Monday, April 03, 2006

Reflections on the Haitian Elections

by Ron Bluntschli of Gwo Jan, Haiti

Considering all that has been going on politically in Haiti over the past few years, what happened here on Feb. 7, 2006 and a few weeks after was both surprising and inspiring. The Haitian people went out in large numbers to make a powerful statement to the elites and the international community, whose combined misrule has had little support among the masses. Their determination overcame the many obstacles put in their way. They did not get discouraged and go home when many polling places remained closed until late in the day, nor did they riot after waiting for so long only to find themselves turned away because somehow their names weren't on the list where they were told to vote. What they did do was demonstrate forcefully but peacefully to demand that the Provisional Electoral Council (PEC) solve the problem, which it finally did under pressure around 2:00PM (voting was supposed to start at 6:00AM and end at 4:00PM) with the declaration that people could vote wherever they were and that the polling places were to remain open until everyone had voted. So the election went off without violence (the four deaths that did occur were not political in nature, rather the kind of incident normal for large crowds of people under uncomfortable circumstances; the real story is that there weren't more) and the people went home to wait for the results. Not that there was any doubt about who won the presidency, but there was concern that the people's will would not be respected.

That fear seemed to be confirmed after the election as the vote count started to come in. Preval was ahead with around 60% initially but then a day later went down to 50%, less than the absolute majority he needed to not have to go to a run-off. It remained hovering around that point for the rest of the week. Preval supporters suspected that the count was being manipulated to force a run-off vote, which they wanted no part of, and began to demonstrate in the streets. The big issue initially revolved around the amount of blank votes recorded, which when included in the total – as mandated by Haitian electoral law – dropped Preval's lead below the needed 51%. It defied reason, given the context, that 4% of the electorate would have deliberately voted for "none of the above" as a protest. The discovery of several thousand ballots dumped in the garbage north of Port-au-Prince added more fuel to the fire. The city was effectively shut down for a few days due to the roads being blocked, but there was no violence or destruction of property to speak of, except when the UN fired on a crowd that wouldn't let their vehicles pass, killing two and wounding four others. To resolve the problem before it got out of hand, the PEC agreed to discount blank votes to give Preval the majority needed to be declared the winner. Other than a few candidates and the small minority of people strongly opposed to Preval, most people welcomed the decision and things returned to normal. Official observers also agreed, declaring the election valid and without significant fraud.

Much of the above story was fairly well reported in the press (a good article to start with would be "The Fight for Haiti", by Kathie Klarreich, in the March 13 issue of The Nation). What wasn't given much attention was what the people understood was going on in this game that was being played with them, and why, and how their response to it deserved much more admiration and respect than they got. What they saw was that the powers were going to try to provoke them to violence in order to have a pretext for taking over the country entirely, or at least to install another puppet government. The election going up in flames would prove that Haiti had become ungovernable, a failed state. The violent masses would take the blame. Did they have reason to believe this, or was it just the paranoia of a backward, uneducated people looking for someone to blame for their misery, as foreigners often view Haitians?

Let's start by looking at a bit of recent history. Two years ago, President Aristide was forcibly removed from power by what was called a popular revolt. While there were certainly many Haitians –although never the majority- who were angry with Aristide and wanted him out, the coup d'etat was given financial, organizational and logistical support by the big players in Haiti: Washington, France and Canada (how it went down is well covered in the book "Canada in Haiti: Waging War On The Poor Majority", co-authored by Antony Fenton). Although the Haitian Constitution mandates elections within three months of the presidency being vacated, for whatever reason, this was ignored by all those staunch defenders of the Constitution that Aristide had been accused of violating. While hungry for power, the elite political class knew that Aristide's political party, Lavalas, was still the dominant political force in the country and would win overwhelmingly were a speedy election to be held. They needed to destroy the party and demoralize its popular base first before daring to organize an election in which any of them would stand a chance of winning. This they proceeded to do over the next two years, under the inept and corrupt leadership of the provisional puppet government cobbled together by the same powers that supported the coup d'etat. During this process hundreds of Lavalas officials and supporters were rounded up and put in prison, almost all of them never even having charges filed against them. Many others were "disappeared". This was all blithely overlooked by the UN, which had taken over the "peacekeeping" mission from the very busy US military, who stayed only long enough to kill several people and "restore order".

