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#3754: Poverty, fear loom over Haiti elections (fwd)
From: Rosann Clements <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Poverty, fear loom over Haiti elections
By Mike Williams
American-Statesman International Staff
Sunday, May 21, 2000
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Andiel Adlace sits on a small patch of dusty, hot concrete in the midst of this capital's teeming agricultural market, trying to earn a little money selling ripe coconuts.
Her impoverished, faction-torn country will hold its first elections in several years today, but Adlace is more concerned with putting food on her family's table than politics.
"I'll vote for whoever gives me money," she tells a foreign visitor. "Give me 500 Haitian dollars (about $125 in the U.S.) and I'll bring 25 people to vote however you want."
Her offer draws laughs from her fellow vendors, but it sums up a lot about this desperately poor country, which has languished in a state of confusion and limbo for the past several years.
International observers hope that today's vote might somehow help Haiti emerge from its chaos with a functioning government that can begin to address the crippling problems of poverty, illiteracy, disease and corruption that have beset this Caribbean nation for decades.
But optimism -- like money and jobs -- is in short supply on the dirty, crowded streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Fear is not.
Haiti's people have learned the hard way that election season is too often a killing season.
So far, 15 people have been murdered in the past few months, most of them members of groups opposed to the dominant Lavalas Family Party of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The elections are for local and legislative offices, and Aristide isn't running, although he likely will run for another term as president this fall. But the former Catholic priest's image and influence towers over everything here.
He swept into office 10 years ago as a visionary, populist reformer but was removed by a military coup, then re-installed by a U.S. intervention in 1994. His term ended in 1996, and his handpicked successor, Rene Preval, took over as president.
Opposition leaders say that Aristide still runs the country from behind the scenes and that over the past decade he has changed from a charismatic advocate of the people into a strongman surrounded by corrupt, violent cronies. Haiti is little better off, many say, than in the days when its feared dictators, "Papa Doc" and "Baby Doc" Duvalier, ran the country like a family fiefdom.
"I love my country, but I am pessimistic," said John Max Toussaint, who earns a living transporting people and goods around the capital in his truck. "Haiti right now is a bad country, with too many bad people. I don't think democracy will work in Haiti."
U.S. officials hope that won't be the case but have been alarmed by the rash of pre-election violence. A small delegation of U.S. Congress members will be on hand to observe the elections, along with a team from the Organization of American States.
"The United States views with deepest concern the climate of insecurity that prevails in Haiti," State Department spokesman James Rubin said last month. "Acts of violence, threats and political intimidation must end now."
Even if violence and ballot irregularities don't mar the elections, the winners face daunting problems.
Haiti has languished for decades as the poorest nation in the hemisphere, with 80 percent of its 8 million people illiterate and impoverished. Estimates on unemployment range as high as 65 percent, while those who do work subsist on an average income of $200 to $500 a year.
Waves of people have set out for the United States in rickety boats through the past decade, with dozens drowning at sea and hundreds more stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The economy has spiraled into near paralysis in recent years, although a boom in the drug trade has seen new banks, gas stations and mansions sprouting amid the Port-au-Prince slums.
Away from the capital, the countryside is a contrast of stunning views and human squalor. Only about the size of Maryland, Haiti's mountainous terrain leaves villages a few hundred miles from the capital nearly inaccessible. The once-lush mountains have been stripped of trees for fuel, leaving eroded slopes and exhausted soil.
Politics here has always been a rough-and-tumble battle among various factions of the military and the tiny, moneyed elite. Aristide promised to be something different when he came to power in 1990, a priest from the lower classes who spoke a fiery Creole, the language of the poor. But the hopes of many dimmed over the past decade as Haiti lurched into another period of uncertainty.
The past 16 months have been one of the most unsettled stints in the nation's long-troubled history. President Preval allowed parliament members to leave office in early 1999 when their terms ended, and he has repeatedly postponed new elections. He and a small coterie of followers have been running the country by decree, testing the patience of international donors who have withheld about $500 million in aid because the country has no functioning legislature to help distribute the money.
Elections have been postponed three times since December, and violence has grown more common as pressure to finally hold the vote has mounted. Last month one of the nation's most prominent radio personalities was murdered, followed by the machete killing of the campaign director for the opposition Haitian Christian Democratic Party. Just weeks ago, a mob set fire to the headquarters of another opposition coalition called Common Ground, burning it to the ground.
The violence seems likely to intimidate some of Haiti's 4 million voters, many of whom are registered for the first time thanks to a $12 million, U.S.-backed registration drive.
"I'm not going to vote," said Anna Chery, 27, who sells fried bananas and chicken legs on a street corner. "I'm afraid there's going to be more trouble."
Even those who are brave enough to visit the polls will face a dizzying array of choices. Some 29,000 candidates will be running for more than 7,000 offices, with more than 20 parties on the ballot. With so many illiterate voters, the ballots have pictures of the candidates, along with symbols for the parties -- icons such as a clump of bananas, a stalk of corn, a bottle.
The most famous symbol is a table, which represents Aristide's Lavalas Family Party and stands for giving all Haitians a seat at the nation's table. In an unheard-of campaign innovation, a small plane circled over Port-au-Prince's slums last week, towing a banner urging voters to support "the table." Another plane loosed thousands of brightly colored leaflets bearing Aristide's picture, which fluttered to the ground and were snatched up by excited children and curious adults.
But few seem to hold much hope that voting will win them a seat at any table, or put more food on the bare ones in their homes.
"I have a registration card, but I'm not going to vote," said Evelyne Duverge, who sells dried beans in the market. "Hungry people can't vote."
You may contact Mike Williams at email@example.com.
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