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#3268: Sun Sentinel article Fragile Haiti's Hope (fwd)
Fragile Haiti's hope
BY E.A. TORRIERO
Web-posted: 12:13 a.m. Apr. 16, 2000
Torched polling places. Political assassinations. No functioning
Parliament. A corrupt and inept voting process. A fearful
Democracy in Haiti hangs by the most fragile of threads. After
months of unrestrained violence, after threats of international
sanctions and the suspension of more than $500 million in foreign
aid, Haitians will try to unbind their hamstrung government at
polls on May 21.
"It is a crucial date," said Florence Elie, who runs the
country's Office of the Protection of the Citizen, a watchdog
for human rights. "The country really needs to have these
go well. People must be able to go and vote and express
Delayed three times in recent months by political squabbling,
mismanaged electoral system, and more than 60 instances of mayhem
and protest, Haiti's elections are viewed by international
as a key test of the country's seemingly faltering desire for
In 1994, a U.S.-led intervention was designed to rid Haiti of
ruling military thugs and to restore and uphold democracy. But
corruption, ineptitude, violence and low turnouts marred
in 1995 and 1997. Then the country's teetering political system
Because of infighting and a power struggle between President
Rene Preval and the legislature, the last elected parliament was
dissolved in June 1998. The country has been without a fully
functioning government since.
More than a half billion dollars in international aid has been
withheld because of the government breakdown. The economy of the
poorest place in the Western Hemisphere is in shambles.
In recent weeks, Haiti seemed to be spiraling chaotically
elections were postponed indefinitely. Rioters took to the
in protest, and 10 people were murdered -- including a popular
talk show host with outspoken political beliefs. Last week, a
political candidate was hacked to death and his daughter was
with a machete.
As the violence escalated, Preval and the election commission
been unable to agree on a timetable for the election.
Last week, after intense lobbying by the Clinton
the Haitian government announced that elections will finally take
place in late May. Then, on Friday, the government announced that
the second round of elections will be held June 25 and that a new
parliament will be in session immediately thereafter.
The Clinton administration, which is putting up at least half
the $20 million needed to hold the elections, has more than its
credibility on the line. Recent polls show that as many 70
of Haitians are ready to take to the seas toward Florida if the
bleak situation deteriorates.
"The time has never been more ripe for elections," Peter
a senior U.S. State Department official told the U.S. House
International Relations Committee recently while scolding Haitian
leaders over election delays.
Only once, in 1990, has Haiti held an election untainted by
corruption, inaccurate vote counts and mayhem. And only then
of the steady watch and interference from international observers.
This time, more than 29,000 candidates from dozens of parties
vying for about 10,000 local and federal offices. There will most
certainly be the need for runoff elections. And then presidential
elections are expected to follow in November.
During the registration process earlier this year, there was
violence at voting offices -- including the murder of some
officials -- and allegations that some voters were denied their
rights to sign up.
"We are looking into those charges," said Jennifer Harbury, an
attorney from Washington, D.C., who is in Haiti leading a group
international election monitors. "If it is true, they could skew
election results, and we are trying to make sure that doesn't
"I spend all my effort just to ensure there will be an
said Evans Paul, the former mayor of Port-au-Prince and an
opposition party leader.
Like several Haitians prominent in politics, Paul has received
death threats. Last Sunday, the headquarters of Paul's movement
set ablaze. Paul has hired bodyguards and asked foreign embassies
provide him and his family with a safe haven.
Paul and his supporters blame the camp of former President
Bertrand Aristide for the escalating violence. Aristide was
in a military coup in 1991 and was restored to power in 1994 by
U.S.-led intervention. He served out his term in 1996, but was
prohibited by Haitian law from seeking re-election.
Paul split from the Aristide camp after the U.S. intervention
has formed a self-styled political movement. And Aristide, who
not announced his intentions to run for president this year, is
odds-on favorite to become president again. Political opponents
Aristide's Lavalas party is orchestrating a campaign of violence
that only one election will be held later this year -- an
to Aristide, who still has the devout loyalty of millions of poor
"It is clear: Lavalas wants to restore dictatorship in Haiti,"
said Serge Gilles, an opposition leader and Paul ally.
In two recent speeches in South Florida, Aristide denounced
election violence and said he has nothing to do with it.
"If you had a hidden camera, you would be very surprised to
the violence that is being done to us," said Yvon Neptune,
for Aristide's party. "We want to put Haiti back in the hands of
Haitians, and outside forces are against that. They are the ones
promoting the violence."
Aristide's followers blame U.S-led operatives for the murder
weeks ago of Jean Dominique, a popular radio talk show host and
Aristide supporter. But so far no credible evidence has surfaced.
Despite the problems, more than 90 percent of Haiti's
million voters have registered and have received voter
identification cards. The card is a lure to Haitians, because
lack official documents such as passports or driver's licenses.
"The registration process has gone very well," said Richard
Soudriette, president of the International Foundation for
System in Washington, D.C., which has received an $8 million
contract from the Clinton administration to help Haiti run its
Even with the country's faltering democracy, U.S. officials
contend that Haiti is better off today than it was during the
from 1991 to 1994, when thousands of Haitians fled the country or
went into hiding as the brutal military ruled by murderous
"We did the right thing," Secretary of State Madeleine
recently told editors and reporters at the Boston Globe.
things were happening, people had their faces ripped off,
were fleeing on rafts."
But critics -- including many U.S. Republicans, prominent
Haitians and diplomats in Haiti -- brand the Clinton policies as
"This is what was restored: three bad elections; no central
legislature and a non-functioning, highly corrupt government,"
Ernest Preeg, a former ambassador to Haiti during the Reagan
administration years. "They keep saying it is a success with some
setbacks. That's not the case."
But Robert Pastor, an adviser to former President Jimmy Carter
who led international election monitoring groups in 1990 and
says progress in Haiti must be evaluated over decades, not years.
"Haiti is not doing as well as anyone had hoped," said Pastor,
who teaches political science at Emory University. "But it is not
worse than what it was."
Outside the legislative chamber in Port-au-Prince there is a
legacy to the dysfunctional democracy.
Several luxury cars, once belonging to senators and deputies,
were damaged by their drivers before they were returned to the
government when parliament was disbanded. They are missing wheels
and engine parts. Some have been dented and have smashed
Inside the mostly empty chamber, a solitary maintenance worker
napped in the balcony recently.
Even during the military coup, there was a functioning
"I am very sad about this," said Elie Pierre, the public
relations man for the disbanded legislature. "When we had no
democracy, we had a parliament. Now we have democracy, but no
parliament. This doesn't make sense."
Information from Sun-Sentinel wire services was used to
supplement this report.
E.A. Torriero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or