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It's a New Day for Haiti, If U.S. Would Accept It

June 04, 2000|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier."

NEW YORK — Elections in Haiti have traditionally been corrupt, and the walk-ups to them, as well as election day itself, have often been violent. Few people who were there, for example, can forget the first time post-Duvalier Haiti tried to hold elections, in November 1987. On election day, bands of hooligans stormed into a polling place at a school on the Ruelle Vaillant in Port-au-Prince and killed a score of people waiting in line to mark their ballots. The elections were called off. It was a day of death and national mourning.

But times have changed. Two weeks ago, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas Family party swept to victory in municipal and legislative elections that, while marred by sundry irregularities--some of them not negligible--were deemed credible by more than 200 international electoral observers of the Organization of American States who monitored the vote.

For months before the elections, opposition leaders in Haiti cried foul: It's their favorite thing to do, and the one thing they do well. They alleged that Aristide's supporters and Lavalas were using violence to try to put off scheduled municipal and legislative elections as long as possible, hoping to postpone the vote until the end of this year, when presidential elections are also slated to take place. The reason the opposition gave for Lavalas' alleged stalling? It claimed Aristide was afraid the opposition would win the early elections and that a legislature run by his opponents would effectively paralyze a future Aristide administration. Whereas a vote taken during the presidential election would bring in a Lavalas legislature on Aristide's presumably capacious coattails.

But the opposition's analysis was wrong, partly because it was not an analysis, it was propaganda.

With Lavalas poised on the rumble of a landslide, the opposition took up the cry of fraud and has now formally demanded the election be annulled. Reflecting the vacuum of ideas and policies in which the opposition has been festering for years, the head of the Espace de Concertation (Common Ground), a coalition of five parties, called the election "a disaster" and said the vote puts Haiti in "a new crisis."

Poor opposition. First, they claim Aristide doesn't want to play the game because he can't win. Then, when he plays and wins, they pick up their marbles and say it wasn't fair. But they can't have it both ways.

Or can they? It is unfortunately true that almost from the moment the U.S. government reluctantly reinstalled Aristide to power in Haiti in 1994, three years after a military coup sent him into exile, Washington has been trying to figure out how to rid itself of this troublesome priest.

During the almost five years since Aristide's term as president ended, the U.S. Embassy and the office of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Port-au-Prince, which have been at the root of so many of the enduring problems Haiti suffers, encouraged unpopular opposition leaders; funded slapped-together political parties with no electoral constituencies; and helped to destroy any possible consensus in the Parliament, which after a year and a half of embarrassing contentiousness and paralysis was effectively dissolved (extraconstitutionally) by President Rene Preval in January 1999.

With backers like the Embassy, the opposition is dangerous and destructive, which it would not be if it were a real adversary of Aristide's--and if it would confront him openly on the desperate economic and policy crises Haiti faces.

This is not to say there are not worthy and decent men and women leading the Haitian opposition. There definitely are--many of them. But their mission--which, for the moment, should be to put honest and public checks on the Lavalas juggernaut, to protect the interests of whatever Haitians support them and to add their voices and ideas to a serious national debate--has been hijacked by the U.S.

The opposition attacks made on Aristide in the days leading up to the May 21 election were an echo of the allegations and disinformation, sometimes word for word, used against him back in 1990, in the run-up to Haiti's first successful free and fair election, which put Aristide in the presidential palace. Because much of that stuff came from Embassy sources (which based their "facts," in part, on hearsay from the Haitian elite), it's only logical to assume the current attacks on Aristide come from the same place. The U.S. just can't wrap its mind around Aristide, no matter how democratically he may be elected: They remember him vividly from the days before his presidency as a left-leaning, anti-U.S. nationalist.

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