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5951: REUTER's FWD - Haiti on edge awaiting Sunday's presidential vote (fwd)
Haiti on edge awaiting Sunday's presidential vote
November 24, 2000
Web posted at: 8:21 PM EST (0121 GMT)
PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) -- Violence kept Haiti's capital on edge on
Friday, two days before an election expected to return Jean-Bertrand
Aristide, the first freely elected Haitian leader, to the presidency of the
poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
A 14-year-old boy and a 6-year-old girl died in a series of street bombings
across Port-au-Prince on Wednesday and Thursday. The bombings sent people in
the teeming city scurrying for cover. Later, angry residents burned tires in
the streets to protest against the children's deaths.
Traffic was much lighter than usual on Friday, and public and private schools
were closed, as were some businesses.
After staying silent for much of the election campaign, Aristide took to the
airwaves to urge Haitians to vote. "Together with the Haitian police force,
we will vote on Sunday in order, discipline, security and peace," he said in
an address broadcast on local television and radio.
"People of Haiti, don't be afraid. Don't be afraid to make peace. Vote, and
vote en masse for us to have a Haiti at peace," he said.
Aristide is a former Roman Catholic priest who emerged from Haiti's slums to
win the presidency in 1990, only to be ousted in a military coup seven months
later and then restored to power by a U.S.-led invasion force after three
years in exile. Haiti's most popular politician, he is widely expected to win
the election easily.
The vote is being boycotted by opposition parties, leaving the presidential
contest to Aristide and six relative unknowns who challenged him.
Although their names remain on the ballot, three of those candidates have, in
fact, dropped out of the race because of the pre-election violence.
Aristide's Lavalas Family party has accused the opposition of fomenting
unrest to reduce voter turnout and taint Aristide's mandate.
The election was considered another crucial step along Haiti's tortured path
to a stable democracy after decades of dictatorship and military rule.
But with opposition parties and the international community shunning the
vote, political analysts said it was uncertain what Aristide would be able to
accomplish for his country.
Election officials said nearly 12,000 polling stations across this Caribbean
nation of 7.8 million people were ready for voters on Sunday. Some 4 million
voters were registered, but authorities declined to guess at the possible
"Everything is ready now," said Samuel Louis-Jean, a spokesman for Haiti's
Provisional Electoral Council, the body that organized the election. "Haitian
people will say what they have to say on Sunday."
"I think they will come despite the intimidation," he added.
With drive-by shootings and other kinds of street violence escalating,
observers were uncertain what kind of security Haiti could provide at the
Haiti's 6,000-member civilian police force, established after Aristide
disbanded the dreaded army, was expected to be out in force in the streets on
Sunday. But Justice Minister Camille Leblanc, one of the top national
security officials, was visiting relatives in Paris and had not returned by
The United States, Canada and the European Union all declined to send teams
of observers after protesting against parliamentary elections in May. The
international community declared them tainted after observers said that
officials had miscalculated the winning vote percentages of 10 Lavalas Family
candidates for the Senate, giving them outright victories when they should
have been forced into runoffs.
Electioneering, at a minimum for weeks, was stepped up on Friday. A small
plane dropped a cloud of blue-and-red Aristide pamphlets over the city, and
his supporters held a rally in the neighborhood of Bel-Air, honking car horns
and waving posters and Haitian flags.
"Aristide is the best for Haiti. He is love. He loves everybody and Haitians
love him," said Frantz Laurore, 30, an automobile mechanic.
In his address, Aristide mourned the two children killed in the explosions,
saying they had "disappeared under the flames of violence."
"It is with much sadness in my hear that I bow before these innocent lives,
while we wipe the tears from the eyes of their parents with a handkerchief of
peace," he said.
Tension was evident in the city. American Airlines canceled flights to and
from Port-au-Prince on Sunday and Monday.
Delmas, one of the city's busiest streets, normally choked with cars, trucks
and the colorful open taxis known as "tap-taps," was sparsely traveled.
People outside were reluctant to talk about the election.
"Too dangerous. I stay out of politics," said a man walking near the National
Palace, an imposing white building with sprawling green lawns that stands in
stark contrast to the poverty in which most Haitians live.
With per capita annual income of about $400, Haiti is one of the poorest
nations in the world. A recent U.N. report said that 62 percent of its
population was undernourished, putting it ahead of only Somalia and