Unrest follows Haiti’s election

December 13, 2010

Haiti is facing protests in the aftermath of an election marked by fraud and voter intimidation that excluded the largest and most popular political party in the country: Lavalas Family, once led by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was toppled in a 2004 coup.

Kim Ives, a journalist and editor with Haiti Liberté, a weekly newspaper published in Port-au-Prince and New York City, analyzes the latest developments.

ON DECEMBER 7, Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) announced the deeply flawed November 28 general elections' "preliminary results." The top three presidential candidates were former Senator Mirlande Manigat (31.37 percent), ruling Unity party candidate Jude Célestin (22.48 percent), and former compas performer Michel Martelly (21.84 percent). Abstentionist Haitians were the real winners because only 1.1 million, or 23 percent of Haiti's 4.7 million registered voters, turned out.

The announcement ignited a violent response from supporters of "Sweet Micky" Martelly, who had widely asserted that he was the leading candidate, having "as much as 47 percent of the vote." Demonstrations and burning-tire bonfires immediately erupted in Pétionville, Cap Haïtien and Aux Cayes, where numerous government offices and Unity partisans' houses have been torched.

Supporters of Jean Henry Céant, the leading Faux-Lavalas candidate with supposedly 8.18 percent of the vote, and nine other candidates, who have banded with Céant in an informal front, have also held large demonstrations in recent days calling for the election's annulment, the CEP's replacement and the resignation of current President René Préval.

Protests erupted in Haiti in reaction to preliminary results from the November election
Protests erupted in Haiti in reaction to preliminary results from the November election

"The UN and the international community will never accept that a legitimate Haitian president leaves under pressure from the street," responded UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) chief Edmond Mulet on December 3. "It would be a coup."

Ironically, Mulet leads an occupation force that entered Haiti following the February 2004 coup--backed by Washington, Paris and Ottawa, and involving "pressure from the street"--against "a legitimate Haitian president" Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Over the past six years, MINUSTAH has killed dozens of Haitians militating for Aristide's return. Aristide remains exiled in South Africa, and his Lavalas Family party, Haiti's largest, has been barred from all post-coup elections.

In fact, the current electoral fiasco is merely the 2004 coup's continuation. Préval and Washington became bedfellows because both seek to exclude Haiti's poor majority, who are overwhelmingly pro-Lavalas. But their plot is failing, and like thieves falling out, they increasingly distrust each other, despite Mulet's profession of support.

Préval was one of the principal "enlightened bourgeois" to push Aristide into the electoral ring 20 years ago, thereby becoming Aristide's first prime minister. After Aristide's 2004 ousting, the U.S. installed as de facto prime minister Gérard Latortue, who, two years later, handed over to Préval, a compromise candidate who the Lavalas masses embraced because all their other choices--like the late Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste--had been either jailed or exiled.

THIS HISTORY is not lost on the U.S. government, as revealed in two confidential cables from March 2007 and June 2009, just made public by WikiLeaks. As the then-U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson wrote:

Despite his involvement in radical/communist circles as a student in Belgium and his entrance into Haitian politics through a populist movement deeply influenced by liberation theology, Préval's public and private discourse is practically devoid of any notions reflecting that background.

She reassured Washington that Préval was "a neoliberal," who "has embraced free markets and foreign investment" and is "uninterested in ideology." Nonetheless, Sanderson warned in 2009 that "Préval remains essentially a nationalist politician...suspicious of outsiders' intentions and convinced that no one understands Haiti like he does." Sometimes working "at cross purposes with the US," riskily, he "believes that he can walk a fine line without losing U.S. or international community support."

This analysis is surely being reread by current U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten, as Préval becomes more drag than lift to U.S. policy in Haiti.

Last week, after three Haitian observer groups reported that Manigat and Martelly were leading by 30 percent and 25 percent, respectively, to Célestin's 21 percent, Préval's CEP told UN officials that it was considering a three-way second round, according to a Haitian government source. UN officials vigorously opposed the proposal and told Préval so.

According to the source, a high-stakes game of chicken then ensued, with Préval responding that if there could be no three-way runoff, then perhaps the election should be annulled. (AP reports that bellwether OAS/Caricom mission head Colin Granderson said a three-way runoff may be adopted in case of a near-tie.)

In the hours before the CEP's announcement, there was a meeting at the National Palace between Préval, the CEP, the UN and the U.S. ambassador. It may have been acrimonious, because the CEP's proclamation was delayed until about 9 p.m., instead of 6 p.m., as foreseen.

As protests swept Haiti, Washington's embassy immediately issued a disapproving statement that it would help "to thoroughly review irregularities in support of electoral results that are consistent with the will of the Haitian people." The U.S. said it was "concerned" that the CEP's results were "inconsistent" with those of the Haitian observers, among others.

So here is Washington's dilemma: Does it heed Sanderson's 2009 conclusion that "while we may argue with [Préval] about pace and priorities, we will have to adapt to his rhythm," because he "remains Haiti's indispensable man"? Or now that his popularity has hit new lows following the January 12 earthquake and the botched election, is he, in fact, dispensable?

As for Préval, Sanderson reported that "his overriding goal is to orchestrate the 2011 presidential transition in such a way as to ensure that whoever is elected will allow him to go home unimpeded," avoiding prison or exile. Will he continue "stubbornly holding to ideas long past their shelf life" and resist, "convinced that no one understands Haiti like he does"? Or will he succumb to the pressures now sandwiching him from above and from the streets below?

Both parties will want a compromise, unless the uprising worsens. The UN may rubberstamp a CEP rule change to hold the three-way runoff, thereby appeasing Préval and, hopefully, Martelly's mobs (although "Micky" has vowed not to share any runoff with Célestin).

Ambassador Merten is undoubtedly pondering Sanderson's prophetic conclusion: "Managing Préval will remain challenging during the remainder of his term, yet doing so is key to our success and that of Haiti."

First published at the Guardian Web site.

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