Haiti Pre-Election Update

Amid state, United Nations, and criminal violence, elections for Haiti's president will be held tomorrow.  With four major delays, the interim regime violated its own timeline to cede power to an elected government by February 7, now the date of the election, nearly two years after the United States installed the regime after the February 29, 2004 coup d'etat against the elected administration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and thousands of officials at all levels of government.

In addition to its own violence and failing to control the violence of others, in addition to jailing a popular choice for president and hundreds of other political leaders (including the elected prime minister), the coup government further damaged the delayed elections by drastically reduceing the number of polling stations compared to previous years.

Through it all, the leading candidate by far is a former President – the only one ever to serve a full term, from 1996 to 2001 – and Aristide ally, René Préval. The coup regime promises just over 800 polling stations in the nation of more than seven million.  Haiti will have nearly 5,000 eligible voters per polling station, while India and at least some United States counties aim for under 1,000.

Even with these reduced targets, "critics charge that the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) is so plagued by partisanship and incompetence that it may not be capable of holding free and fair elections," Reed Lindsay reported January 17 in the Washington Times.

"We could be in for a fiasco on Feb. 7," said Patrick Fequiere, a member of the CEP who is highly critical of his colleagues. "I can understand the [U.N.] Security Council wanting to get these elections over with, but we're still not ready."

Mr. Fequiere and others point to problems with the 804 voting centers designated by the U.N. peacekeeping mission.  They say that many voters have been assigned to the wrong center and others must walk too far because there are not enough centers.

A Dec. 27 report issued by Washington-based IFES, which is observing the elections with USAID funds, says the accessibility issue "threatens to disenfranchise thousands of voters."

The report says some people will have to walk as many as five hours to vote. But Gerardo Le Chevallier, chief of elections for the United Nations, said, "The most people will have to walk is 6 kilometers" -- about 3.75 miles.

The limited number of polling places – even if one accepts the unlikely, and still unacceptable, 3 and 3/4 mile walk claim – is a much greater problem than at face value given the level of violence in Haiti, including that coming from the coup government and its United Nations support.

At Cite Soleil, a huge impoverished neighborhood by the ocean, Jordanian United Nations soldiers face off with armed residents daily, firing 2,000 rounds a day from barricades and tanks and receiving half that many, Reed Lindsay reported in an important article on UN versus gang violence:

Many Cite Soleil residents blame the peacekeepers, not the armed groups, for the violence. They accuse the blue helmets of shooting wantonly from their tanks, killing innocent civilians.

"Every day the Minustah is shooting people," said Wilner Pierre, lying on a hospital bed with a large bandage covering his lower stomach.

The 35-year-old mechanic said UN troops shot him in the back while he was walking down the main avenue in Cite Soleil. The bullet ripped apart his intestines.

"They shoot in any direction and at any person, even babies, it doesn't matter. They shouldn't do their job like that."

The public hospital has received more than 70 shooting victims this month, at least half of them women, children and elderly. During a recent visit to the hospital, all six people injured by bullets said they were shot by UN peacekeepers.

The hospital itself has been hit by gunfire twice in two weeks, with the bullets coming from the direction of an abandoned building that the Jordanian troops have fortified with sandbags for use as an outpost.

On a recent night, bullets illuminated by red tracers whizzed over the roof of the hospital. Parents slept with their children on the floor, and doctors made their rounds hunched over when walking past windows.

Jordanian Brigadier-General Mahmoud al-Husban, head of the UN troops in Port-au-Prince, denies that the peacekeepers have fired at the hospital.

He says the Jordanian soldiers shoot only when fired upon and even then only when they can clearly target the attacking gunman. But he concedes that he cannot know the extent of any potential "collateral damage" because the peacekeepers rarely leave the safety of their tanks.

"The problem is that most people living in Cite Soleil are in gangs. If they are not fighting with the gangs, they are supporting the gangs."

Despite this attitude, the United Nations forces have resisted elite demands for even more aggressive action against the armed groups and the neighborhood they live and operate in.

"There is no military solution to Cite Soleil," said General Husban. "The solution could be giving the gangs amnesty and giving more social help. Medicine, food, development projects … It seems that the Government is not willing to solve the problem of Cite Soleil and they want us to go there and destroy it, to kill all the people there. We will not do this."

The violent standoff does, however, make tomorrow's vote a potentially dangerous action for people living in Cite Soleil and other poor neighborhoods.  Support for both Aristide and Péval are high in these areas.

Reed Lindsay reported January 17 on Democracy Now! that, nationwide,

the clear-cut favorite is René Préval, and there have been some polls, and he’s been leading in polls. But, you know, just walking in any poor neighborhood in Port-au-Prince and asking people who are they going to vote for, there’s either – some people are very apathetic and disillusioned with the whole process and aren’t going to vote and don’t like anybody, and there are many who will vote for René Préval.  But it’s very difficult to find people who are enthusiastic about any other of the 35 candidates.

AHP news reported (translated by Isabelle Desbiens):

Facing René Préval’s almost inevitable return to power, a group of personalities form the former opposition, the business world or the intellectual sector hostile to Lavalas is ending this week a wide campaign aiming to discredit René Préval ever since he put up his candidacy.

Despite the apathy, including that engendered by repeated violent subversion of democracy, despite the elite campaign against him, the former President will serve again if democracy is served.  AHP reported further:

René Préval is the winner in all polls. A survey made in the end of December by Gallup gave him 37% of the voting intentions. His closest adversary got only 10%.

The latest poll that came out a little over a week before the elections and led by "Centre de tabulation et d'Analyse des données électorales" (CENTADE) gives him 61% of the votes.

What it means for Haiti to have another presidency for Préval, "popular among the poor who saw him as an honest and efficient administrator" and "perceived to be an ally of Mr. Aristide, a former priest who campaigned as a champion of the disenfranchised, although the two have been estranged in recent years" as Reed Lindsay wrote in his January 17 article, remains very much unknown.  Will the Haitian and foreign elites – in particular the governments of the United States, France, and Canada – try to sabatoge and ultimately overthrow his administration, as occurred with both of Aristide's administrations, or will he even be allowed to take power?  Will he get any international help if he tries to help those who will elect him, the poor majority of Haiti?

Part of this depends on how much of a spotlight we – as activists, supporters of truth, democracy, justice, and liberty – can put on Haiti as significant elements of the word's elite, through powerful governments operating in our name, continue to experiment with how to control the original rebellious colony.

Your reporter apologizes for the complete lack of coverage of Haiti, my self-appointed beat as perhaps the primary battleground of "simple people who struggle" versus empire in the Americas.  With full-time work and myriad volunteer commitments, I've failed.  I ask again, for people to join the Narcosphere and help.  Get in touch with me to co-ordinate efforts: this is still another beginning in Haiti but the criminals in Washington and Port-au-Prince are running out of tricks.

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Student-on-hold, ex-stocker and failed union agitator, ex-white-collar consultant and now co-founder and developer at Agaric Design Collective, making web sites with open source free software.

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