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Haiti's Slide to the Abyss Halted before Plunge?

Haiti's Slide to the Abyss Halted just before the Plunge?

Immediate Release Monday, May 22, 2000

Haiti's Slide to the Abyss Halted just before the Plunge?

* With everything working against a smooth vote, an amazingly high percentage of Haitians managed to cast their ballot, a triumph for self-representation

* Election is a victory for Haitian people, although not necessarily the government or opposition

* Widespread political violence and lack of adequate preparations preordained flawed results as political leaders expended all of their energy blaming each other and singling out scapegoats

* More than five hundred million dollars of outside funds will be made available to the government once a functioning legislature is in place

* Stagnant Haitian economy, which has been denied hundreds of millions of dollars in stalled IMF and World Bank loans, has led to a flourishing drug trafficking industry

* Clinton administration deserves much of the blame for Haitian democracy's derailment throughout the 1990's

With its economy in ruins, much of its political elite deeply involved in corruption largely spawned by the booming drug trade, and its election process mired in violence and scandal, scant hope was held out to Haiti's demoralized population that yesterday's elections would offer a new beginning. Although the final count will not be known until later this week, an estimated 60% of all Haitians voted for candidates running for parliamentary and local government seats, a figure considerably higher than that tallied in the last U.S. presidential elections. In light of the embarrassing six percent turnout in the country's 1997 parliamentary elections, yesterday's vote represents an amazing turnaround, demonstrating the extraordinary resilience of a Haitian people who refuse to bow to intimidation, threats of violence and a long history of dashed hopes. After the repeated postp

Dictatorships and democracies When Haitians elected the immensely popular Aristide president on December 16, 1990, hopes for the revitalization of the economy and the installation of democratic institutions soared in a country that had suffered thirty years of dictatorship under the U.S.-patronized dictatorial dynasty of the Duvaliers. But nine months later, Aristide was deposed by a drug-trafficking and corrupt military backed by a privileged elite scared off by Aristide's radical rhetoric and unwilling to accept minor tax hikes. Although many U.S. politicians, including members of the Clinton administration, speak dismissively about the Haitian political culture and the ability of the country's leadership to conduct itself in a responsible manner, such a tone erroneously presumes that the role of the U.S. has been above reproach. After former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's ouster by a military cou

But encouraged by the tacit support of the CIA and Pentagon, Cedras recanted his commitment with impunity. With several members of Haiti's military high command on its payroll, the CIA openly disagreed with Clinton's policy, and they tried to render it useless by creating a largely false and unflattering psychological profile of the deposed president, which they leaked to arch-Aristide foe and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), in order to defame his character. In addition, the agency recruited Emmanuel Constant, leader of the murderous paramilitary group FRAPH, to spread a wave of terror in the weeks before Aristide's prospective return. Finally, after the failure of these scheming tactics and under additional pressure from the Congressional Black Caucus as well as a well-publicized hunger strike carried out by Randall Robinson

Despite their belated arrival, when U.S. troops landed on Haitian soil they were enthusiastically greeted by the island's residents, who were overjoyed at finally ridding their nation of its strong-armed three-year dictatorship. But the tumultuous welcome for Aristide upon his return several weeks later was short-lived, as he was immediately faced with the formidable task of rebuilding a country unfamiliar with democratic institutions or processes. Most significantly, Aristide was forced to tackle Haiti's troubled economy, shattered after three years of economic sanctions and military looting under the harsh conditions mandated by Sen. Helms, the State Department and much of the international community.

Economic hard times While right wing circles in the U.S. feared his leftist leanings, Aristide pragmatically accepted pushing forward a series of privatizations as a condition for receiving $2.8 billion in soft loans from the World Bank, IDB, IMF, UN, U.S. as well as a number of European countries. But Aristide and parliament found the stringent conditions set down by the international financial community politically unfeasible, as Haitians proved unwilling to accept the bitter medicine of lay-offs with an unemployment rate already at 60 percent and per capita income barely half what it was twenty years ago-today the average Haitian who holds a job makes under two dollars a day. Pres. Clinton did not help matters when he bowed to Republican pressure and prematurely pulled U.S. troops out of the country in 1995, handing Haiti's law enforcement over to an ineffective and under-trained police fo

Much of the popular resistance to the privatizations required by the World Bank and IMF was the result of the desperate straits Haiti had been put in by the departing military's theft of its national treasury along with past and present IMF-encouraged free market policies, which distorted the country's subsistence economy, transforming it into an imperfect cash economy totally ill-equipped to compete in the global market. For example, the country's once strong rice industry has evaporated amid the failed promises of low tariffs, and is unable to compete with the highly subsidized U.S. product. Haiti can now claim to be the U.S.'s fourth largest importer of rice. Unfortunately for Haitians, Washington's neoliberalist economic model has yet to work out, and a lack of flexibility on the part of lending agency personnel created a series of political and economic dilemmas for Ari