Much of the work was initially carried out by elements of the Haitian Army, which had been organizing and training in the Dominican Republic for months prior to the onset of anti-Aristide demonstrations (one wonders why they were allowed to operate so freely there and where they got their money) in anticipation of providing the violence necessary to push Aristide out when other means proved inadequate. Although by any reasonable standard these rebel forces would be classified as terrorist, they not only were allowed to ravage northern cities and threaten Port-au-Prince, enabling the coup d'etat to happen, but were also given free range to re-establish bases and keep their weapons afterward. Most Haitians, even many of those who wanted Aristide out, were appalled to see the Army reasserting itself again, considering their brutal history. Had the international objective been to truly stop violent conflict, the rebels should have been disarmed and their leaders arrested; instead, they were told to keep a low profile and wait for a newly elected government to decide whether the Army would be reconstituted or not. They were unable to remain disciplined, however, and proceeded to try and establish themselves operationally in defiance of the occupying powers. When their depredations went too far, the UN and the Haitian police finally shut them down about a year ago.

A lot of the preparatory work needed to begin organizing elections had already been done by this time in any case. Lavalas was unable to function and most of its leaders were in hiding, in prison or dead. The political violence was much worse than it had been under Aristide. Poor neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince like Cite Soleil and Belair had turned into armed fortresses in response to repeated attacks; first by the US, then by the Haitian military and police, as well as the UN. The gangs that Aristide had armed to be his own security forces began a campaign of kidnapping which terrorized primarily the business class and elites, who had overwhelmingly supported Aristide's ouster (it should be noted, however, that many of the kidnappings occurring during this period were not committed by gangs and had nothing to do with politics). This justified further incursions by UN forces, since the population of the armed neighborhoods had now become "terrorists". In one such attack in Cite Soleil, UN forces killed at least 27 people, mostly women and children. The people in these neighborhoods were fully convinced that it was the intent of both the Haitian authorities and the international community to eliminate them, but they were determined not to give up without a fight, shooting at any invading police or UN personnel. While the politically motivated kidnappings were terrible and beyond justification, the responsibility for them should be acknowledged as shared by those in power as well as by the actual perpetrators. The rulers, of course, accept no responsibility, preferring to blame Aristide as somehow orchestrating the whole operation from South Africa.

With Lavalas on the run and its main strategic areas of popular support under the constant threat of siege, the stage was now set for moving ahead with elections. Anti-Aristide forces looked forward to an election they might finally have a chance of winning, but the poor majority was totally uninterested unless Lavalas was allowed to operate freely and present its own candidates. Desirous of legitimacy and knowing that this would not be recognized if Lavalas –still the party of the people- was not involved at least superficially, the authorities negotiated with individuals from within Lavalas willing to play the game and present a candidate for the presidency, which resulted in the laughable choice of Marc Bazin as the Lavalas candidate (laughable because Bazin never had any popular support, especially after accepting the post of Prime Minister during General Cedras' reign of terror). The main body of the Lavalas party rejected this outright, instead pushing for Father Gerard Jean-Juste to represent them. The authorities responded by arresting him on bogus charges to prevent him from being able to register as a candidate. Without a candidate they could believe in, popular interest in the elections remained low.

Then the surprise. On the day before the deadline for candidates to register, Rene Preval entered the race under the banner of the newly formed party Espwa, which means hope in Kreyol. This changed everything. The whole country, including many strongly anti-Aristide people, suddenly got fired up to participate. People started registering to vote en masse, feeling that now they had a candidate they could truly support. The ruling class had not anticipated this and was not at all happy about it, because everyone knew from the moment he entered the race that Preval would win hands down in a fair election. Preval's edge was that he had already been president, had not been accused of corruption while in power (although he was unable to stop rampant corruption in the government), ended his term able to remain in the country and continue to live as a private citizen (a rarity in Haiti) and was accepted and respected by the masses as being solidly "of the people and for the people". His former close association with Aristide made him popular with Aristide supporters, his commitment to popular causes without being tainted by Aristide's power plays and corruption made him popular with pro-democracy people who had been disillusioned with Aristide, and his business-friendly politics made him acceptable to some of the powerful families who dominate Haitian commerce. That he was not known as a competent administrator or very charismatic didn't matter at all.

