Special Report
Want to send this page or a link to a friend? Click on mail at the top of this window.

More Special Reports

Posted October 12, 2005
newsday logo.gif (3049 bytes)
Losing hope in Haiti
The hemisphere's poorest country prepares for elections amid death, squalor and national despair

CITE SOLEIL, Haiti - As he loitered on a garbage-strewn street flanked by canals of sewage, near a square where men wandered freely with M-16s slung over their shoulders, Jean Osner twisted his face in anger when asked if he'd vote in upcoming presidential elections.

"We have no one to vote for," said Osner, 25, a bone-thin man who wore tattered bedroom slippers for shoes. "No one cares about poor people like us."

Moments later, gunfire crackled through the stifling air.

Despair and lawlessness shackle this virtually stateless country as it lurches toward elections to replace ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, tempering Washington's hopes that the balloting will usher in democracy.

In this volatile slum inside the capital of Port-au-Prince, armed gangs loyal to the routed populist president remain so powerful that 7,600 United Nations peacekeepers guarding this tiny country couldn't provide enough security to open a voting registration center here until last Thursday - a week after voting registration ended elsewhere.

Adding to the worries, Haiti's electoral council is plagued by allegations of incompetence and political favoritism.

Threatened boycott

Meanwhile, the interim government has jailed a firebrand priest - the favorite candidate of Aristide supporters - on vague accusations of murder. As a result, some Aristide militants are threatening to boycott the elections, in which every post from the presidency to the legislature and local offices are up for grabs.

"Major problems remain in ensuring credible elections," said Mark Schneider, a Washington-based expert on Latin America with the International Crisis Group, a global think tank. "If they're not resolved, the next government's legitimacy will be in question."

Contested results could spark another round of the violence that has claimed more than 1,000 lives since Aristide's ouster 20 months ago from the hemisphere's poorest and most troubled nation.

"If the next president isn't on our side, we'll do the same thing Aristide's enemies did to him," vowed Osner, echoing many Cite Soleil denizens. "We'll take to the streets and kick him out by force," said Osner, who has two children, two pregnant girlfriends and no job.

In two centuries of independence, four-fifths of the 48 leaders of this former French colony have been ousted prematurely.

Voting was to have been held this month for 33 presidential candidates, with a Jan. 3 runoff between the top two vote-getters. But with most voting identification cards still undistributed and challenges multiplying over the Provisional Electoral Council's disqualification of nearly two dozen presidential candidates, the first balloting isn't expected until December, at the earliest.

Committed to change

Nevertheless, several countries including the United States are determined that a new government take office by the constitutionally set date of Feb. 7. "The date is sacrosanct because the Haitian people do not see the interim government as legitimate," said a State Department official who asked not to be identified. "There is no wiggle room."

Both here and abroad, the interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue has been criticized for inefficiency and for failing to prosecute ex-military members involved in the armed revolt that ousted Aristide, while indefinitely detaining hundreds of Aristide supporters without charges.

Key among them is the Roman Catholic Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, the would-be presidential candidate who has been jailed since July 21. The electoral council barred him from running on Aristide's Lavalas Family ticket, saying he had to register in person. But Jean-Juste's jailers wouldn't let him out to register.

Police say they suspect Jean-Juste of involvement in the death of Haitian journalist Jacques Roche. But he's never been charged. Amnesty International calls him a prisoner of conscience and his followers believe he's being held to thwart his presidential bid.

Politics aside, organizing elections would be a daunting task in this country with 80-percent poverty and 50-percent illiteracy, where phones and electricity hardly exist outside the capital.

Electoral workers have forded streams with laptops and solar panels strapped to donkeys' backs to meet voters who have walked 20 miles down winding mountain paths to register. In some cases, aspiring voters had to return three or four times to register because voting centers were closed by the time they arrived, or the registration equipment couldn't run because generators had run out of fuel or rain had stopped the solar panels from working.

But critics say progress would have been far greater had the Provisional Electoral Council spent its time creating more and efficient voting registration centers instead of tampering with test results to secure jobs for cronies. As one prominent international electoral observer put it, "Rome is burning."

Businessman Patrick Fequiere, a renegade electoral council member, wants the council to relinquish election planning to the United Nations and the Organization of American States, which is providing technical support for the balloting.

"Otherwise, they will have a disaster on their hands," he said. "Now is not a time for national pride."

That notion is tough to swallow in a country that gained independence in a bloody slave revolt and has been occupied three times in the last century by U.S. troops, who returned Aristide to power in 1994 but helped escort him out of Haiti last year.

"If the international community wants to help, it should avoid imposing solutions," said Rosemond Pradel, the electoral council's chief. Pradel denied the council was politicized or incompetent.

Despite the turmoil, there are signs of progress. With UN peacekeepers on the offensive, the rampant rapes, kidnappings and clashes between gangs loyal to Aristide and rogue police have ebbed somewhat.

"Armed groups will not prevent Haitians from participating in the election," vowed Juan Gabriel Valdes, the UN special envoy to Haiti.

And election officials have registered some 3 million voters. That's between two-thirds and four-fifths of the electorate, believed to be 3.4 million to 4.5 million.

Regardless of the percentage, "the most important point is that we've been able to give people adequate access to the registration process," said Elizabeth Spehar, a Canadian who heads the OAS election team.

Though registration ended Sept. 30, authorities extended it for two weeks in remote areas and slums. By last week, however, two-thirds of voters still hadn't been registered in Cite Soleil, a symbolic Aristide stronghold teeming with up to a half-million people, most of whom share space with pigs and dogs in tin hovels that have no plumbing or electricity and become furnaces under the broiling tropical sun.

That's because for months, the closest place election officials could set up a registration center was on Cite Soleil's perimeter. When white UN peacekeeping tanks tried to go in further, gangsters would emerge from labyrinthine alleys and open fire.

A symbolic victory

That made Thursday's opening of the voting registration center in the heart of Cite Soleil a huge symbolic victory. But the mood here remains tense. Gang members openly walk the streets. And each side - gangs on one and the UN peacekeepers and Haitian police on the other - accuses the other of starting clashes that routinely kill or wound many civilians caught in the crossfire, among them women and children.

"The bourgeoisie sends its mercenaries here to incite violence and discredit the people of Cite Soleil," John Joseph Joel, a local Lavalas Family leader, said in a comment typical of the anger here.

Imperfect or not, the elections are expected to go forward.

"Elections aren't a magical solution for any serious social problems," said Valdes, "but they are essential."

Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc. Reprinted from Newsday of October 12, 2005.

Wehaitians.com, the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
More from wehaitians.com
Main / Columns / Books And Arts / Miscellaneous