Haiti dances nervously towards bitterly contested presidential election
Carnival begins on 7 February, the same day it is set to swear in a new leader – unless the vote is delayed. But a mood of foreboding dogs Haiti’s murky politics
Michael Deibert in Port-au-Prince
(Read the original article here)
They marched in their thousands to the throb of drums and the incantatory wail of the long bamboo wind instruments Haitians call vaksin. Joyously waving flags and chanting, the multitude surged from the wealthy suburb of Pétionville down the traffic-clogged Route de Frères, where phantasmal swirls of dust were illuminated by the lights of cars and the kerosene flames of women selling patties.
Haiti is days away from a bitterly contested presidential election, but this was no political rally. The crowd was following a rara band, street musicians whose appearance marks the run-up to carnival, which this year begins on 7 February – the same day Haiti is slated to inaugurate a new president.
Just hours later, however, the peaceful revellers were replaced by an angry rock-throwing mob protesting against alleged vote-rigging by President Michel Martelly on behalf of his designated successor Jovenel Moïse, an agribusinessman from the country’s north.
Opposition parties and local observers have also charged that the election’s first round in November was marred by fraud. The leading opposition candidate, Jude Célestin, has said that he will not compete in the second round this Sunday and legitimize a “farce” (which the United States spent $30m supporting).
Late on Wednesday night, Haiti’s senate voted to recommend that Haiti’s electoral body, known as the CEP, should delay the vote, though it was unclear if this will happen.
A sense of dread and foreboding has settled on Haiti’s political elite.
“Between now and 7 February we are on a razor’s edge and anything can happen,” said a former Martelly adviser.
Despite a lower rate of violent crime than many other countries in the region, elections in Haiti are often fraught affairs. In 1987, during the first election after the fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship, voters were massacred by Duvalierist forces. During the 2000 elections that brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide back to power, opposition politicians were killed.
In the 2010 elections in which Martelly triumphed, only mass street protests (and, some charge, international pressure) saw him advance to the second round past Célestin, the former head of the state construction company, after the first round was allegedly rigged by the outgoing president, René Préval.
Since his inauguration in 2011, Martelly, a former singer turned rightwing populist with political links to the Duvalier dynasty, has overseen many carnivals but held no elections. He seemed at times unsure if his place was among competent public officials or shady cronies both within and without the political arena.
Nevertheless, under Martelly, and his former prime minister, the telecoms mogul Laurent Lamothe, Haiti appeared to be inching forward after years of decline. Roads were paved, investment began to return, and an international airport was inaugurated in the country’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien, opening the historical treasures of the north to tourism.
Haiti’s political opposition consists of an assortment of career politicians, ideologically promiscuous opportunists and occasional true believers whose commitment to democracy is questionable.
Along with Célestin – who has long been dogged by dark rumours connected to the 2009 disappearance of a government official – the best-known candidates are a former senator, Moïse Jean-Charles, and Maryse Narcisse, who is seen as a stand-in for Aristide.
“This is not my struggle, but the struggle of the Haitian people,” said Jean-Charles, who has been one of the government’s most vociferous critics. “We will modify our strategy, continuing our mobilisation with strikes, civil disobedience … We need good governance, political and economic stability.”
(One of Jean-Charles’s entourage was more explicit, confiding that Martelly and Jovenel Moïse would be dechouked, a reference to the violence directed at Duvalier’s supporters after the fall of his regime. At protests this week, marchers chanted for the deaths of Martelly and the CEP president, Pierre Louis Opont.)
But many Haitians are not inclined to take to the streets to support either Martelly or his opponents.
“I didn’t vote. Vote for who?” asks Louino Robillard, one of the leaders of Solèy Leve, a collaborative social movement founded in the capital’s Cité Soleil slum. “Look at all of those politicians and all of those rich people and all of those organisations here. What have they done?”
Those who have appeared at political events do little to allay fears for Haitian democracy: one participant in recent opposition rallies is Franco Camille, an Aristide loyalist who was indicted for his alleged role in the 2000 murder of Haiti’s most famous journalist, Jean Dominique.
Martelly’s own orbit consists of men like Woodly “Sonson La Familia” Ethéart, the accused head of an organised crime ring freed under questionable circumstances last year, and Daniel Evinx, a resort owner and suspected drug trafficker who disappeared in early 2014. According to a source familiar with the investigation, police subsequently found a body near the northern town of Anse-Rouge they believed to be that of the missing hotelier, though the discovery was never made public.
Despite all this, the UN and the “Core Group” of international actors in Haiti (Brazil, Canada, France, Spain, the US, the European Union and the Organization of American States) appear convinced the elections should go forward.
“Proceeding with the electoral calendar as provided by the Haitian constitution will avoid going into an extra-constitutional, de-facto government leadership crisis,” Kenneth Merten, the United States’ Haiti special coordinator wrote in an email.
The capital’s restless slums dot Port-au-Prince like a living reproach to the lack of vision of Haiti’s political leaders – and the international community upon whose support they depend.
Martelly’s predecessor Préval launched a disarmament and reintegration programme for the capital’s gangs, but after several years of calm, Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince’s biggest slum, has begun to bleed again. Leaders of armed groups with alleged links to the government such as Gabriel Jean Pierre and Ti Houngan appear to be flexing their muscles, although to portray them as strictly gangsters misses that nearly all such leaders have set up “foundations” to aid their communities, and say they are helping the forgotten.
But armed men are not the only face of Cité Soleil. Louino Robillard’s Solèy Leve initiated a Cité Soleil peace prize to honour and encourage young people trying to make a difference, and community groups like the Sant Kominote Altènatif Ak Lapè work diligently to reduce conflict.
“These children need a real school,” says Christly Jackson, the 50-year-old head of a primary school in Cité Soleil that lacks just about everything but rough wooden benches and a blackboard. “And when they become adults, they don’t have jobs and our hunger continues.”
In the capital’s southern hills, the districts of Grand Ravine and Ti Bois are now at peace. A gang war raged between the neighborhoods a decade ago, but the communities, aided by the Irish NGO Concern and the local group Lakou Lapè, have worked to make peaceful coexistence durable.
That does not mean the prospect of violence has disappeared. At the entrance to Grand Ravine, visitors are met by a gang leader nicknamed – like the president – Tèt Kale and about a dozen men with pistols in their waistbands who keep a close eye on visitors.
Up the hill from the improvised checkpoint, in a spotless office, members of a local community self-help group called Plasmagra meet.
“We have been able to put peace in this community, and would like to continue with its development,” says 32-year-old Nicolson Joachim. As he speaks, children play football in the street and a young artist daubs Caribbean beach scenes on to canvases in hopes of selling them later.
Despite the apparent calm, some observers fear that the government and the opposition are playing with fire.
“What the government, the opposition and the international community don’t know is that right now those guys in the slums are thinking they’re always the victims, and if something happens they will be victims again,” says Mario Andrésol, a former chief of Haiti’s national police and presidential candidate. “But they are not just going to stay and die in Cité Soleil and those other areas forever. That’s what the oligarchy also has to understand. Today we’re in a situation that could explode at any time.”
Minustah, the UN stabilisation mission, is drawing down after a dozen years in Haiti, leaving the country much as it found it, amid a government crisis of legitimacy, with a politicised police and a recalcitrant political opposition, and with the added gift of cholera, which UN soldiers introduced in 2010.
Despite the role Haitians have played in their country’s ongoing political trench warfare, many feel this particular crisis has the international community’s fingerprints all over it. Writing in Haiti’s Le Nouvelliste this past week, the author Lyonel Trouillot asked those abroad: “Do you know what they are doing here in your name?”