a newcomer to Haiti's dagger-in-the-back politics, downplayed the disputes until he resigned four months after assuming the post.
The gossip continues to churn as Martelly looks increasingly vulnerable.
The first-time politician enjoys the backing of international partners but seems to have only a few Haitian institutions under his thumb. He has no official prime minister and only a caretaker government in place and few allies in Parliament. The national police department is run by a seasoned official with whom Martelly has strained relations, Mario Andresol. Rumors abound that Andresol plans to resign from his post, a claim he has denied.
Worried diplomats want a prime minister in office. They also want the government to clear out several old army bases taken over by a motley band of armed men who hope Martelly will honor his campaign goal of restoring the defunct military. Internal security updates refer to the ex-soldiers and their young followers as "paramilitary elements."
The rumor mill functions, some say even thrives, in large part because the Haitian government has long withheld information, leading people to gaze in wonder at the political theater unfolding before them. Unlike previous administrations, the Martelly government cranks out press releases, half a dozen by the day, but they contain few specific details. Government spokespeople seldom pick up their phones.
"Too much is kept close to the vest when it comes to government regulations and policy decisions," said Jocelyn McCalla, a Haiti-born political analyst and former director of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights. "Haiti's not an open society and so information is power."
McCalla recalled how Rene Civil, a longtime supporter of two-time President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, announced on radio last month that the former leader was about to be arrested.
"Regardless of whether it's true, for at least 15 minutes he's got power," McCalla said about Civil.
Haitian officials said no criminal charges had been filed but the rumor proved useful to the Aristide camp. It likely galvanized several thousand Aristide supporters to rally two days later on his behalf in Port-au-Prince in the biggest anti-Martelly protest since he took office last May. It was also the biggest pro-Aristide demonstration since the former leader returned last year from seven years in exile in South Africa.
Opposition leader and former Port-au-Prince mayor Evans Paul went on local radio Saturday to denounce what he said were plans for the United States and other countries to arrest Aristide and Guy Philippe, the head of a revolt that exiled Aristide during his second term, in 2004. U.S. Embassy spokesman Jon Piechowski said nothing of the sort was planned.
"This is totally baseless and ridiculous," Piechowski said.
The rumors are so prevalent that when something amazing does happen, people don't believe it.
When former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier suddenly returned from exile in France last year, many didn't believe it even as he made his way through customs and the event was covered live on television.
Perhaps the biggest piece of scuttlebutt engulfing the country is whether Martelly, a former globe-trotting musician who once lived in a gated suburb of West Palm Beach, Florida, holds dual nationality, which would make him ineligible for office under Haiti's Constitution. On March 8, he sought to quash the rumors as he held aloft eight old Haitian passports. A bemused U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten looked on.
"All the talk is finished," tweeted Vladimir Laguerre, the government's foreign press liaison. "You were asking for the passport, here's the passport."
Still, that wasn't enough to tame the teledjol that day. Sen. Joseph Lambert had already told radio reporters that Port-au-Prince would see a "panic" within 48 hours. He didn't say how he knew this and journalists didn't challenge him. The outspoken Martelly critic, Sen. Steven Benoit echoed that sentiment, speaking just before Martelly led his news conference.
"There are too many things that can happen in the next couple of hours," Benoit told Scoop FM without elaborating.
By then, thousands of people spilled into the streets. Traffic snarled to a standstill. Radio reports of panic-related injuries and shootings followed.
Benoit later made a breathless apology on Dandin's Radio Kiskeya, saying images of the election riots of December 2010 flashed before his mind's eye.
"I wasn't trying to create political problems," Benoit said. "Based on the statement on what the president was going to stay, there could have been trouble."