Squeeze and Vote

Haiti prepares for its first elections in three years

by Catherine Orenstein

In These Times magazine, April 2000


Port-Au-Prince, Haiti-In March, Haitians are expected to go to the polls for their first vote in three years, ever since a parliamentary dispute over elections in April 1997 led to the prime minister's resignation and, ultimately, to the dissolution of the entire legislature in January 1999. Since then, President Rene Garcia Preval and eight remaining senators have been Haiti's only elected officials. The upcoming vote, currently scheduled for March 19 with a possible run-off in April, will determine nearly every elected post in the nation.

The United States has heavily promoted the elections, designating more than $12 million for Haiti's electoral process. In addition to paying for training, ballots and other materials, the United States also has channeled $3.5 million into a consultant group, the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES), upon whose recommendations Haitians are, for the first time ever, obtaining picture identification cards as part of voter registration.

Over the past decade, Haitian voter participation has been steadily and dramatically sinking-from 85 percent in the 1990 presidential election to less than half that figure in 1995, to a mere 5 percent in Haiti's last parliamentary poll in 1997. This is the unsurprising result of a system that denied voters their choice of government.

In 1990, Haiti held its first free and fair elections. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then a parish priest, ran for president advocating social justice. His platform included raising the minimum wage, strengthening national industries and taxing the wealthy, who traditionally had escaped this duty. Aristide won more than two-thirds of the Haitian vote, but he was never able to implement his program as president. His policies alarmed Haiti's powerful, and he was overthrown in an elite-backed military coup after only seven months in office.

When Aristide was returned to power in 1994, on the heels of a U.S. invasion, his social program was severely curbed. In addition to granting amnesty to Haiti's generals, he agreed to choose a prime minister from the business class. As criteria for his return, and for continuing foreign aid from the United States and other international lenders, he also agreed to a series of economic reforms, including reducing tariffs, civil service downsizing and the privatization of Haiti's state-run industries. The result was not far from the proposals of his U.S.-backed rival for the presidency in 1990, a former World Bank official named Marc Bazin-who received only 14 percent of the Haitian vote. To Haiti's poor majority, these neoliberal economic reforms-part and parcel of the restored government-are viewed as predatorial. Peasants call them peze souse-literally "squeeze and suck."

Rising poverty, near total impunity and the three-year governmental impasse have further eroded Haitians' faith in electoral democracy. Last May, the Haitian Chamber of Commerce held a demonstration for "peace and democracy"-only to be pelted by protesters with plastic bottles filled with urine.

Despite widespread outrage, Haitians have shown up at registration offices in surprising numbers. Haiti's electoral commission announced in late February that 2.8 million people, nearly two thirds of Haiti's eligible voters, have registered to vote. This probably reflects the fact that the ID cards will also allow them to vote in presidential elections currently scheduled for December-in which Aristide is the front-runner.

According to Pierre Esperance of the National Coalition for Haitian Rights in Port-au-Prince, some are also registering in outrage at the quantity of rightist candidates: The 1987 Haitian Constitution, written after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship, forbade prominent Duvalierists from holding office for more than 10 years. "But many of these people, responsible for a range of crimes, are now running for office," Esperance says.

Yet even if the high turnout suggests a renewal of faith in electoral democracy, the numbers also mask how Haiti's poor majority continues to be excluded from the electoral process. There are 3,500 voter registration offices throughout the country. But many offices opened late in the registration process, or not at all. In Port-au-Prince, says IFES' Micheline Begin, "you could see offices opening for one day, or two days, then closing; or opening for only one or two hours-as a result, in ° some areas we have , only registered 30 percent of the electorate."

The problem is particularly acute in poorer areas. In Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince's largest slum, only a handful of functioning offices have opened for a population of 200,000. According to Begin, 19 offices were originally established for the area, although Haitian newspapers reported only seven in operation.

By contrast, in the wealthy and much more sparsely populated suburb of Petionville, there are 23 offices. Almost since the beginning of the process, Haiti's poor have been protesting these inequities. In the capital, demonstrators have repeatedly blocked the national highway with burning tires.

With all the registration problems, it seems probable that the elections, which have been repeatedly postponed, will be delayed again. Whether Haitians will actually turn up at the poll when it actually happens remains to be seen. One elderly man from the working-class neighborhood of Bel Air says he hasn't voted in almost half a century. When asked what he thought about the American soldiers that left in January-the last permanent soldiers of a mission that began five years ago, when 20,000 troops invaded to end Haiti's military regime-he shrugs. "The Americans occupy us morally," he says. "Whatever they say to do, we do."

Home Page