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HAITI: Do Elections Equal Reconstruction?

CHOMÈY, Nov 26 2010 - Posters cover almost every conceivable surface, even tombs in graveyards. Trucks mounted with loud speakers blare campaign jingles. Candidates’ faces are everywhere. It’s elections “à la américaine”, complete with polls and whistle-stops.

Giant campaign billboard dwarfed by a mountain of garbage in Petion-ville. Credit: Courtesy of Acessomedias

Giant campaign billboard dwarfed by a mountain of garbage in Petion-ville. Credit: Courtesy of Acessomedias

But the mood is not quite joyful on the eve of Haiti’s elections.

With over 1,500 now dead to the vicious strain of cholera sweeping the country, with parties like the Lavalas Family excluded from the elections, and with boycotts and protests coming from progressive and grassroots organisations, the mood is mixed, at best.

“People who think elections will bring about change in Haiti are demagogues who want to get their hands on the state apparatus,” according to fisherman and farmer Jean Robert Chadichon of the tiny hamlet of Chomèy on Haiti’s southern coast. “Since 1804, things haven’t changed here. We’ve had president after president, coup d’état after coup d’état, but no change.”

Haitians have participated in one form of elections or other for over 200 years, but only since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 have they been what are generally referred to as “free” elections – over a dozen races for presidents, parliamentarians, mayors and communal representatives.

Rule by and for the people?

Colin Granderson, head of the CARICOM/OAS Elections Observer Mission, is the first to admit that Haiti's "democratic transition" has not been an unequivocal success.

Coups, repression, assassinations, exiles, instability.

Nor have there been many tangible improvements in the economic and social conditions for Haiti's citizens.

"From the point of view of the performance of democracy here, the results have been very low. That's clear. But I don't think that we should throw out the baby with the bath water as far as democracy is concerned… Things are starting to change… In my opinion we are witnessing an evolution."

But what kind of evolution?

Haiti Grassroots Watch asked Anselme Remy, a 25-year professor at the State University of Haiti (UEH) and former member of Mouvement Ouvriers Paysan (MOP) party. Remy – who spent over 20 years in exile teaching at university in the U.S. – has been involved with progressive movements in Haiti since the 1950s.

Remy was chased into exile in the 1960s, was part of the Lavalas movement in 1989 and early 1990s, and because of his defense of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and constitutional order, was beaten badly during the 1991-1994 coup. Remy was also president of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) in 1994 and 1995.

"There have been so many elections now, I've stopped counting. But these kinds of elections are a waste of time, a waste of money," he added. "What they are calling 'democracy' is just a carnival which permits those who have money, or access to money, to exploit the misery and the ignorance of the people…

"Those 19 carnival bands [the 19 presidential candidates] will do the same thing as their predecessor. There won't be any difference. It's as if I showed you this house and I said that every five years I gave it a new coat of paint… You can't tell me it's a new house. It's the same house."

Remy, who teaches anthropology and sociology, explained that the type of democracy being promoted in Haiti is typically called "bourgeois democracy." Whereas there are "thousands and thousands of ways for people to choose their representatives," in bourgeois democracy, participation is limited to voting.

The bourgeoisie, which dominates society economically, also dominates politically.

According to the preamble of the 1987 Haitian constitution, Haiti is a “democracy, which entails ideological pluralism and political rotation” and among the duties of the Haitian citizen are “to vote in elections without restraint” [Article 52-1]. Elections are the manner in which citizens are to participate in their country’s political life.

But in Haiti, as in other countries, there seems to be a confusion or conflation of “elections” and “democracy,” with “development” and economic and/or social well-being.

Leanne Dorvin, a vegetable seller who travels between Vallue and Grand Goâve, south of the capital, said she will vote because “elections are good” and “we need someone to help the people who are still in the streets, who have so many needs.”

But, as with many other voters, when asked about the government she elected five years ago, she launched into a tirade about the lack of roads, schools or health facility in her region: “The state has forgotten us. Whatever they’re doing, we don’t know. They skip right over us… We don’t participate in anything. People are living in tents. People are dying. But they don’t see that.”

The contradictions are clear – to Dorvin and many people, elections are a way to somehow participate and bring about justice, social services, and relief from the misery and now calamity of everyday life. But so far, they haven’t delivered.

Dorvin’s confusion of “elections” with service-delivery and “development” is not surprising.

This spring, President Rene Préval told journalists much the same thing: “If, when my mandate is done, there isn’t a legitimately elected president, a parliament with a lower house and a Senate, if we don’t have elections… that will create mistrust and we won’t have development.”

