Who was that man on the phone and why was he so angry?


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Who was that man on the phone and why was he so angry?

That question had been on my mind off and on since November, when an angry-sounding caller left a voicemail for me. I had no idea what he was so riled up about, or why he thought I was the right person to yell at.

The reason for my confusion was that the man was shouting in a foreign language. To my monolinguistic ears, it sounded vaguely Arabic, or possibly eastern European. I played it for a few others in our newsroom. Several hazarded guesses, none of which proved correct.

I saved the message in my voicemail archive and forgot about it, except when I received periodic warnings that it was about to expire. Perhaps because I hoped to eventually decipher it, I saved it again each time rather than let it vanish into the telephonic ether.

The mystery was solved for me this week when the Miami Herald reported that the Federal Communications Commission was investigating a series of “robo-calls” to U.S. residents from a Haitian presidential candidate, Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly.

It seems Martelly, a Haitian pop music icon turned politician, wasn’t incensed so much as trying to motivate voters to cast their ballots for him in Haiti's Nov. 28 presidential election, postponed from February by the massive earthquake that rocked his homeland. And the language he was exhorting them in was Creole.

Even if I had been able to understand him, his message would have been perplexing to anyone not intimately familiar with Haitian politics: “Don't forget! Vote Martelly, No. 8! The bald head, the bull!" he said, as translated for msnbc.com by a Haitian Creole speaker.

It turns out I wasn’t the only person who thought Martelly was mad.

After Army personnel at Fort Bragg, N.C., received several calls in a short period of time, several buildings on the base were evacuated while security sweeps were conducted “out of prudence,” said base spokesman Ben Abel.

“We started getting some calls, and it was incomprehensible to somebody who didn’t have any language experience,” he said. “We recorded some of the voicemail, and our criminal investigation command came in and did their analysis and determined what it was after a while.”

“In two to three hours we determined that it was a non-threatening incident and closed our investigation,” said Chris Grey, a spokesman for Army Criminal Investigations.

The Army wasn’t the only recipient alarmed by the calls.

The Whocallsme website features a long list of comments from people who received the calls, some of whom apparently ran into translation difficulties.

“My fiance got it translated and it is very disturbing,” said one poster identified as Nala. “... Turns out people started a rumor there that America created the earthquake to kill them and get there (sic) oil and that on the medical ships they were experimenting on Haitians like the Nazi did on Jews. ... So these people are calling leaving personalized voodoo curses. ... Mine used my middle name and wished death upon me.”

While Martelly’s aims were far more mundane, why was his campaign calling people in the United States in the first place?

Martelly campaign spokesman Damian Merlo said the aim of the "awareness calls" was to encourage Haitian-Americans in the U.S. to call their relatives in Haiti and urge them to vote for Martelly. But he said the telemarketing company the campaign hired, which he declined to identify, apparently purchased a phone number database that “includes the numbers of all people who have called Haiti in the past” — and because of Haiti's devastating quake on Jan. 12, 2010, that it included many relief workers, members of the military and journalists.

Merlo said the campaign was no longer making “robo-calls” to the U.S., though residents in Haiti say they are being heavily used there in advance of the March 20 runoff pitting Martelly against Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady and college administrator who was the top vote getter on Nov. 28.

An FCC spokeswoman would not confirm that the agency was investigating whether Martelly’s campaign violated the Do Not Call registry, citing agency policy.

But the spokeswoman conceded that Martelly might have a loophole, as the law passed by Congress in 2003 exempted political solicitations.

“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.

More A strange phone call, a stranger explanation
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