Haiti: The Elections and After

Against the Current, No. 59, November/December 1995

Dianne Feeley

MOST OF THE U.S. movement in solidarity with Haiti opposed the U.S. occupation a year ago, noting that all Washington had to do to bring down the coup regime was to sever its official and unofficial ties.

Following the U.S./United Nations occupation, however, two differing evaluations have emerged. The first pinpoints Aristide`s decision to accept military intervention–and his agreement to implement a Structural Adjustment Program–as proof that he has definitely broken with his commitment to justice.

For those who hold this view, the Haitian election process is essentially cover for a neocolonial regime. The task is to campaign to get the U.S./UN troops out of Haiti and to oppose the neoliberal program Aristide is carrying out.

The second view finds an alternate meaning in Aristide’s willingness to accept U.S. intervention: Yes, Aristide made a pact with President Clinton, but only because the popular movement lacked sufficient power to overthrow the coup regime. Aristide doesn’t “trust” Clinton any more than Clinton “trusts” Aristide.

Clinton was determined to stop the flow of Haitian refugees. He searched for two years to find an alternative solution and came up empty-handed. It was the existence of the Haitian popular movement and its supporters in the United States that prevented Clinton from successfully imposing other solutions. As for the U.S. ruling elite, it was divided. This allowed the right wing in Congress to oppose the intervention.

When Aristide saw there was little choice he made concessions in order to return. Now at least the terror is halted and there is space to rebuild the popular movement, whose growth can transform the very limited possibilities that exist. Insofar as the popular movement can rebuild and articulate its demands, Aristide will respond.

In this alternative reading, the Haitian elections are crucial to re-establishing the country’s democratic institutions. After three years of a vicious military coup, the elections for parliament and municipal office set the stage for adopting a governmental program that outlines both immediate priorities and longer-range political and economic objectives.

The majority of the U.S. movement in solidarity with Haiti has adopted–whether or not they have debated out the perspective–the second view.

What Was at Stake?

The 1995 election was essential in order to provide a legal framework for debating, passing and implementing social and economic programs. It was both a legal necessity and a political litmus test, as it sets the stage for the presidential elections slated for December.

Could Aristide surround himself with legislators who would push for the implementation of programs that would benefit the majority? Or would Washington isolate the popular movement by sponsoring the election of conservatives or co-opting Lavalas (the movement’s political coalition) members?

The first round took place June 25, a make-up round was held August 13, and the run-off occurred September 17. Ten thousand candidates entered the first round for 110 members of parliament as well as for hundreds of local elections.

From the beginning the Haitian right decided to sit out the election. But a couple of dozen parties that did participate in the first round announced their boycott once they discovered how poorly they did. Overwhelmingly Haitians supported the candidates who had been steadfast opponents of the coup regime.

One of the right-wing losers, KONAKOM’s Victor Benoit, lamented, “Lavalas took all of the political space. . . . That’s not democracy.” Basically Lavalas, a coalition of three parties, won about seventy-five percent of the vote.

Given that the Haitian government was totally bankrupted by the coup regime, the election process could only be organized with international help. But the U.S. government, which provided over 90% of the election costs, used its financial muscle to maximize its influence. According to Haiti Info, Washington spent over $8 million on the election; the New York Times uses a $12 million figure.

U.S. agencies also funded various institutes including American Institute for Free Labor Development ($300,000), Center for Democracy ($500,000), National Democratic Institute ($710,000), the International Republican Institute ($450,000) and Organisation Internationale pour les Migrations. Some of the agencies attempted to use the money as bait, training organizations in “skillbuilding,” hoping that by investing in some non-Lavalas candidates they may have some options further down the line.

The U.S. Senate voted on September 21 to cut off all aid to Haiti unless the government investigates thirty-one specific murders. While over 4,000 Haitians were murdered during the coup regime, most of the named individuals were coup supporters.

Last July the House passed a similar aid bill, conditioned on new presidential elections. Both versions–which will go to a joint conference committee for resolution–are blatant attempts to intervene in Haitian affairs.

Washington also carried out guerilla warfare against the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), undermining its authority and causing a number of errors. For example, at Washington’s insistence, the ballot was printed in California. It left off the guitar symbol for “Manno” Charlemagne, independent candidate for mayor of Port-au-Prince and a strong Lavalas supporter. In the case of a semi-literate society, leaving off the candidate’s symbol effectively disenfranchises a voter and his/her candidate.

The Right’s Sore-Loser Campaign

The neoliberal model seems to prefer paper-thin democracy, but President Clinton faced the dilemma of needing the elections but having few candidates to back. Washington’s old friends, including Marc Bazin, had worked with the coup leaders and were discredited.

