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Politics at the point of a pistol in Haiti

November 29, 2005|Mark L. Schneider | MARK L. SCHNEIDER is senior vice president of the International Crisis Group.

BEFORE THEY WOULD take me out to watch people registering to vote in Haiti's largest shantytown, my United Nations escorts insisted that I put on a bulletproof vest and helmet and climb into an armored personnel carrier. As we rumbled through the pothole-filled streets of Cite Soleil, I thought all the security seemed a little melodramatic.

"Do we really need this?" I asked the Brazilian peacekeepers who were taking me around. I had traveled through the same poverty-stricken neighborhoods a dozen years earlier without any thought of armed escorts. "Only if you don't want to be kidnapped," was the response.

With an average of two kidnappings a day, they said, it was not safe to travel unprotected. A few minutes later, the staccato sounds of gunfire brought home the reality that too many people in Haiti still use guns to settle political disputes.

Haiti is on the verge of holding its first elections since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced to flee into African exile in 2004. But the country is not ready. After putting the elections off twice, the transitional prime minister, Gerard Latortue, recently announced that the first round of presidential and parliamentary elections would be held two days after Christmas, and the second round a month later so that a new government could take office on Feb. 7, as required by Haiti's Constitution.

But the new schedule had not even been confirmed by the provisional elections council before a new date of Jan. 8 was announced.

Why are the elections being repeatedly delayed? The problems begin with all the guns in circulation and with the clear threat to candidates who may campaign in the wrong towns or neighborhoods. In many rural areas, ex-members of Haiti's dissolved military and other rebels who helped force Aristide out remain forces of intimidation. In the urban areas, the gangs that backed Aristide are at least as much of the problem.

After Aristide fled, the U.N. authorized a largely U.S., French and Canadian multinational force to restore order, which quickly ended any rebel ideas of marching into Port-au-Prince to take power. Unfortunately, the multinational force turned over security to U.N. peacekeepers without having disarmed or demobilized any of those groups.

That initial failure has been at the core of the inability to end the violence from political and organized criminal elements over the last 18 months. Only two weeks ago in Cite Militaire, another Port-au-Prince neighborhood, the U.N. peacekeeping force found itself in an eight-hour gun battle before it subdued assailants. Until the U.N. uses every inch of its Security Council mandate -- acting aggressively to demobilize the gangs and to clean out killers within the Haitian National Police -- politics in Haiti will be severely hindered. And whatever government takes office next will have less chance to succeed.

When I saw U.N. peacekeepers deployed around the headquarters of the newly appointed police chief, Mario Andresol, and was told that he could not be sure of the loyalty of his own officers, it was clear that security for the average Haitian remains a distant goal.

But security is only one of the critical pieces that must be in place before elections can go forward. Haiti's election committee and the government barely managed to agree on the qualified presidential candidates two weeks ago. Haiti's voters need time to learn who the candidates are and what they stand for. Right now, not many voters know where they will vote, much less who they will vote for. The 809 voting centers have only just been identified, and most of the 40,000 election workers still need to be hired and trained.

When they do vote, the 3.5 million Haitians who have registered may not have the computerized identity cards they were promised because of the election committee's tardy actions and because of delays in production and delivery in a country where roads are often not maintained or are nonexistent. Without cards, voters can only hope they are not hassled at the voting booth.

For the election to be credible -- and many of Haiti's elections have not been -- independent, neutral international observers are essential. The U.S., the European Union, Japan and Canada -- which are funding the election -- should be urging the transitional government to put off the first round until late January, the second round until late February (including local elections) and the inauguration of a new president and parliament to early March. At least give Haiti a decent chance for a credible election.

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