Haiti: Headed Down the Path Towards an Electoral FarceBy: COHA Research Fellow Alana Gutiérrez
On September 30, 2005, the “International Day of Solidarity With Haitian People” was celebrated in 44 cities and 16 countries with the theme being “Stop The War Against the People of Haiti.” This worldwide manifestation marked the anniversary of the first coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. Equally important, the street actions were aimed at bringing awareness to the current series of crises today bedeviling Haiti, as well as to damn the international community’s woefully inadequate response to its dire situation. In addition, the demonstrations were meant to stop the relentless gunning down of innocent Haitians by UN peacekeepers, to draw attention to the feckless UN political presence on the island. In addition, the protesters denounced the abhorrent behavior of the violent and corrupt Haitian national police and the paramilitaries under its control. Meanwhile, there is the urgent need to free Father Gerard Jean-Juste and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, as well as hundreds of other political prisoners still being forcibly detained, some of whom have been held in jail under inhumane conditions for more than a year. The worldwide demonstrations were also meant to denounce Haiti’s bizarrely inept as well as completely unconstitutional interim government’s caricature of democratic standards.
Acting under no legitimate authority whatsoever, the U.S.-installed interim Haitian government led by Gerard Latortue outlawed all demonstrations until last October 2nd. The government claimed that the measure was needed to calm down the public and to better maintain security for the elections (scheduled for November 20th), but this action had as little legal basis in Haiti as would be the case in the U.S. under similar circumstances. According to the 1987 Haitian Constitution, the right to assemble in public is guaranteed by the constitution, and requires only reasonable notification to the police. Of course, the Haitian organizers of the Port au Prince public protest would almost certainly have complied with the law by providing such notice. Interestingly, one would assume that the interim government would see that it would be in its own self-interest to uphold the values that Washington was calling for in the Middle East in its democratization efforts there. After all, suppressing freedom of expression anywhere would be likely to create greater social unrest, considering that the Haitians have no other lawful recourse to voice their concerns about their future and the country’s current social malaise.
Demonstrations in response to social injustice are not a new phenomena in Haiti. Historically, save for the Aristide era, since ordinary Haitians have played a marginal role in everyday politics, the streets have always had their appeal. Under the present U.S.-backed and UN confirmed interim government, the average citizen has been without a role and without a leader of his or her choosing. Therefore, the Haitians believed that with the UN peacekeepers and the misanthropic Haitian Nation Police ready to kill if need be, non-violent demonstrations would be the only reliable path to guaranteeing that their voices would be heard.
Rural, poor communities have rarely been permitted even a marginal role in the Haitian political process. In fact, political participation has always invited great risk such as: brutal beatings, arrest without a warrant, no due process, nor legitimate grounds for detention, and extra-constitutional death. Routinely, political detainees have been stripped of their right to mount a defense. Challenging the unjust legal system is impossible because today the state fosters impunity and authoritarian rule. On that note, it is not surprising that the citizens of scores of countries around the world are marching in solidarity with the Haitians. What is surprising is that members of the international community, especially the U.S., are not denouncing the interim Haitian government for its many derelictions including its decision to outlaw demonstrations. The lack of response from abroad to an unconstitutional decree by a rump government says that standards set by the west needn’t be extended to Haiti, which now becomes an overlooked milestone in President Bush’s crusade for “freedom” and “democracy.”
Ironically, President Bush declared at his second inauguration last January, “All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know that the United States will not ignore your oppression or excuse your oppressors.” On that note, why hasn’t the White House had a single word of criticism of the interim government’s multiple transgressions which are far more severe than any that President Hugo Chávez has concocted, and why isn’t the U.S. media paying more attention to Haiti, considering the present desperate plight of its people and the mounting debacle which U.S. foreign policy is encountering there? Clearly, the Bush Administration has not been promoting “freedom” and “democracy” in Haiti. Rather, it has been a deafening silence that has been held as the disreputable Latortue regime has turned in a condemnable performance featuring violent rule, the toleration of corruption and its sanctioning of the hunting down of those considered to be its foes.
From the beginning, if the Bush Administration had even a thimble of compassion for the Haitians, it would have not subjected the country—where the majority lives on under $1 a day—to cruel economic sanctions on entirely spurious grounds of a supposed flawed election. Bush’s inaugural address went on to contradict other U.S. actions where millions of dollars of U.S. government funds were poured into the Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy to provoke anti-government protests during Aristide’s presidency. These Bush Administration actions highlight Washington’s traditional response to Haiti’s plight – inconsistent, ineffective, indifferent, patronizing, and certainly not beneficial to resolving the island’s social and political crises. But at all times, U.S. policy towards Haiti has been driven by one overarching theme – its odium for Aristide and its determination to keep him and his progeny away from the levers of power.
The role of the U.S. in assuring that Haiti will experience truly free and fair elections will be the next test in seeing whether or not the Bush Administration can uphold its pledges outlined in the president’s second inaugural address. Secretary of State Rice expressed her anxiety whether Haiti will be able to actually stage the forthcoming ballot because as of now there is little question that Washington will fail that test. That is because a “free” election does not mean only an election day, but it also must include the pre-election period. Clearly, if a pro-Aristide candidate emerges victorious on November 20, U.S. policy, which has been single-mindedly based on eliminating the influence of his Lavalas party, will have been invalidated. A totally unencumbered vote inexorably would end up with a Lavalas victory. This imbroglio, which former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega compounded while in office is what produced the pressure on Rice that motivated the trip.
Here is where Latortue’s policy of jailing possible Lavalas candidates like Jean-Juste is so insidious. Washington’s surrogate says that he wants to promote free and fair elections in Haiti where any candidate from any party may run for office. However, his actions contradict this by throwing into jail the two possible major candidates from Lavalas, Haiti’s most popular political party, Jean-Juste and Neptune. Essentially, Latortue’s government is making a mockery of democracy by violating the 1987 Constitution, while at the same time breaking international and regional democratic charters as well as international laws meant to safeguard political and civil rights. If Haiti’s approaching balloting ends up preventing Lavalas’ participation, this will prove once again that Latortue is incapable of providing democratic governance to Haiti’s population.
What credibility will the next government in Haiti possess if their victory was won as a result of Washington’s maneuvering rather than free choice? If the U.S. allows the massively flawed vote to proceed, then it will have on its hands yet another country battling with electoral issues as currently seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. But unlike those two countries, Washington is all but ignoring its inescapable rendezvous with catastrophe, which is the script it’s now following in Haiti.
If the Bush Administration’s stated long term goal is to vouchsafe that all countries be allowed to build the representative institutions found in a free society, then it is about time that it applies this principle to its Caribbean neighbor. U.S. officials, who are largely footing the bill for the upcoming election, should take this opportunity to remind the Haitian cabal now ruling the country that no one elected it and that it must respect such democratic principles. On that note, the U.S., France, Canada and the affable Kofi Annan, out of guilt if nothing else, must begin the repair of the broken nation for which they are largely responsible. acknowledging that the conspiratorially-installed Latortue regime has been an unmitigated disaster.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and its allies remain silent as both the UN’s Brazilian-led peacekeeping effort and its political presence on the island are despised by ordinary Haitians because they are largely dysfunctional. At the very least, the concerned powers should lay down the law to Latortue that the freedom of expression is beyond debate or his dictate. It is what a democratic compact between the people and its leadership is all about. A democratic government must allow its opponents to peacefully criticize it. Balancing citizens’ rights with the government’s privileges is a difficult task, but one that must be fulfilled if Haiti is to go forward.