Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-HAITI: As Polls Near, Challenges Pile Up

Jane Regan

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Apr 5 2005 (IPS) - For over a year now, Haitian political parties, U.N. officials and foreign consultants armed with plans, charts and millions upon millions of dollars have been planning for Haiti’s general elections.

But just seven months away from races for over 1,000 posts, elections don’t yet have the feel of a shoo-in.

One of the most vocal parties – Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Family – is still on the sidelines and its supporters, sometimes thousands of them, hold demonstrations to denounce the planned contests.

Not that their anger surprises anyone. Aristide was ousted on Feb. 29, 2004, after a bitter two-year anti-government movement and a brief armed insurgency, both of which had at least some foreign encouragement.

Hours after Aristide left on a U.S.-chartered plane, his country was being occupied by a U.S.-led multinational force. The former priest and two-time president says he was kidnapped in a U.S. and French government-supported “modern day coup d’état.”

Added to the Lavalas conundrum, the Provisional Electional Council (CEP) has to photograph, fingerprint and register 4.2 million voters in only three months.

And most concerning of all, the security situation appears to be going from bad to worse, at least in the capital, with gang warfare, attacks on police and U.N. peacekeepers, murders, kidnappings and even assaults on the CEP headquarters.

On Mar. 29, two truckloads of men armed with automatic weapons opened fire on the compound, pocking the building and piercing an electricity transformer. Three days earlier someone lobbed a grenade at the door.

The national elections slated for Oct. 9 and Nov. 16 – for every office from local mayor up through president – have been touted as a key part of an internationally shepherded plan aimed at helping the country gain some semblance of stability.

Pulling off the races is the main task facing the caretaker government installed after Aristide left. The U.S., Canada and the European Union have pledged close to 40 million dollars to fund the polls and the Organisation of American States has dedicated a phalanx of specialised staff.

“Elections are the only way to assure the country moves forward,” interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue said again on Mar. 31, during a visit to the CEP one day after the attack.

Elections are also the first priority of the Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping mission that landed here nine months ago. The 7,400 soldiers and police are to “provide a secure and stable environment within which the constitutional and political process in Haiti can take place.”

But as members of the country’s 91 political parties scurry around trying to rouse a disinterested and even suspicious electorate, Lavalas is crying foul.

“As long as Aristide isn’t back in Haiti, there won’t be any elections,” John Joel Joseph, a member of the Cité Soleil Lavalas political committee, told IPS on Apr. 1. “If they want to do a ‘selection’ of one of the mercenaries who work for the imperialists, fine, but you can’t call that elections.”

During the previous two days, several thousand Aristide supporters had marched through the streets of his sprawling seaside slum and also through Bel-Aire, a poor neighbourhood overlooking Haiti’s National Palace, to call for Aristide’s return.

Those neighbourhoods have also been the scenes of vicious battles between rival gangs and between police and gang members claiming allegiance to Lavalas. The violence has left over 400 dead since its eruption on Sep. 30, 2004.

“No Aristide, no peace! Aristide for five years!” the jubilant marchers chanted on Mar. 29 as they circled a bonfire with symbolic coffins for U.S. President George Bush, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti James B. Foley and a host of Haitian officials.

An effigy of Latortue blazed in the centre.

But not all Lavalas Family party members want to sit this one out.

Senator Gérald Gilles, who is still a senator but who has been without a salary since the interim government closed parliament last year, is planning to run.

“There’s a divergence in Lavalas right now,” Gilles told IPS. “One tendency does not want to participate, or it does but will not admit it, and the other, the more moderate tendency, does. If we do not find unity amongst ourselves, Lavalas could disappear..” [See sidebar for more on Lavalas]

But Gilles also noted that for the moment he has to move around the country carefully. He and other members of his party feel they are being unfairly persecuted by the interim government.

Several high-ranking party members, including former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, are in prison on charges related to repression but have yet to be tried. Many other Lavalas supporters whom police say are gang members have been picked up but not yet charged. Gilles himself was arrested and briefly held.

The senator also admitted that campaigning is not possible in neighbourhoods dominated by what he calls pro-Aristide “extremists.”

“No intelligent person would hold a public meeting in Cité Soleil or Bel-Aire,” he said.

Members of the CEP say they have tried to get the Lavalas Family to participate in the elections, and are holding out hope that they will.

“I am committed to making sure that all the political forces in Haiti get equitable treatment,” CEP member and businessman Patrick Féquière told IPS.

But Féquière’s concerns are not limited to Lavalas. Before candidates can even officially get on a ballot, the CEP needs to register all of Haiti’s voters using a new – and what they say will be the country’s first fraud-proof – elections system.

Starting some time this month, all of Haiti’s voting age population – 4.2 million people – will be invited to one of 424 registration offices where they will have to prove their identity and then be photographed and fingerprinted.

If an adult does not have a driver’s license or birth certificate or similar paper, they have to come with two people who are already registered and who will vouch for him or her. Once everyone has registered, identities and fingerprints will be cross-checked in the capital and then the cards will be distributed across the country.

All in three months.

“We will have 610 computers,” CEP member Pierre Richard Duchemin explained to an audience of party representatives at a meeting last week.

Then, with a Power Point slide show, he illustrated that if each registration takes between 10 and 16 minutes at 610 computers across the nation, there will be about 61,000 new registrations a day.

A challenge, to say the least, in a country with scant electricity and poor roads, and where hundreds of thousands of people have no birth certificates.

But that is not what is worrying Féquière. He is more concerned about the insecurity, and not just for the elections.

“I don’t think the CEP is in more danger than the average business person sitting behind his desk,” he said. “The entire country is hostage.”