Since Washington was financially backboning the elections, it was able to delay them. Meanwhile U.S. AID attempted to throw some money around and see what candidates they might support. But even Evans Paul, the mayor of Port-au-Prince, who had to go into hiding during the coup, did not succeed in his bid for re-election. People judged him to have been too ambivalent during the years of the coup, when he adopted positions based purely on his own self- preservation.

Everyone also knew Evans Paul was Washington’s choice for next president of Haiti. The fact that he received only 14% of the vote to “Manno” Charlemagne’s 48% seems to have effectively derailed that possibility. (Charlemagne, a folk singer, ran as an independent and was supported by the OPL, the most grassroots party in the Lavalas coalition.)

On July 13 a couple of dozen political parties called for the partial annulment of the elections and the dissolution of the CEP. One politician compared the election with those that had been held under Duvalier while another charged that the election result “reflected a manipulation of the elections by Lavalas.”

Haiti Info, a bimonthly English-language newsletter printed in Haiti, noted that most of the political parties are more like “particles” than genuine parties. The newsletter pointed out that the larger ones–like PANPRA–willingly participated in the 1993 election, which was organized by the coup regime and overwhelmingly boycotted by the Haitian people (less than ten percent  voted).

The day before the June election the International Republican Institute, a U.S. right-wing think tank that received $450,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.-AID) to conduct a “study” on the Haitian elections, released a 300-page pre-election report predicting chaos at the polls. On June 26 they held a second press conference, confirming their predictions and stating that there had been a “national breakdown of the electoral process.”

Attacking the CEP

On July 17th the Carter Center, which is chaired by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, put out a thirty-page report demanding that the international community “should insist that the political parties’ concerns be addressed” and issuing a number of recommendations.

These included rerunning mayoral elections that have already been won and replacing half of the electoral council with “consensus candidates” before the run-off. The New York Times supported the recommendations and specifically suggested that the election for mayor of Port-au-Prince be rerun, while admitting that it did “not technically require it.”

A make-up election–in those seventeen areas where voting could not be held on June 25, or was voided due to irregularities–was held on August 13 in which 377 candidates competed for forty-one posts. The only political parties that participated were Lavalas and the recently formed party, PROP.

In early August U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Strobe Talbott flew into Port-au-Prince and presented a plan to the CEP: Set up a “consulting commission” of parties and diplomats along with CEP members to decide how many reruns should be held and to oversee the final round; enlarge the recently set up “surveillance group,” have the government reimburse the candidates for all their expenses, provide two hours of time to all candidates on the state media, organize a voter education campaign and form a totally new CEP to oversee the presidential race in December.

The CEP agreed to a number of the proposals, but drew the line at the creation of a committee that would basically evaluate the validity of the first round and revamp the CEP. Anselme Remy resigned as CEP president and was replaced by Pierre-Michel Sajous. Announcing his resignation, Remy warned, “Haitian people, prepare yourselves to fight for what is yours. What those people could not accomplish with the coup d’etat, they are doing with electoral machinations.”

Despite the pressure, President Aristide–according to the September 20 New York Times–told Secretary Talbott that his plans would not “prosper.” Although various opposition particles boycotted the elections, in fact their candidates did not remove their names from the ballot. Lavalas, in any case, won overwhelmingly both control of local governments as well as parliament.

What Independent Observers Saw

For the June elections sixty-two independent election observers from the United States, traveling to Haiti at their own expense, observed some 200 polling sites in urban and rural areas. The delegation was co-sponsored by four U.S. groups: Global Exchange, Voices for Haiti, Washington Office on Haiti, and Witness for Peace. The delegation issued a candid report the following day in Port-au-Prince:

“Our teams did witness a wide array of irregularities, including shortages of materials, administrative difficulties, late openings, lack of secrecy, and incidents of intimidation of voters and election officials. Teams observed isolated instances of manipulation of the process and documented acts of violence by partisans. In some cases, these problems resulted in canceling of the voting. Fortunately, the widespread violence that many feared would ruin the elections did not occur.

“The irregularities we detected did not seem to be the product of a concerted attempt on the part of any one political party or persuasion to undermine the democratic process at a national level. Most were not surprising given Haiti’s transportation and communication deficiencies, high rates of illiteracy and inexperience in the process of democratic elections.

“In our opinion, Sunday’s vote represents a critical step in Haiti’s struggle for democracy.”

Observers also testified at the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearing on the Haitian elections, held in Washington, D.C. on July 12, 1995. At that hearing Gay McDougall, from the non-governmental International Human Rights Law Group, drew a comparison with the South African elections.

McDougall stated that the June 25 Haiti election had the same or fewer problems than the ones in South Africa. Yet she noted that the South African elections were celebrated by the international community while Haiti’s process, for partisan reasons, was not.

