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Issue Date:  March 17, 2006

Obstacles ahead for Préval, Haiti

Vote shows desire for change after two years in political limbo

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

For all the uncertainty preceding Haiti’s elections in February, the announcement declaring 63-year-old agronomist René Préval the country’s next president came as no surprise. A one-time protégé of Haitian leader Jean Bertrand Aristide and a former president, Préval was the favored candidate among the country’s poor majority, an undisputed front-runner who had four times the votes of his next contender.

Approximately 60 percent of Haiti’s 3.5 million registered voters participated in the Feb. 7 presidential and parliamentary elections, the first since a bloody uprising ousted former president Aristide two years ago. Voters overwhelmed poorly prepared voting centers, exhibiting a confidence in the electoral process that was inspiring, given how often election outcomes have been thwarted by coups. (Haiti has had five coups in the past 20 years.)

Préval’s win was not officially declared until nine tumultuous days after Haitians cast their ballots, the result of an agreement brokered between the candidate and election officials. After two years of living in political limbo, Haitians finally had an elected president.

The man they chose represents a desire for change in Haiti, says Robert Maguire, director of the Haiti Program at Trinity College in Washington. “It is people asking for an open society, asking to become fully participating citizens.”

Whether that desire will be honored remains to be seen.

High stakes election

The stakes were high for this $80-million election, the most expensive in the nation’s history. The interim government, regarded by most Haitians as an import of the international community, and 9,000 U.N. peacekeeping troops had failed to bring stability and the country was still shuddering from the aftereffects of the February 2004 coup that overthrew Aristide.

A charismatic and polarizing leader, Aristide, who now lives in exile in South Africa, was forced out by armed rebels amid accusations that his government was corrupt and that the United States and France had played a role in his removal. Since his departure, unemployment was up and so too was violence. In Port-au-Prince, factories that had closed because of looting in the wake of the coup remained shuttered. Gangs and private armies controlled the city’s slums. Within the international community, the election was billed as a much-needed lifeline to pull the country out of its current turmoil. For many Haitians, the ballot simply represented the opportunity to once again have a say in their own governance.

“The vote is our answer to the interim government,” said Port-au-Prince resident Denis Onersonn. “If you want to have power, it is only the people who can give it.”

On the day before the vote, Port-au-Prince was unexpectedly calm, the mood in the capital one of cautious anticipation. Kidnappings were down, and the armed groups operating in Port-au-Prince’s poor neighborhoods had reportedly declared a weeklong cease-fire to allow the elections to take place safely.

The city was awash in campaign paraphernalia. Posters bearing the photographs of presidential and parliamentary candidates were plastered on public walls and telephone poles and strung above congested streets where they fluttered like prayer flags. A UNICEF banner urged the future leaders of Haiti to consider the children. The morning’s headline for Le Nouveliste, one of Port- au-Prince’s oldest dailies, was reflective: “1986-2006: Where Are We?”

Security was foremost on the minds of many voters within the capital, but in Jacmel, a small coastal city in southern Haiti, election talk focused on the economy and local needs.

Jonas Azor, director of Youth in Action, an organization for young adults, said most of his members had registered to vote and were “optimistic they could find someone who will deal with 40 percent of their demands.” Jacmel needs a functioning government to help tackle its numerous problems, he said. “We don’t have good sanitation or health care and the environment is a big concern. When there is a flood [here] a lot of people die.”

Several women vendors working a side street in Jacmel said they hoped their votes would translate into more jobs and reduction in the cost of food. Seventy percent of the population in Haiti is unemployed and live on less than $400 a year.

“[Over the past two years] life has been very difficult,” said Guerline Charles, the mother of a large family. “All food has become very expensive. … A sack of rice that cost 200 [Haitian] dollars now costs 300.”

A populist candidate

In addition to a president, Haitians were voting to fill the seats in their 129-member National Assembly. The presidential ballot offered 33 candidates, many representing political parties with grandiose names and a minuscule membership. Only a handful of these candidates were considered serious contenders, among them Lesley Manigat, who briefly served as Haiti’s president in 1988 before being toppled by a coup, industrialist Charles Henry Baker, a member of the mulatto elite, and Préval.

The son of a government official, Préval was prime minister to Aristide during his presidency in 1991 and then served as president himself from 1996 to 2001. Described as shy and retiring, he lacks the charisma of his former mentor Aristide, who succeeded him as president in 2001.

Haiti experts give Préval’s first presidency a mixed review. According to some reports, human rights groups accused him of interfering with the judiciary and politicizing the police. Under enormous pressure from foreign donors, he introduced a modified form of privatization. The policy was hugely unpopular with many Haitian.

But Préval is the only democratically elected president in Haiti to have finished his five-year term and transferred power peacefully, a credential that goes a long way here. He quickly garnered the backing of the urban poor, Aristide’s strongest constituents, when he entered the presidential race last fall, running on a political platform called “Lespwa,” the Creole word for hope. Peasants hailed him as a leader who tried to initiate land reform when he was in office.

Farmers, clustered outside the Lespwa headquarters in Jacmel described Préval as a president with a proven track record of serving the people, a man who “walks with the poor.” Interrupting themselves to list his achievements, they said Préval improved roads, provided scholarships so medical students could study in Cuba, and built a hospital and a harbor in Jacmel.

Analysts say the road ahead for Préval will not be smooth. As president of Haiti, he faces the longstanding difficulties of governance in this impoverished nation where class divides and political fault lines run deep.

Robert Fatton Jr., author of the book Haiti’s Predatory Republic, said Préval was the only viable candidate to bridge the gap between the poor majority and the very rich elite. “But he has an enormous task ahead of him,” said Fatton.

Politically, Préval remains in a tenuous position. His brokered win leaves him susceptible to critics who wish to delegitimize his presidency. Préval’s closest rivals, Baker and Manigat, who won 6 percent and 12 percent of the vote respectively, have vigorously denounced the ruling of the electoral council, a sign, said Fatton, that “the opposition is not dead yet.”

Additionally, the composition of the Haiti’s legislature has yet to be decided. The question is an important one for Préval, whose first administration was bogged down by conflicts with the National Assembly. Results from the first round of the parliamentary election show Lespwa candidates won a significant number of seats, but the March 19 runoff has been delayed and no new date set. Préval cannot be inaugurated until the country has a legislature.

As president of the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Préval will be forced to placate the demands of foreign donors, especially the United States. So far, U.S. policymakers have expressed support for Préval, referring to him as “a man we can work with.”

Trinity College’s Maguire, author of Haiti Held Hostage: International Responses to the Quest for Nationhood, said that in the past the United States had contradictory policies towards Haiti, marked by divisions between those who recognized Aristide as the country’s legitimate president and those who despised him. “I think the [Bush] administration has resigned itself to engage with the Haitian government,” Maguire said. “Things got worse after Aristide’s removal.”

Citing a recent report in The New York Times that documents the role of the International Republican Institute, a democracy-building group formed by some conservative members of the Republican Party, in facilitating the 2004 coup, Maguire said, “The United States has stained hands. Since this has been unmasked, I hope the United States will not be doing that again. I hope the United States will be open and transparent.”

Préval has spoken modestly about what he can do for Haiti, saying the work is more than can be accomplished in a five-year presidency. In an interview with a Cuban newspaper, he said he recognized the country’s most pressing need was reconciliation, which he defined as reaching out to Haiti’s underprivileged masses.

“I think the greatest reconciliation we should strive for is the one with starving people who need food. It is with those who do not have access to medical services. It is for those who have no education to make sure they have access,” Préval said.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a frequent contributor to NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, March 17, 2006

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