PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — 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 an example of how Haiti's national grapevine, the teledjol — Creole for "telemouth" — can quickly add more chaos to this already messy country.
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.
The latest rumors come at a delicate time in Haiti after Prime Minister Garry Conille's sudden resignation last month because of behind-closed-doors sparring with Martelly.
Perhaps the biggest piece of scuttlebutt is whether Martelly, a former globe-trotting musician who once lived in a gated suburb of West Palm Beach, 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.
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.
"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.