Just when it seemed like things couldn’t get any worse for Haiti, events further deteriorated on the beleaguered island last week. On July 16, Haiti’s Council of Sages formally recommended barring former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Party from participating in upcoming elections, accusing the group of “continu[ing] to promote and tolerate violence.” Then, on July 22, Lavalas leader and likely presidential candidate, Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, was arrested on charges in connection with the death of prominent Haitian journalist Jacques Roche. It is important to note that a State Department official carefully articulated that his agency had seen no credible evidence establishing that pro-Aristide forces were responsible for Roche’s death. The priest’s arrest and the recommendation made by the seven-member advisory council, which was formed under the plenary direction of the U.S. following Aristide’s February 2004 ouster and was responsible for selecting interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, dealt fatal blows to any lingering hopes for delivering an open democracy in the near future to the long-struggling island. These events, along with stepped-up violence by Haitian police in complicity with the UN peacekeeping forces, have projected Latortue’s interim government as proving to be increasingly incapable of establishing the necessary stability, security and protection from political persecution on the island in order for free and fair elections to take place within a three month framework.
Although the Council of Sages formally moved to exclude Lavalas from participating in the ballot, the party has yet to announce its intentions to partake in the elections. Now, with the arrest of Jean-Juste, Lavalas cooperation seems even farther from reality. The priest became Lavalas’ top presidential hopeful when Aristide announced in April 2005 that, in accordance with the Haitian constitution, he would not seek a third presidential mandate. According to the Associated Press, Jean-Juste, who has denied any involvement in Roche’s murder, is detained in a cell with more than twenty people and he has good reason to fear for his life. As before, the unscrupulous Latortue has failed to present a sliver of evidence implicating one of Haiti’s most popular figures in an unlawful act. The State Department says that it has been apprised of Jean-Juste’s arrest and its awaiting the presentation of credible evidence backing up the charges.
Violence Continues under Latortue’s Inept Governance
Under Latortue’s interim government, Haiti has been marred by persisting violence, brutality and kidnappings. Human rights groups estimate that more than 700 people, including 40 police, seven peacekeepers, a French diplomat and a prominent Haitian journalist, have been killed on the island since June 2004. While the Council of Sages castigates Lavalas for perpetrating the continuing bloodshed, they fail to address the charge that the party is often the target of oppression by the Haitian police and the UN peacekeepers, which together contribute to Haiti’s rising death toll.
Lavalas members have long been subjected to police brutality. Shortly after Aristide’s abrupt departure from office, Lavalas supporters marched in Port-au-Prince demanding the return of their democratically-elected president. Police opened fire on the mainly unarmed crowd, killing eleven and wounding many more. Unfortunately, this type of tragedy has become commonplace in the politically torn country and UN peacekeepers have done little to improve the situation. Nevertheless, it would be playing into Latortue’s and Washington’s hands if Lavalas refuses, on grounds of personal security, to sit out the election even though it is by far, the most popular political grouping on the island.
The month of July has been especially deadly for Haitian dissidents. On July 6, 350 heavily armed UN troops stormed the slum of Cite Soleil, a pro-Aristide neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, resulting in the deaths of approximately fifty Cite Soleil residents. Brazilian Lt. General Augusto Heleno Ribeiro, head of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), claimed that the attack was an attempt to curb violence in the neighborhood. Then, on July 13, MINUSTAH forces killed as many as eighty people, again in Cite Soleil, and on July 15, Hatian police left ten dead in the slum of Bel Air. Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), an active Haiti observer who has made numerous diplomatic visits to the island, has expressed her concern that “violence in Haiti has been escalating over the past year” and that “Members of the Lavalas political party are murdered routinely, kidnappings are commonplace and security is non-existent.”
Brutally bloody missions, such as the July 6 and July 13 incidents, demonstrate how the UN, along with Latortue and the Haitian police have hugely failed the Haitian people in establishing anything resembling the necessary security and stability to hold elections. According to Waters, “The interim government of Haiti has been unable to disarm the gangs that roam the country, enforce the rule of law, or provide security to citizens and foreigners. The Haitian National Police contribute to the violence through summary executions and other forms of brutality.” The Congresswoman correctly concludes that “This is not an atmosphere that is conducive to the organization of free and fair elections.”
Political Persecution Becomes Institutionalized
At first glance, the Council of Sages’ recommendation appears to be just one more U.S.-backed ploy to prevent Aristide, or any of his Lavalas supporters, from regaining power in Haiti. But the U.S. Department of State’s position now seems interesting, if we are to believe it. State Department officials immediately denounced the Council’s advice, insisting that only the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) has the authority to determine who is qualified to participate in the forthcoming elections, and that the CEP almost immediately opposed the unfortunately named “Sages.” In fact, Washington called the proposal completely inappropriate and asked that body to encourage the participation of all parties in the elections. However, U.S. officials have also stated that parties engaging in violent activities not be allowed to vote. If such a mandate is to be strictly followed in Haiti, where it is nearly impossible to differentiate among violence perpetrated by political parties, common gangs, the police or UN peacekeepers, then the process of registering voters would appear almost futile.
In any event, prospects for free and fair elections appear very bleak for the struggling island. Haiti’s CEP has reported that only 600,000 of the 4.5 million eligible voters have registered, or roughly 13 percent of the electorate. But State Department officials have remained confident that elections will take place within three months, as scheduled. Likewise, Latortue maintains optimism that voting will be carried out on time; although on July 23 he announced that the August 9 voter registration deadline will likely have to be postponed to meet his goal of at least 2.5 million people registered. The interim prime minister was not close to the mark when he noted that, “the only topic on which this government will be judged is its capacity to organize fair and representative elections.” Not only has he yet to exhibit a sincere commitment to staging authentic elections, but his antipathetic government is also sure to be judged on other grave grounds, including its total disregard for the country’s constitution, its ongoing contempt for high human rights standards and a lawful judiciary, its incompetent rule, a woeful failure in its administrative capacities, as witnessed in its inability to even elementally deal with Tropical Storm Jeanne in which several thousand Haitians died, as well as its indifference to due process.
The question remains as to how consonant the Bush administration is regarding its Haiti policy. Clearly it would represent a massive diplomatic defeat if Lavalas would win the presidential election scheduled for November. The bedrock of U.S. policy has been to eliminate Aristide’s influence, not to pave the way for one of his disciples to be the next president. In fact, the hard truth for the administration is that Lavalas by far, is the country’s most popular party. Given that Lavalas maintains an overwhelming political plurality, there is no evidence that anything else but its victory could happen if free and fair elections take place as promised. The State Department has pledged to recognize any government that is legitimately elected, but it has also habitually added the disclaimer that the U.S. cannot acknowledge as official any group believed to be promoting violence. Just as the administration efficiently fine tunes its pronouncements on the standards against which U.S. presidential advisor Karl Rove will be judged as a means to exonerate him, there is good reason to believe that Washington is fully prepared to resort to any slight of hand required to prevent the return, in any form, of Aristide’s influence on the island.