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#3779: LA TIMES FWD - Haitian Terror Takes Toll (fwd)
Haitian Terror Takes Toll on Today's Election
By MARK FINEMAN, Times Staff Writer
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti--The elections were only days away, but Senate
candidate Marie-Denise Claude wasn't campaigning.
The 39-year-old sociologist ended her public rallies weeks ago--even
before one of her opposition party's campaign managers was hacked to death
last month amid preelection violence that hangs over today's vote like a
curtain of fear.
For Claude, the death threats were enough: anonymous calls that have
continued almost daily promising her the same fate that met her father,
former presidential candidate Pastor Sylvio Claude, who was tortured, burned
alive, then eaten by his enemies nearly a decade ago.
"No one is campaigning anymore," she said. "It's natural--when your life
is threatened, you stay home. But we keep on going because we believe it's
the only contribution we can make to the country and its future."
Against the backdrop of 15 high-profile political slayings since late
March that the opposition blames on a plot by former President Jean-Bertrand
Aristide's ruling party to paralyze their candidates and voters with fear,
this impoverished Caribbean nation braces for long-delayed local and
parliamentary polls that most analysts here and abroad see as a watershed for
Haiti's nascent democracy.
In a land that has seen 10 governments and three coups in the last 14
years--and that has been ruled by decree since its elected president, Rene
Preval, dissolved Parliament 16 months ago--today's vote seems a daunting yet
dynamic exercise in grass-roots democracy.
More than 29,000 candidates are vying for 7,500 posts ranging from
village councils to Parliament's 83-seat lower house and 27-seat Senate. It
is a Herculean task in a country that has been plagued by preelection snags
and administrative nightmares that some observers say already have
U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $20 million trying to prepare Haiti,
the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, for the vote as part of a six-year,
$2.3-billion international effort to restore democracy and stability here.
The election aid includes financing for Haitian political parties and an
elaborate voter ID process that has, for the first time, registered about 4
More than 200 independent election observers from the Organization of
American States and other international groups will watch the polls. But
fears of election day violence abound, as do conspiracy theories about
postelection tampering and wholesale fraud within a supposedly independent
election commission that neither the opposition nor the ruling party seems to
And just how many of those 4 million voters actually turn out will help
determine the future of political pluralism in a deteriorating land where
drug trafficking, corruption and impunity are growing threats, even after the
world's massive rescue efforts.
Today's vote is just round one. A second stage that will include runoff
elections for Parliament is scheduled for June 25. And presidential polls are
expected later this year, when Aristide is expected to run--and win--again.
Ruling Party Blamed for 'Climate of Violence'
Opposition leaders such as Claude, whose Haitian Christian Democratic
Party was founded by her father in 1978, blame Aristide's supporters for much
of the campaign violence. They say his Lavalas Family party workers had hoped
the violence would delay the parliamentary vote until the presidential poll,
when Aristide's coattails would improve his party's chances.
Now, they say, it is an organized campaign to scare opposition voters
away from the nation's 11,000 polling places.
"This violence now has a name in Haiti. It is called Lavalas, and
everyone knows it," asserted Evans Paul, a leading presidential contender
whose opposition party alliance is fielding more than 5,000 candidates. "The
problem is that if these elections are free and fair, Lavalas will lose.
"In order to prevent large parts of the population from voting, they
have kept this climate of violence going so that on election day only
Aristide's partisans will vote."
Lavalas Family officials flatly deny the charge, and Aristide and his
handpicked successor, Preval, have both called on the nation to vote freely,
fairly and peacefully. Yet diplomats and independent analysts here say the
overwhelming majority of the 15 political murder victims were opposition
And Paul, a former Aristide ally and onetime mayor of this capital city,
pointed to his charred and gutted campaign headquarters as proof. His
once-stately villa was torched by a mob of Aristide supporters last
month--with the backing of the police, he charged. Interviewed last week in
the nearby storage shed that is now his office, the opposition leader said
the intimidation campaign already has had limited success.
