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Waiting for democracy in Haiti

October 13, 2005|Kathie Klarreich | KATHIE KLARREICH, who has written about Haiti for nearly 20 years, is the author of "Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti," just published by Nation Books.

THE ONLY DATE that is certain in Haiti's electoral calendar is Feb. 7, 2006. As mandated by the country's constitution, a new president will be sworn in on that day, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship.

The path leading up to the hasty, late-night departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986 was one of chaos and turmoil, as is the road leading to this year's elections: So far, more than 800 people have died in political violence over the last 12 months.

But the difference is this: After the departure of Duvalier, the country was awash with newly created grass-roots groups supporting programs geared toward the birth of a democratic, liberated and educated society. There were literacy programs, women's rights groups, labor unions and new radio stations that peppered all corners of the tiny island nation. Despite the fact that an army general took immediate control of the country, there was unprecedented optimism that Haiti could pull itself out of the quagmire of political and social mayhem and transform itself into a state providing services for everyone, not just the wealthy few.

Since then, however, there have been several democratic elections, but democracy has yet to come. The hope that attended Duvalier's fall has all but washed away with the topsoil. Coup d'etats, inadequate, incompetent leadership and corruption have depleted the population. For most, the upcoming elections -- designed to replace the interim government in power since last year -- are just another round of musical chairs in the National Palace. (Last week, the elections were postponed for the third time, to mid-December.)

After the fall of Duvalier, it was the collective force of the peasants in the countryside, the poor in the slums, the disadvantaged and the underprivileged who found a champion in the spitfire speeches of a rebel Catholic priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and propelled him to victory as president in Haiti's first democratic election, in 1990.

But Aristide has since been forced from power himself (twice), bequeathing a legacy of controversy, unmet expectations and all kinds of (mostly unproven) accusations. And many of the organizations that had rallied to him no longer exist. Unions have fallen apart, and literacy programs have dried up. The military, the police and other armed forces have targeted peasant organizations; grass-roots groups have melted under pressure. The number of poor has increased.

Few of the disenfranchised have united behind a candidate -- but not because there is a lack of candidates to choose from. Besides the hundreds of local and legislative candidates, there are at least 34 presidential hopefuls, including former President Rene Preval, a onetime Aristide ally who was democratically elected in 1995; former Prime Minister Marc Louis Bazin, an ex-World Bank official who served under a military junta in the early 1990s, and former President Leslie Manigat, who came to office in rigged elections in 1988. Also running is former rebel leader Guy Philippe and wealthy businessman Charles Henri Baker -- the front-runner, according to a recent poll.

One of the most popular candidates, former Catholic priest Gerard Jean-Juste, was unable to register because he has been arrested. Amnesty International has called him a "prisoner of conscience."

The official period for campaigning has just begun, but historically, candidates' travels primarily take them to places that are easily accessible, not to the tiny towns where 80% of the population lives. Now there's a new twist -- the more savvy candidates are courting expatriates in South Florida, where they hope to capture money, influence and -- ultimately -- votes. The tri-county area of South Florida -- Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach -- has one of the largest and fastest-growing Haitian communities in the U.S., an increasing number of Creole radio and TV programs and a host of elected Haitian American officials. Hoping to tap into the resources in Florida (Haitians send home more than $1 billion a year in remittances from abroad), candidates have met with Haitian Americans in informal settings and fundraisers.

So far, Haiti's nine-member Provisional Electoral Council has stumbled miserably in achieving the most perfunctory prerequisites necessary for free and fair elections. After two decades, it's time to institutionalize the electoral council and certify qualified and knowledgeable members. It's time to spread the real seeds of democracy and give grass-roots groups a chance to build a permanent power base. And those candidates with the resources to campaign in the U.S. might be better off redirecting their attention to a five-year plan that will touch the lives of those in the country's rural areas rather than those who can bankroll them from abroad.

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