Parliament’s Tasks

Traditionally the Haitian army has absorbed 70% of the country’s budget. Last February Aristide, despite Washington’s displeasure, dismantled the army by dismissing all officers above the rank of major. But the task remains incomplete because the constitution mandates an army. Majority sentiment in Haiti is to finish the job Aristide began, so clearly parliament needs to amend the constitution and abolish the army.*

Of course Washington hopes to be able to create a repressive force out of the police and has been insistent about being central to its training. By January 1995 U.S. officials, aided by the Haitian military high command, selected nearly 3,400 soldiers through the rank of major, gave them six days of training and made them the core of the interim force. In selecting these soldiers it did not adequately screen for human rights violations.

Consequently there are serious allegations against members of the force, and against the senior military officials who supervised its creation. The interim force, which is scheduled to remain in operation until March 1996, lacks any authority and has on several occasions been rejected outright by the population.

Parliament can help stimulate the community policing arrangements that have emerged in some areas of the country through creating legislation that institutionalizes and promotes this development. It must also deal with scrutinizing former soldiers by setting up procedures so that any applying to the National Police Academy is thoroughly checked. Only those whose records are clean should be eligible for admission.

Parliament also needs to consider a series of laws to insure control over the police. These might include empowering the creation of civilian review boards and dismissal for anyone convicted of intimidation or corruption.

Last March the Commission of Truth and Justice was established to hear testimony on the human rights violations and crimes against humanity that occurred during the coup. The commission is not a judicial body but it will expose the crimes and criminals and make recommendations.

Headed by sociologist Francoise Boucard, the commission has only received whatever money the Haitian government could provide. Forced to beg for computers and a fax machine, the commission is supposed to finish its work by the end of the year.

As of mid-September, the commission had collected over 5,000 testimonies and had begun to prepare the final report. But staff conflicts have developed and there have been several resignations. Parliament most certainly will have to provide the resources necessary for a report that can pressure, as Boucard suggested, for the reform of the justice system.

Without an independent judicial structure in place, justice cannot develop. U.S. AID has authorized millions of dollars for revamping the Haitian system–but it is merely pouring money down the rat-hole of corruption and violence because it seeks to train the very judges who have sided with the elite against the poor. Parliament must actively work to create a system of justice.

Another pressing task facing parliament is insuring that the UN departs on schedule, in February 1996. U.S. commentators are already suggesting this is an unreasonably early departure date.

Given the tasks facing the Haitian government, it becomes apparent why forces in both Haiti and the United States have no desire to see an authoritative government. Their attitude is to let things unravel for awhile, to make economic or social change seem impossible.

In Haiti the infrastructure and living conditions for the vast majority are appalling. There need to be massive health, literacy, housing and tree-planting campaigns. The majority have no clean water.

The best way to work out economic and social priorities is through setting up community councils that can meet, discuss, decide and begin to implement programs they have designed. The success of the left in Latin America over the last ten years, specifically in Brazil and Uruguay, comes from mobilizing such grassroots participation. (See NACLA’s Report on the Americas, July/August 1995)

Solidarity Continues

In the first of the two scenarios I sketched at the beginning of this article, the solidarity movement’s focus is on the physical removal of the U.S./UN troops from Haiti and a discussion of the neoliberal agenda. In the second, the struggle for Haitians to control their country is seen as a dynamic interplay between the Haitian government and the popular organizations, as these organizations rebuild themselves and make their demands known.

For the majority of the U.S. solidarity movement, which leans toward the second view, the task at home is to defend the Haitian elections, both by explaining what U.S. citizen observers saw and by bringing Haitian activists here to speak. Additionally, the movement is carrying out material aid campaigns, sending money and supplies to peasant organizations and setting up “twinning” programs with schools and churches in Haiti.

All solidarity activists know that when the U.S./UN troops depart, U.S. AID will remain. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on March 9, Deputy Secretary of State Talbott remarked, “I assure you, Mr. Chairman, even after our exit in February 1996, we will remain in charge by means of AID and the private sector.”

Haiti is, after all, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Seventy percent of its population lives in the countryside where land reform is an urgent necessity. Until the Aristide government, French, a language spoken and read by a tenth of the population, was the country’s only official language. Some of the laws are just now being translated into Creole.

The economy has been strangled by corruption, monopolies and exclusive government concessions in manufacturing, industry, agriculture and the import trade. These key sectors are controlled by five powerful families.

As an ecologically ravished country of seven million, Haiti has much less room for maneuver than a country like Mexico or Brazil. Yet the inflexible structural adjustment program of the IMF puts an emphasis on agricultural production for import and demands the lowering of tariff rates on sensitive agricultural produce, thus devastating local production.

Can the Haitian people, who over the last decade have gathered together in peasant and urban organizations, find a way to continue their fight? While Washington has earmarked $115 million in foreign aid for Haiti next year, will the right cut that amount by the 40% it threatens–or attach political conditions?

As the Haitian proverb says, if you eat with the devil, you must use a long spoon.

November/December 1995