One local candidate from Paul's opposition alliance doesn't even plan to
vote for himself, Paul said. Claudy Myrthil has been in hiding in the
countryside since he was kidnapped and beaten for 12 days by unidentified
armed men. Myrthil was released earlier this month, reportedly after
promising to end his campaign.
"It's hard to talk about democratic elections when a party can't even
have a headquarters," Paul said. No one has risked renting him a new one
since the fire, he said. "I'm considered like someone who is already dead but
not yet buried."
But analysts and the candidates themselves say there's another dimension
to the violence beyond politics.
Even Paul attributed at least some of the bloodshed to the nation's
escalating cocaine trade. U.S. officials say Haiti is now the Caribbean's
largest single transit point for the Colombian drugs en route to the United
States--an estimated 67 tons last year alone. And analysts say the drug trade
has deeply penetrated the political process.
"If you say nothing else about these elections, I want you to say this:
What you see in Haiti right now ultimately has nothing to do with politics,"
Senate candidate Claude said. "It's a game for the absolute control of drug
trafficking, and it's very, very grave. It's a big market, and everybody is
fighting to control it. Whoever is in power will take control of it."
Marie-Laurence Lassegue, Aristide's former information minister and one
of 26 other candidates contesting the same Senate seat as Claude, tended to
Lassegue, who insists that her Open the Gate Party is neither opposition
nor part of Lavalas Family, was herself targeted in an assassination attempt
last month. She narrowly escaped armed men on motorcycles who tried to ambush
her campaign caravan outside Port-au-Prince.
Drug Trade's Impact on Politics Is Cited
In general, she said, the violence favors a drug trade that flourishes
in political chaos and anarchy. But she declined to say who was behind her
own assassination attempt and the almost daily death threats that have
"Sure I know who's trying to kill me, but I can't tell you," she said.
"I don't want to be killed."
But Lassegue said she has continued to hold small, unannounced campaign
events amid well-armed security because of her commitment to feminist causes
"It's too late to turn back now," she said. "This is a very difficult
birth. But it will happen. We are going through a hard period, but I'm
Michele Montas was similarly sanguine--and equally reluctant to point
fingers. The radio journalist lost her husband to the violence last month in
a professional hit that sent shock waves through the nation.
Jean Dominique, Haiti's best-known commentator and a Preval advisor, was
shot four times at close range outside Radio Haiti Inter, where the
69-year-old station director was a fiercely outspoken enemy of dictatorship
and advocate of democracy.
"It's because of Jean's political clout that he was killed," said
Montas, who reopened the station as its new director earlier this month. "The
violence has many shapes and origins."
She brushed aside conspiracy theorists who have blamed Aristide for her
husband's murder: "When you analyze it, Jean-Bertrand Aristide had no reason
to engineer my husband's death."
She, too, declined to fix blame, although she also counted among
potential suspects in much of the violence the drug-trafficking gangs and
armed thugs who are behind what her husband had openly denounced as "the
Lebanonization of Haiti."
Still, Montas was among the many analysts and candidates who said Haiti
is far better off today than it was before the U.S. invaded with 20,000
troops to drive out a military dictatorship and restore Aristide's rule in
"You have people getting killed by different factions. You have the
regular street violence, and you have the political violence," she said. "But
you don't have the state killing people anymore."
Opinions at Haiti's grass roots varied. But as he sat idle on a park
bench in St. Peter's Plaza in suburban Petionville, a 28-year-old unemployed
printer seemed to echo the feelings of most.
"In my opinion, they shouldn't even have elections," Econome August
said. Of Haiti's ruling elite, he added: "The country is in ruins, and
they're the ones who put it in ruins. All they want is to stay in power.
There are people who I believe would do something for the country if they got
in power, but they'll never win.
"Everyone's too scared to vote. I'm not going to vote. I don't want to
go die. I've got three kids."
Asked if he thought Haiti's future would ever be better for his children
than its past and present have been for him, August smiled: "Maybe God can
make a miracle here. But I'm afraid he would have to kill more than 50,000
evil people first."