Préval is correct about the details: the terms of many parliamentarians have expired already and his term expires on Feb. 7, 2011. Thus, constitutionally speaking, the Nov. 28 elections are required. And it is also unlikely the various donors and lenders who have made pledges totaling some $10 billion to “reconstruction” would be comfortable if elections did not take place.

Thus, within weeks of the Jan. 12 catastrophe which killed some 230,000, devastated the capital, made 1.3 million homeless and traumatised the nation, the “international community” began to push them.

Edmond Mulet, U.N. special representative to Haiti, says they are “a significant step in the process of consolidating democracy and re-establishing the state.”

Colin Granderson, former Assistant Secretary of CARICOM, who spent most of the 1990s working for a UN/OAS human rights mission, returned this summer to lead an OAS/CARICOM Elections Observer Commission charged with assuring the elections are credible.

Granderson told Haiti Grassroots Watch that the 2010 elections are “important” and, like Préval, underlined the need for a “legitimate” president and parliament in order to assure Haiti’s “reconstruction.”

Granderson, Mulet and Préval are right about the legitimacy issue – at least constitutionally speaking.

But what they fail to note is that Haiti and its elected officials suffered under severe economic and humanitarian crises long before Jan. 12. And now, in addition to these continuing crises, Haiti is also in the midst of a political institutional crisis that elections won’t necessarily solve.

Last January, the Haitian parliament approved a special “Emergency Law” that handed a great deal of power over to the “Interim Haiti Recovery Commission,” a body dominated by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and foreign funders.

The law gives the commission the power to “carry out the Development Plan for Haiti” until at least August 2011.

“How can free and fair elections occur when a State of Emergency is in place?” University of Virginia Professor Robert Fatton asked at the Haitian Studies Association Conference held at Brown University in the United States in November.

Fatton also noted that due to the commission and the multiplicity of foreign consultants, funders and agencies, Haiti has suffered a “virtual loss of sovereignty”.

Money politics

In Haiti, anyone can run for president, but each would-be candidate has to put up 500,000 gourdes or about US$12,000.

"That's a fortune in Haiti," Remy said, adding that even after 25 years of teaching at UEH, he does not have anything close to that amount in the bank. If he wanted to run, he would have to get that money from someone.

Once approved as a presidential candidate, the Haitian state supplies about $50,000 to each candidate's treasury.

But the posters, tee shirts and travel schedules of the candidates indicate that most of the "carnival bands" are spending well beyond that amount… businesses, private individuals, maybe even foreign entities are likely pumping in cash.

It's the same campaign finance system well underway in the US, where candidates and parties accept millions of dollars from corporations and banks in order to finance their campaigns. Senate candidates now regularly spend US$50 million, and in the 2008 race, Barack Obama spent $740 million.

Remy called the U.S. elections system "even more obscene" than what is happening in Haiti, but said that the result is the same:

"The day I become president, I don't represent the people who voted for me; I am governing for the people who gave me the 500,000 gourdes."

“It remains unclear how an elected parliament will function in an environment dominated by the international commission,” Fatton concluded.

Of course, those who are part of the current system – members or staff of the ruling political party (Inite), elections workers, radio and television station owners who are profiting from the unprecedented spending in these races – believe in, or appear to believe in, the 2010 elections as the panacea to Haiti’s ills.

“We need people to make choices so we can have a good government, a good parliament, good non-governmental organisations who will work with us, so that we can get these people out from under the tents and see what treatment is going to be delivered for this epidemic which is killing people,” said Nicolas Jean Louis, a member of Inite.

Jean Louis is mid-way into his third five-year term as head of the communal executive committee (CASEC) for Chomèy.

But one of Jean Louis’ constituents, preschool teacher Marie Thèrese Belizaire, who is also a member of the Chomèy Women’s Organisation, had a different take.

“It’s the same old people who always get into power,” said she. “We’ve been voting for a long time but we haven’t seen things change.”

*Read the complete series, see an accompanying video at Haiti Grassroots Watch – Ayiti Kale Je (Haiti Eyes Peeled, in Creole), Haiti Grassroots Watch in English and Haïti Veedor (Haiti Watcher in Spanish), is a collaboration of two well-known Haitian grassroots media organisations, Groupe Medialternatif/Alterpresse ( and the Society for the Animation of Social Communication (SAKS – http://www.saks-, along with two networks – the network of women community radio broadcasters (REFRAKA) and the Association of Haitian Community Media (AMEKA), which is comprised of community radio stations located throughout the country.

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