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#4068: Elections: Amy Wilentz in the LA Times (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

(Los Angeles Times, Sunday, June 4, 2000)

It's a New Day for Haiti, If U.S. Would Accept It 


     NEW YORK--Elections in Haiti have traditionally been corrupt, and the
walk-ups to them, as well as election day itself, have often been violent.
Few people who were there, for example, can forget the first time
post-Duvalier Haiti tried to hold elections, in November 1987. On election
day, bands of hooligans stormed into a polling place at a school on the
Ruelle Vaillant in Port-au-Prince and killed a score of people waiting in
line to mark their ballots. The elections were called off. It was a day of
death and national mourning. 
     But times have changed. Two weeks ago, former President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide's Lavalas Family party swept to victory in municipal and
legislative elections that, while marred by sundry irregularities--some of
them not negligible--were deemed credible by more than 200 international
electoral observers of the Organization of American States who monitored
the vote. 
     For months before the elections, opposition leaders in Haiti cried
foul: It's their favorite thing to do, and the one thing they do well. They
alleged that Aristide's supporters and Lavalas were using violence to try
to put off scheduled municipal and legislative elections as long as
possible, hoping to postpone the vote until the end of this year, when
presidential elections are also slated to take place. The reason the
opposition gave for Lavalas' alleged stalling? It claimed Aristide was
afraid the opposition would win the early elections and that a legislature
run by his opponents would effectively paralyze a future Aristide
administration. Whereas a vote taken during the presidential election would
bring in a Lavalas legislature on Aristide's presumably capacious
     But the opposition's analysis was wrong, partly because it was not an
analysis, it was propaganda. 
     With Lavalas poised on the rumble of a landslide, the opposition took
up the cry of fraud and has now formally demanded the election be annulled.
Reflecting the vacuum of ideas and policies in which the opposition has
been festering for years, the head of the Espace de Concertation (Common
Ground), a coalition of five parties, called the election "a disaster" and
said the vote puts Haiti in "a new crisis." 
     Poor opposition. First, they claim Aristide doesn't want to play the
game because he can't win. Then, when he plays and wins, they pick up their
marbles and say it wasn't fair. But they can't have it both ways. 
     Or can they? It is unfortunately true that almost from the moment the
U.S. government reluctantly reinstalled Aristide to power in Haiti in 1994,
three years after a military coup sent him into exile, Washington has been
trying to figure out how to rid itself of this troublesome priest. 
     During the almost five years since Aristide's term as president ended,
the U.S. Embassy and the office of the U.S. Agency for International
Development in Port-au-Prince, which have been at the root of so many of
the enduring problems Haiti suffers, encouraged unpopular opposition
leaders; funded slapped-together political parties with no electoral
constituencies; and helped to destroy any possible consensus in the
Parliament, which after a year and a half of embarrassing contentiousness
and paralysis was effectively dissolved (extraconstitutionally) by
President Rene Preval in January 1999. 
     With backers like the Embassy, the opposition is dangerous and
destructive, which it would not be if it were a real adversary of
Aristide's--and if it would confront him openly on the desperate economic
and policy crises Haiti faces. 
     This is not to say there are not worthy and decent men and women
leading the Haitian opposition. There definitely are--many of them. But
their mission--which, for the moment, should be to put honest and public
checks on the Lavalas juggernaut, to protect the interests of whatever
Haitians support them and to add their voices and ideas to a serious
national debate--has been hijacked by the U.S. 
     The opposition attacks made on Aristide in the days leading up to the
May 21 election were an echo of the allegations and disinformation,
sometimes word for word, used against him back in 1990, in the run-up to
Haiti's first successful free and fair election, which put Aristide in the
presidential palace. Because much of that stuff came from Embassy sources
(which based their "facts," in part, on hearsay from the Haitian elite),
it's only logical to assume the current attacks on Aristide come from the
same place. The U.S. just can't wrap its mind around Aristide, no matter
how democratically he may be elected: They remember him vividly from the
days before his presidency as a left-leaning, anti-U.S. nationalist. 
     Too bad for the U.S. and the Haitian elite that the Haitian people
still prefer Aristide, as this election has again shown. A free and fair
election is a free and fair election, and the opposition parties are, one
can only hope, going to have to deal with what the electorate has chosen.
Perhaps if Lavalas' opponents address the issues of concern to the Haitian
people (some that come to mind: land reform, agricultural credit, schools,
health care); perhaps if they can find the time to go out among the people
and ways to connect to the people--perhaps then they, too, will be able to
win elections one day. 
     For the moment, however, the ball is squarely back in Aristide's
hands. If the international community remains firm in supporting this
election's validity (even the State Department said it was satisfied with
the high turnout and the "atmosphere"--if not the outcome), then there will
be no runoff election and a period of calm should continue until the
presidential election. President Preval will be able to start in on the
Lavalas agenda as soon as the new legislature is seated. 
     What will his--and Aristide's--platform contain? One wonders if the
new government will have the guts to confront the kinds of reforms Aristide
has talked about for two decades. For example: getting wealthy Haitians to
pay their taxes, instead of forcing the government to rely almost
exclusively on little receipts from poverty-stricken market ladies. Another
crisis facing the new legislative session: convincing Washington to restore
the $30 million in aid earmarked for Haiti that has been blocked by the
bizarre machinations of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and his staff. 
     These are difficult issues in a difficult time. Fortunately for
Lavalas and Aristide, the new Haitian government will function with the
support of the Haitian people. Right now, with the memory of that huge,
enthusiastic and courageous turnout fresh in their minds, Lavalas
legislators and leaders should be busy thinking about policies that will be
responsive to the needs of their constituents. To squander their wide
margin of victory on the kinds of bickering and backbiting that have been a
hallmark of Haitian legislatures since the Duvalier dynasty fell (and
before, too) would be a historic waste, and a tragedy. To use such massive
support to intimidate its opponents would also be wrong--but there have
been ominous reports of post-election detentions of a number of opposition
     The Haitian people still believe in Aristide, in spite of--or possibly
because of--the last few years of violence, economic disaster and a rapidly
decaying social and physical infrastructure. They still believe he's the
best man to pull them out of their national nose dive. They deserve to be
proven correct. 

Amy Wilentz Is the Author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier."