Squeeze and Vote
Haiti prepares for its first elections in three
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,