Another reason for his popularity is that he is hated by the ruling elites and political class, as much if not more for his style as for his politics. Preval is the sort of person who will sit on the ground to talk to a group of farmers, dresses casually, dances with grandmothers, drinks and plays dominoes with regular folks and prefers to speak Kreyol rather than French. The elite view him with the kind of disdain that a New York socialite would have for some good old boy living in a trailer park in Alabama. He is not a politician, yet he has had two presidencies handed to him without even trying, so the political class hates him as well. The people like this about him, though, and by voting for him sent a strong message to the ruling class about just how little they admire them.

Once Preval became a candidate, those in power tried what they could to scuttle or at least forestall the elections, pushing the date back again and again until they worked out some sort of plan and could no longer offer an excuse for the delays. When it finally became clear that the elections were indeed going to be held, the people mobilized and prepared themselves for whatever might be thrown at them. By this time it was obvious to many that there were going to be attempts made to provoke mob violence to spoil things. For one thing, many of the elite were afraid enough to leave the country or send their kids out for the week of the election. Also, during the week before, UN patrols went into Cite Soleil and marked many houses with skull and crossbones symbols, which the inhabitants understood as marking where to shoot when the troops entered. (It would be hard to imagine what other purpose these markings could possibly serve.) Then, on the day before the election, US warships appeared in the harbor off Port-au-Prince, and the news arrived that there were around 800 US soldiers stationed in Barahona, close to the border in the Dominican Republic, supposedly to build four polyclinics (why so many armaments were in their camp was not explained). The only question was how were they going to incite the violence. A lot of people, including myself, thought that thugs hired by opposition parties would start shooting up polling places to set things off. As it turned out, a different approach was used.

It became clear on election day what the strategy was. To start with, the polling places set up for poorer neighborhoods were located in exposed areas with no shade and next to piles of stinking garbage. As previously mentioned, the offices opened very late and were badly disorganized and short of materials. Previous elections, when there was even less experience in holding them, somehow went much more smoothly. The UN, charged with material and logistical support and security, was noticeably absent in many places, especially where the people of Cite Soleil and Belair were to vote. All this did have its effect; people became frustrated and angry and ready for action. But the anticipated violence did not happen. There was no gunfire from those violent "terrorists" of the targeted neighborhoods. People endured the humiliation to cast their votes, foiling the expectations of those who apparently made their plans on the assumption that the people were little more than violent animals unable to control their emotions. At the end of the day, when it was plain what had been attempted and how the people overcame it, my admiration for the Haitian people rose to a level it hasn't been at in years.

The shenanigans after the election were even more potentially explosive than the humiliations of election day. Especially disturbing was the complicity of the UN in continuing to play the role of spoiler. That ballot boxes had been dumped in the garbage before the count was complete was bad enough; that the trucks that dumped them were UN trucks was worse. Unaware of such details, an outside observer of the demonstrations that followed might be pardoned for thinking, "Why don't they just let the process go on, even if that means a run-off if Preval doesn't get a clear majority? Can't they behave in a more civilized fashion?". But from my perspective, having felt the anger upon seeing how people were treated for simply exercising their rights, I was deeply impressed with how well they kept discipline and avoided destroying not only life but property as well. In comparison, there is usually much more mob violence in the US during a post-Super Bowl victory celebration than what we saw here. After the way people comported themselves on election day they should have been given the respect they deserved; instead, they were treated with contempt. And the people rose to the occasion with dignity, maturity and disciplined determination.

Spirits are still high in Haiti, and there is hope in the air like there hasn't been since 1994. You could feel it in this year's Carnival, which was noticeably free of the sporadic fighting that usually breaks out with so many people together dancing and jostling each other in tightly packed crowds. People are no longer as naïve as they were before, however, so they remain wary. There are already signs that efforts will be made to cripple Preval's presidency. For now, though, the people have the satisfaction of having scored a big point against the forces that continue to try dominating them. I hope they can hold on to this spirit, this energy, and with it start to heal and rebuild the country.

Ayibobo for the Haitian People!