PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — After almost two centuries of mostly despotic dictatorship and two dismal recent attempts at free elections, Haiti has ventured another shot at popular democracy, running the first election campaign in an independent member state ever to be officially observed and, hopefully, verified by the United Nations.
If the U.N. presence encourages politicians to campaign fairly, and gives Haitians enough confidence to actually go to the polls, the combined national and local elections on Dec. 16 may be a watershed in the history of the impoverished, violence-prone country.
It could be a watershed, too, for the international organization whose past election experience has been confined to helping former colonies become independent and keeping warring populations from one another's throats.
More than 50 U.N. technical advisers, election observers and unarmed military security specialists are in place after the unanimous U.N. General Assembly approval on Oct. 10 of Haiti's controversial request for help in reassuring voters that it will be safe to cast their votes.
By election day, there will be about 400 U.N. observers and 65 unarmed U.N. military specialists, the latter keeping an eye on Haiti's undisciplined armed forces to verify that they are doing their job to maintain peace throughout the election campaign. Along with 200 or more observers from the Organization of American States and scores from various other governmental and private groups, there should be about 1,000 observers by election day, according to Jean Casimir, secretary general of Haiti's independent Electoral Council, which is supervising election preparations.
According to the career international civil servant who will direct it, this unprecedented U.N. interjection in the political life of a sovereign member state--Haiti was one of the founders of the United Nations--may represent a fresh beginning for the organization that has been looking for new roles since the end of the Cold War.
"It appears to us to be very important because we see more and more countries that are coming apart, and the only way out is to have legitimate elections," said Reinhart W. A. Helmke, the soft-spoken but energetic chief of the U.N. Development Program here and head of the newly formed U.N. Observer Group for the Verification of Elections in Haiti (UNOVEH). "This could become a new international model."
But to Cuba, Colombia and China, which initially resisted the U.N. move, as well as to other countries where the principle of noninterference reigns supreme, the prospect of the international body injecting itself into the electoral affairs of an independent country in anything other than an international peacekeeping role was frightening precisely because it could become a model. It was only after four months of wrangling and diplomatic maneuvering that their objections were overcome by strong assurances from the United States and other major powers that Haiti is a unique case.
Like other countries that only reluctantly went along with the General Assembly resolution approving UNOVEH, Cuba conditioned its approval by stating that it wanted to "make it quite clear that we entirely reject any future attempt to make use of this resolution or this United Nations activity in order to seek to interfere in the internal affairs of that fraternal country."
But while Haiti may be unique, its present desperate straits may not be too dissimilar from troubles that could face other countries, according to Helmke. "Here is Haiti, where all national institutions are falling apart and with desperate social, political and economic problems. It's clear there is no other solution than credible elections," he said, explaining the country's unprecedented call for direct U.N. help in verifying the elections.
"Now, we have to prove that the concept we designed can work in Haiti's complex situation. If it can work under these very complex circumstances, it may become an example of new ways to help countries in desperate internal situations."
Few countries have had more trouble making the transition to democracy than this one, independent since its slave population ejected their French masters in 1804 but doomed to live under one tyrannical regime after another until then-President-for-Life Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier fled on Feb. 7, 1986. When the Duvalier dynasty collapsed, a succession of army-dominated governments held sway. All promised free elections while simultaneously squelching political activity and human rights.