While visiting the CEP last week, Latortue did not hide his frustration with the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

“The international community is officially in Haiti to help us,” he said, “but we don’t always find them where we need them.”

A joint study by Harvard Law School students and a Brazilian human rights group agreed.

The blue helmets have “done little to establish stability, protect the populace or curb human rights violations,” they said. “Haiti is as insecure as ever.”

Féquière went further.

“The U.N. says elections are the priority,” he ruminated. “But I wonder about elections in this kind of situation. In a climate like this, is elections what we need? Will that kind of elections resolve our problems? It’s not obvious to me.”

SIDEBAR: Haiti’s Lavalas – One Man’s View

PETION-VILLE – Senator Gérald Gilles does not hide his political allegiance.

Gilles is proud of to be a member of the Lavalas Family party and he still believes it can play a leading role in moving Haiti forward.

Trained as a surgeon, the 38-year-old from Jérémie, a port town located on Haiti’s southern arm, has been involved with ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide ever since his student activist days.

In 1990, Gilles accompanied Aristide to the polling station as the ex-priest cast his vote in the presidential elections he later won in a landslide, and Gilles remained a Lavalassien throughout the nineties, struggling for Aristide’s return during the 1991-1994 coup that left 3,000 to 5,000 dead.

When Aristide broke from his former allies in the Lavalas Political Organisation (OPL) party in 1996 and formed the Lavalas Family, with himself as president, Gilles joined up, ran for senator in 2000 and won.

“Lavalas is still Haiti’s strongest party,” Gilles told IPS during an interview at his home in the hills above Haiti’s capital. “But it is split between two tendencies right now. If we can come together, we can win.”

Gilles was talking about his group and its supporters, which include Lavalas parliamentarians and others he calls the “moderates,” and a second group he calls “radical.”

The “radicals” include the groups that have recently led protests demanding Aristide’s return. They say elections are unconstitutional since Aristide is still president.

At least some of their members, those nicknamed “chimè,” or “angry monster,” are heavily armed. A number of guns even have Aristide stickers on them. They say they will do whatever it takes to bring their president back.

Other members include Father Gérard Jean-Juste, a priest well known in Haiti and also Florida, where for years he defended the rights of Haitian immigrants. Earlier this year, Jean-Juste was arrested and held for seven weeks in connection with organising armed pro-Aristide resistance. He was released without being charged.

During a three-day meeting where political parties were invited to sign a kind of “non-agression” pact laying down ground rules for the upcoming elections, Jean-Juste read off a nine-point list of demands he said had to be met for Lavalas to participate in the elections. At the top of the list was Aristide’s return. No Lavalas representative signed the pact.

(To foreign reporters, however, Jean-Juste dangles the possibility that he might run for president.)

The pro-return/non-elections Lavalassiens also include a number of former officials who are now in the U.S. and other countries, and also, of course, Aristide himself, in exile in South Africa and who continues to campaign for his return.

“I will return. I don’t know when, but I will return,” the South African Press Association quoted him as saying after a lecture he gave at a university there last month.

But Gilles thinks that is exactly what the Lavalas Family party does not need.

Instead, he wants members of the party to come together, assess the errors of the past and move forward. Under Aristide’s firm rule, Lavalas made errors, Gilles said.

Among them was Aristide’s encouragement of a “cult of personality,” he said.

“But the biggest error we made was in instrumentalising the poor, in turning them into pressure groups,” Gilles said, referring to the grassroots groups that were coopted by the Lavalas power structure and encouraged to harass opposition demonstrators or even Lavalas members deemed not sufficiently loyal.

Mostly young men – many of whom were on the payrolls of state institutions like TELECO, the telephone company – they can be seen leading pro-Aristide demonstrations today, even if they are joined by hundreds or thousands who never got a paycheck.

“We need to do a ‘mea culpa’ from our point of view, but the other parties need to do the same thing,” Gilles continued. He is working on a book tentatively entitled “Lavalas: Les causes de notre echec, les raisons d’éspérer” (“Lavalas: The causes for our failure, the reasons for hope”).

Haiti’s political culture has relied too much on violence and is too “Manichean” Gilles continued, with intolerance and polarisation ruling the day. Instead of dealing with Haiti’s problems, political parties and their seemingly eternal leaders take shots at one another.

According to the Lavalas Family statutes, Aristide is head of the party unless he “dies or resigns.” The non-democratic nature of the parties and their vicious power struggles hurt the nation, Gilles argues.

A glance at history attests: In 200 years, Haiti has had some 45 heads of state, most of them dictators. Only five have served out their terms. The rest have been poisoned, blown up, hacked to death, overthrown and/or driven into exile, sometimes with a little encouragement or assistance from foreign powers like the U.S. or France.

The playing field today does not look much better. There are 91 registered political parties. A half-dozen of them were founded by defectors from Lavalas.

Gilles wants to prevent more splits. He would like to reconcile the two “tendencies” and he wants Aristide to help.

“I think Aristide has a historic role to play,” he said.

But with Aristide’s lieutenants in Haiti, Miami and New York organising marches and teach-ins, hosting radio programmes, running websites, circulating petitions and writing articles, that does not appear too likely.

In an open letter on Mar. 29, the 18th anniversary of the constitution’s ratification, Aristide’s spokesperson accused the interim government of “genocide” and the deaths of “over 10,000 people,” a number no rights group or journalist has ever come close to matching. The letter also encouraged continued “mobilisation” for Aristide’s return.

As the title of his book implies, Gilles has not yet given up hope. But he recognises what is at stake if Lavalas does not come together and if Haiti does not somehow move forward, with or without Aristide.

“The failure of Lavalas would be my failure, too,” he admitted.

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