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#3769: Miami Herald -elections article (fwd)
From: Catherine Orenstein <email@example.com>
Published Friday, May 19, 2000, in the Miami Herald
Democracy goes to Haiti
Catherine Orenstein, a journalist based in New York City, was a member of
the United Nations Human Rights observer mission to Haiti in 1995.
Haitians will go to the polls on Sunday to elect almost every office in the
nation. The vote is critical to resolving a 3-year political standoff that
has crippled the government and left only nine elected officials
nationwide -- President Rene Preval and eight senators.
U.S. officials have warned Preval not to postpone the elections, already
three times delayed. So far the United States has pumped $20 million into
Haiti's electoral process. Yet as the vote approaches, Haiti seems far from
the democracy U.S. officials are banking on.
On April 3 one of Haiti's most respected newsmen, Jean Leopold Dominique,
was assassinated in the parking lot of his Port-au-Prince radio station. His
murder is the most prominent of a dozen political assassinations in the past
Violence punctuated the registration process from January through March.
Nationwide protests culminated this month in riots in Port-au-Prince. And on
April 8, the day of Dominique's memorial service, angry mourners burned down
the headquarters of Haiti's Espace de Concertation Party, a coalition of
groups competing with former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's popular
The protests began because many among Haiti's poor felt they were being
excluded from the registration process, organized by the U.S.-funded
International Foundation for Elections Systems. For the first time Haitians
were required to obtain a photo ID card to vote, yet many of the 3,500
registration offices opened long after their scheduled date at the end of
January, or not at all. The problem was particularly acute in poorer
neighborhoods such as Cite Soleil, the capital's largest slum. IFES alotted
19 offices to the zone, but newspapers reported only seven offices
functioning. Also, on one visit, the National Coalition for Haitian Rights,
a human-rights group, could find only one open office -- for a population of
200,000. By contrast, in the wealthy and far-more-sparsely populated suburb
of Petionville, there were 23 designated registration offices.
Haiti's voting history doesn't inspire much faith in electoral democracy,
either. During the 1915-34 American occupation, U.S. officials arranged for
the election of Philippe Sudre Dartiguenave and then, after the suspension
of Haiti's Legislature, rewrote the Haitian Constitution. When Francois
Duvalier became president for life in 1964, oui was the only option on the
ballot. (``Newspapers reported 2,800,000 ouis as against 3,234 nons,'' wrote
Papa Doc's chroniclers, Bernard Diederich and Al Burt, ``although it was
never clear how even this handful managed to vote against Le Souverain.'')
But in 1990 -- when Haiti held its first free and fair vote, under the
auspices of the United Nations -- the results were quickly overturned.
That year, Aristide, then a parish priest, won the presidency with
two-thirds of the vote, promising to raise the minimum wage, strengthen
national industry and tax the wealthy. But he was overthrown in a military
coup after only seven months in office. As a condition for his return to
power three years later, the United States, along with international
lenders, demanded that he abandon his social-justice platform in favor of
free-market reforms and that Haiti's dictators be granted amnesty. The Army
rank and file went free as well -- an explanation for the continuing spate
of political killings.
Despite everything, there are some encouraging signs for Sunday's vote.
There is a record number of candidates running for a record number of
offices. For the first time, town-assembly posts are being elected as the
constitution requires. The candidates, many of them women, represent a broad
range of political parties. And if the relentless stream of protests
highlights the shortcoming of the registration process, it also reflects a
robust street-level interest in the vote: Haiti's electoral commission
reports that 3.9 million Haitians (more than 90 percent of the electorate)
Why, one wonders, would Haitians want to participate in a system that has
consistently cheated them in the past? Some of those who have registered
undoubtedly are heartened by the fact that almost all members of the
government will be replaced in one fell swoop, in an institutional
dechoukaj, or uprooting, a concept firmly entrenched in Haitian grass-roots
Others anticipate presidential elections at the end of the year, which
Aristide is expected to win. And many of Haiti's poorer citizens surely were
attracted by the registration card itself, inspired by the pragmatic
interpretation of democracy that the poor have as much right as the rich to
a photo ID.
Haiti may seem far from democracy in some terms, but for the first time in a
decade it shows signs of the greek concept: participation. ``The poor
citizens are saying, `We are the masters of our destiny,' '' said Dominique
in an interview at his radio station in late January. ``The sense of
citizenship is actually emerging and spreading. That's a wonderful step in
the process of democracy in Haiti.''