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28916: Rossier: Article - Voting for hope Elections in Haiti - from Nicolas R (fwd)

From: nicolas rossier <nicrossier@hotmail.com>


Voting for hope Elections in Haiti

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, René Préval – 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. Préval 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

After a limited, last-minute campaign in a crowded field, Préval 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, Gérard Latortue. In February 2006, Philippe won less than 2
per cent of the vote.
It is not hard to figure out why Aristide and Préval 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, Préval 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 Cité 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 spokesman.
The same goes for the popular investment in militant local leaders –
veteran advocates like Father Gérard 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 attend.

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