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28910: Fenton (news) Voting for hope: Elections in Haiti (fwd)

From: Anthony Fenton <fentona@shaw.ca>

Voting for hope: Elections in Haiti
Radical Philosophy, Issue 138, July/August 2006

by Peter Hallward

Late in the night of 29 February 2004, after weeks of confusion and
uncertainty, the enemies of Haiti's president Jean-Bertrand Aristide
forced him into exile for the second time. There was plenty of ground
for confusion. Although twice elected with landslide majorities, by
2004 Aristide was routinely identified as an enemy of democracy.
Although political violence declined dramatically during his years in
office, he was just as regularly condemned as an enemy of human
rights. Although he was prepared to make far-reaching compromises
with his opponents, he was attacked as intolerant of dissent.
Although still immensely popular among the poor, he was derided as
aloof and corrupt. And although his enemies presented themselves as
the friends of democracy, pluralism and civil society, the only way
they could get rid of their nemesis was through foreign intervention
and military force.

Four times postponed, the election of Aristide's successor finally
took place a few months ago, in February 2006. These elections were
supposed to clear up the confusion of 2004 once and for all. With
Aristide safely out of the picture, they were supposed to show how
his violent and illegal expulsion had actually been a victory for
democracy. With his Fanmi Lavalas party broken and divided, they were
intended to give the true friends of pluralism and civil society that
democratic mandate they had so long been denied. Haiti's career
politicians, confined to the margins since Aristide’s first election
back in 1990, were finally to be given a chance to inherit their
rightful place.

What actually happened in February seems to have taken these
politicians and their international backers by surprise. This is
itself surprising, since both the conduct and the outcome of these
elections were squarely in line with all three of the most salient
features of Haitian politics in recent years.

The first and most obvious feature is that ever since 1990,
presidential elections in Haiti have been won either by Aristide or
by the person Aristide chose as his first prime minister, Rene Preval
– a man who, though far from a mere acolyte, is still widely and
fondly known as the marassa or twin brother of Aristide. Aristide won
67 per cent of the vote in 1990. Preval won 89 per cent of the vote
in 1995. After his Fanmi Lavalas party swept the legislative
elections in both houses of parliament in May 2000, Aristide was re-
elected with 92 per cent of the votes cast in the presidential
election of November 2000. And in February 2006?

After a limited, last-minute campaign in a crowded field, Preval won
another outright majority. The official count gave him 51 per cent,
though most credible observers estimate that his actual tally was
more like 60 per cent. His closest rivals, the academic Leslie
Manigat (a prominent member of the elite Democratic Convergence that
led the campaign against Aristide in 2001–03) and Charles Baker (a
maverick white businessman with powerful international connections)
won 12 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. Guy Philippe, the US-
trained leader of the disbanded soldiers whose up rising eventually
toppled Aristide, also stood as a candidate. Along with Jodel
Chamblain, Jean Tatoune and other convicted killers, in March 2004 he
was hailed as a hero and a 'freedom fighter' by the man the USA chose
to run Haiti's post-Aristide government, Gerard Latortue. In February
2006, Philippe won less than 2 per cent of the vote.
It is not hard to figure out why Aristide and Preval are so much more
popular than their rivals. In the eyes of most people, they continue
to represent the aspirations of the extraordinary mobilization that
first brought democracy to Haiti in the late 1980s, the mobilization
that Aristide dubbed the Lavalas, or flood. As the American activist
and doctor Paul Farmer explained in 2005: 'everybody knows that
Aristide was bad. Everybody, that is, except the Haitian poor – who
are 85 per cent of the population.' Although support for Lavalas
appears to have subsided somewhat among the peasantry over the last
few years, so far as I could tell when I visited the poorer
neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince over several weeks in April 2006,
enthusiasm there for Aristide and for the Lavalas project more
generally remains undiminished. I met with community leaders and
interviewed dozens of people at random. Virtually all of them said
they continued to support Aristide or his party, and most told me
they supported him less on account of what he managed to achieve than
because of what he symbolized and said.

Despite massive cuts in international support, Preval and Aristide
built more secondary schools than in the whole previous history of
Haiti. They opened thousands of literacy centres and with Cuban
assistance established or renewed hundreds of health clinics. They
invested in transport and infrastructure. In the oppressively crowded
neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, they created dozens of new public
squares. But more important than any of this, in the eyes of their
supporters, is the simple fact that they spoke to and for the poor
majority. They know that Aristide made mistakes, that he was too
reluctant to crack down on reactionary dissent and too tolerant of
the opportunists who forced their way into his entourage. But no
other politician ever had anything remotely like his rapport with
both the urban and the rural poor. Aristide was the first politician
regularly to speak in Kreyol, to mix with people from the quartiers
populaires, to recognize their religion and their values, to affirm
them as genuinely political actors. He was the only significant
politician of his time to address the reality of class struggle,
inequality and injustice in terms that made concrete sense to those
who suffer their effects.

The people's investment in Aristide and his legacy remains the single
most decisive and divisive element of Haitian politics. Ask someone
in Haiti how they interpret this investment and you are likely to get
a good sense of where they stand. Aristide's opponents, including
left-leaning members of the intelligentsia who also oppose the USA,
the IMF and the status quo, frame their interpretation in terms of
delusion and betrayal: a manipulative and self-serving demagogue,
Aristide wasn't worthy of the people's trust. He did not focus on
institutions and procedures. He was more of a priest than an
administrator. He made too many compromises with the USA. If you
confront people in places like Cite Soleil or Bel-Air with this sort
of objection, they tend to smile or shrug. Aristide helped us to
organize ourselves, they say. Of course his own freedom of movement
was limited, but he helped us to constitute ourselves as active
participants in national politics, to gain the measure of our
strength. Aristide loyalists cannot easily be portrayed as the dupes
of a populist manoeuvre. Their investment is independent of its
object, and it remains as resilient as ever. Again and again, they
told me that they believed in Aristide less as a leader than as their
The same goes for the popular investment in militant local leaders –
veteran advocates like Father Gerard Jean-Juste, or younger activists
like Samba Boukman, Moïse Jean-Charles, Amaral Duclona, William
Baptiste, who continue, often at the risk of their lives, forcefully
to articulate Lavalas demands. People like Duclona or Jean-Charles
are the only political activists in Haiti today who can organize
disciplined and massive political demonstrations, if need be at a
moment's notice. At one point during the 2006 presidential campaign,
for instance, the leading elite candidate Leslie Manigat advertised a
major rally in the historically charged town of Vertières (site of
the last major battle in Haiti's war for independence from France).
According to Jean-Charles, the event was promoted in the press and on
national radio for over a week, but only a tiny handful of supporters
showed up. In order to demonstrate the real balance of forces, Jean-
Charles and other Lavalas activists in the north of the country made
a single fifteen-minute pitch on local radio, calling a counter-
demonstration for the following day. It was attended by tens of
thousands of people.

Wherever they stand on the political spectrum, most 'well-educated'
critics of Aristide and Lavalas share similar values and priorities,
and suffer from similar limitations. Their lack of popular appeal,
their reluctance to work in the neighbourhoods where most people
live, their contempt for what they call 'populism,' deprives them of
any significant political strength. The left-leaning critics of
Aristide and Lavalas who work for media-friendly groups like PAPDA or
Batay Ouvriye are now regularly cited as 'alternative' voices in the
international press, but when they hold a sit-in or demonstration in
Haiti's capital, no more than fifty to a hundred people are likely to

For now and for the foreseeable future, no one will win an election
in Haiti if they do not enjoy grassroots Lavalas support.