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#3750: Haitian progress? (fwd)


FRIDAY, MAY 19, 2000  Haitian progress?

Haitians will vote Sunday for thousands of local and regional
authorities, the entire Chamber of Deputies, and two-thirds of the
Senate. These elections are a crucial test of democracy in Haiti -
and thus, a measure of the success or failure of the September
1994 US military intervention to restore then-President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide.Yet political leaders in Port-au-Prince and
Washington are too busy with partisan battles to create conditions for a
vote that mightoffer hope to Haiti's desperately poor people.
These elections have already been delayed three times from their
original November 1998 date. Since January 1999, President René
Préval has been ruling by decree after disbanding the Congress. If
this vote fails, Haiti risks becoming a political pariah and haven for
drug traffickers.The good news is that most of Haiti's eligible voters
reportedly have registered to vote. However, they may want the photo ID
on the registration card more than they want to vote. In the last
parliamentary elections, the turnout was a dismal 5 percent.
Furthermore, escalating violence has hampered candidates' ability
to campaign and may reduce turnout. Low turnout is thought to
favor Mr. Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas (FL) Party.Aristide's opponents
assert that he is tolerating or encouraging violence in hope of delaying
these local and parliamentary races until the November presidential race
that he - Haiti's most prominent politician - is almost guaranteed to
win. In such a general election, the coattail effect increases FL's
chances of winning clear majorities at all levels of government.
Despite pressures from international human rights groups and US
policymakers, Aristide's only recent personal repudiation of
violence is a letter, written in English, to an American congressman.
This does not cut it, and Aristide knows that. He is a gifted orator
in Creole, and he must use this talent to speak directly to the
Haitian people.Haiti's other political parties have stayed in Sunday's
election because they believe they can win a significant number of
seats,given reasonably fair conditions. If they're unhappy with the
results,they may pull out, denouncing violence and fraud, hoping to deny
FL a victory.This zero-sum-game politics does a grave disservice to the
Haitian people. All Haiti's political leaders should call on their
supporters to abstain from violence, fraud, and intimidation, and agree
to abide by the election results.The international community has been
united in pressing for these elections to take place now. Yet US policy
remains marked by partisanship. Republicans have long been determined to
prove thatPresident Clinton made a gross error of judgement when he
restored Aristide. In response, the Clinton administration too often
has been evasive and defensive. Neither approach is helpful to
Also unhelpful is Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who appears to
have his own private foreign policy toward Haiti. He refuses to
release money promised to the Organization of American States'
election-observing mission - standing his ground despite pleas from
Haiti and some private requests to his staff from Republican
colleagues. Recently, Mr. Helms also placed holds on development
assistance for Haiti because of a dispute between Haitian customs
officials and a US rice-exporting company. It is profoundly
inappropriate to punish the Haitian poor because of a commercial
dispute.Such actions only fuel Haitian conspiracy theories about US
intentions, weaken international leverage, and boost Aristide.
The business-as-usual politics in Haiti after Aristide's return has lost
that country much support abroad. Encouragingly, a few
congressional leaders who still care - Republicans and Democrats -
recently made joint statements on Haiti. A bipartisan policy,
coordinated with other donors and based on the best interests of
Haitians, is desperately needed to help Haiti move ahead. It
shouldn't focus on Aristide's personality or merits as a leader, but
on the pressing need to get basic political and economic processes
in place before too many Haitians reach such desperation they risk
their lives in tiny boats trying to reach Florida.

Rachel Neild is senior associate with the Washington Office on
Latin America, a human rights research and advocacy organization.