When Préval was elected to succeed Aristide on February 7, 1996, their Lavalas party was fracturing over internal political bickering surrounding the impending free market reforms. After the much disputed parliamentary elections in which six percent of registered voters cast their ballots, and the subsequent resignation of his prime minister, Préval lacked the popular backing to proceed with the sorely needed economic reforms mandated by the IMF and World Bank and insisted on by Washington. Parliament was disbanded in a cloud of controversy in January 1999 at the end of its members' legal terms of office. Since then Préval has ruled by decree, benignly holding off the opposition by repeatedly scheduling and then canceling the elections, while fielding accusations of being Aristide's willing and malleable political puppet. But even if these sundry allegations are true and n

Fair elections doubtful Many observers have accused Préval of deliberately delaying the forthcoming elections, hoping that they could have been made to coincide with presidential balloting in November, supposedly benefiting the Lavalas party, whose candidates could ride the momentum of an almost assured Aristide victory into parliament and municipal offices. The opposition also accused him of resorting to other underhanded tactics, such as attempting to fix the elections through Lavalas loyalists. While UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently praised Haiti's electoral council (CEP) for its voter registration efforts, on May 16, just five days before the election, not a single radio station had informed voters where to vote. The country's daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, included a section purporting to list the appropriate locations, but not only were its instructions vague and incomplete, it cou

Even if the elections were technically conducted fairly, Haitians deserve praise for attending polling stations on Sunday, in light of the widespread fear of a repeat performance of the country's 1987 elections, when soldiers opened fire on voters. In addition to possible pre-election irregularities, a savage campaign of intimidation and political violence was waged, which continued until just before election day. Early last Thursday, five unidentified assailants hurled a grenade at the CEP headquarters, injuring five passer-bys, just one day after the president of that agency delivered a speech on radio urging Haitians to participate in Saturday's elections.

Although most major press reports indicate that opposition party members are the sole targets of the recent political violence, the murder of Jean Dominique, popular radio host and highly regarded Lavalas party member, suggests that the opposition parties are likely just as guilty of corruption and violence. On his show over Radio Haiti, Dominique, who was slain on April 3, revealed a clandestine and potentially unconstitutional agreement that was signed between the CEP and the independent National Council of Observers (CNO). On the surface, the deal was promising, as it eliminated the government's role in election monitoring in an attempt to prevent a plausible fraud scenario. But underneath, Dominique discovered that the alliance gave an enormous amount of unchecked power over the election process to the CNO's director, Leopold Berlanger, who personally orchestrated an al

Anonymous violence ubiquitous as elections draw near Despite the complexity of the situation-which has all but overwhelmed international observers-the prime beneficiaries of electoral fraud, political violence and the consequent continuation of an ineffectual government, are clearly left-over military officers and self-serving elites willing to reap the massive profits from the drug running industry. Although Haiti is one of the world's poorest nations, manifestations of drug money appear throughout the country-grand estates and mansions intermingle with the run-down slums that dominate the country's urban areas. Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, declared that Haiti "is now the major drug transshipment country of the entire Caribbean," surpassing even the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. It now accounts for 14 percent of all cocaine entering the United States.

Deeply linked to the thriving drug trade, Haiti's political violence continues to remain faceless. During Dominique's funeral ceremony, a group of men claiming to be Lavalas party militants approached Préval and Aristide, claiming they would destroy the headquarters of an opposition party unless they were told otherwise. But the two statesmen chose to remain silent. Soon after, the group had set the party's building ablaze as policemen watched without interfering, which has become the leit motif of an ineffective and often corrupt police force that permits unidentified thugs, acting out of political motivation, to wreck and pillage at will. The move in this instance may have benefited Aristide, but was too bereft of logic to be his doing. Acting with anonymity has become the usual face of crime in a country whose leaders are too weak to fulfill their vested responsibilities

Nevertheless, yesterday's election did much to prove that Haiti cannot be easily written off as a country without a future. Like other orphaned nations such as Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia and the Sudan, it does not have a sufficiently spelled out civic society to allow for accountable rule. Its one bright hope was Aristide, whose standing and potential to rule over the years may have been mortally wounded by Washington, which was more concerned with avoiding another Cuba than it was prepared to allow this gifted, but difficult to control leader to serve his people. Even though he undoubtedly will win the presidential elections scheduled for the end of the year, he is not the man that he once was, and Haiti today is a country with much less cohesion and capacity than back in 1990. But Sunday's promising voter turnout demonstrates that the indomitable spirit of the

Research Associates Reed Lindsay and Dan Nemser

Council on Hemispheric Affairs 1444 I St. Suite 211, NW Washington, DC 20005

Phone: (202) 216-9261 Fax: (202) 216-9193 Website: www.coha.org


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