Voting for hope


Voting for hope Elections in Haiti

Peter hallward

Late in the night of 29 February 2004, after weeks of confusion and uncertainty, the enemies of Haitiʼs president Jean-Bertrand Aristide forced him into exile for the second time. There was plenty of ground for confusion. Although twice elected with landslide majorities, by 2004 Aristide was routinely identified as an enemy of democracy. Although political violence declined dramatically during his years in office, he was just as regularly condemned as an enemy of human rights. Although he was prepared to make far-reaching compromises with his opponents, he was attacked as intolerant of dissent. Although still immensely popular among the poor, he was derided as aloof and corrupt. And although his enemies presented themselves as the friends of democracy, pluralism and civil society, the only way they could get rid of their nemesis was through foreign intervention and military force.

Four times postponed, the election of Aristideʼs successor finally took place a few months ago, in February 2006. These elections were supposed to clear up the confusion of 2004 once and for all. With Aristide safely out of the picture, they were supposed to show how his violent and illegal expulsion had actually been a victory for democracy.

With his Fanmi Lavalas party broken and divided, they were intended to give the true friends of pluralism and civil society that democratic mandate they had so long been denied. Haitiʼs career politicians, confined to the margins since Aristideʼs first election back in 1990, were finally to be given a chance to inherit their rightful place.

What actually happened in February seems to have taken these politicians and their international backers by surprise. This is itself surprising, since both the conduct and the outcome of these elections were squarely in line with all three of the most salient features of Haitian politics in recent years.


The first and most obvious feature is that ever since 1990, presidential elections in Haiti have been won either by Aristide or by the person Aristide chose as his first prime minister, René Préval – a man who, though far from a mere acolyte, is still widely and fondly known as the marassa or twin brother of Aristide. Aristide won 67 per cent of the vote in 1990. Préval won 89 per cent of the vote in 1995. After his Fanmi Lavalas party swept the legislative elections in both houses of parliament in May 2000, Aristide was re-elected with 92 per cent of the votes cast in the presidential election of November 2000. And in February 2006?

After a limited, last-minute campaign in a crowded field, Préval won another outright majority. The official count gave him 51 per cent, though most credible observers estimate that his actual tally was more like 60 per cent. His closest rivals, the academic Leslie Manigat (a prominent member of the elite Democratic Convergence that led the campaign against Aristide in 2001–03) and Charles Baker (a maverick white business-man with powerful international connections) won 12 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. Guy Philippe, the US-trained leader of the disbanded soldiers whose uprising eventually toppled Aristide, also stood as a candidate. Along with Jodel Chamblain,

Jean Tatoune and other convicted killers, in March 2004 he was hailed as a hero and a ʻfreedom fighterʼ by the man the USA chose to run Haitiʼs post-Aristide government,

Gérard Latortue. In February 2006, Philippe won less than 2 per cent of the vote.

It is not hard to figure out why Aristide and Préval are so much more popular than their rivals. In the eyes of most people, they continue to represent the aspirations of the extraordinary mobilization that first brought democracy to Haiti in the late 1980s, the mobilization that Aristide dubbed the Lavalas, or flood. As the American activist and doctor Paul Farmer explained in 2005: ʻeverybody knows that Aristide was bad.

Everybody, that is, except the Haitian poor – who are 85 per cent of the population.ʼ

Although support for Lavalas appears to have subsided somewhat among the peasantry over the last few years, so far as I could tell when I visited the poorer neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince over several weeks in April 2006, enthusiasm there for Aristide and for the Lavalas project more generally remains undiminished. I met with community leaders and interviewed dozens of people at random. Virtually all of them said they continued to support Aristide or his party, and most told me they supported him less on account of what he managed to achieve than because of what he symbolized and said.

Despite massive cuts in international support, Préval and Aristide built more secondary schools than in the whole previous history of Haiti. They opened thousands of literacy centres and with Cuban assistance established or renewed hundreds of health clinics. They invested in transport and infrastructure. In the oppressively crowded neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, they created dozens of new public squares. But more important than any of this, in the eyes of their supporters, is the simple fact that they spoke to and for the poor majority. They know that Aristide made mistakes, that he was too reluctant to crack down on reactionary dissent and too tolerant of the opportunists who forced their way into his entourage. But no other politician ever had anything remotely like his rapport with both the urban and the rural poor. Aristide was the first politician regularly to speak in Kreyol, to mix with people from the quartiers populaires, to recognize their religion and their values, to affirm them as genuinely political actors. He was the only significant politician of his time to address the reality of class struggle, inequality and injustice in terms that made concrete sense to those who suffer their effects.

The peopleʼs investment in Aristide and his legacy remains the single most decisive and divisive element of Haitian politics. Ask someone in Haiti how they interpret this investment and you are likely to get a good sense of where they stand. Aristideʼs opponents, including left-leaning members of the intelligentsia who also oppose the USA, the IMF and the status quo, frame their interpretation in terms of delusion and betrayal:

a manipulative and self-serving demagogue, Aristide wasnʼt worthy of the peopleʼs trust. He did not focus on institutions and procedures. He was more of a priest than an administrator. He made too many compromises with the USA. If you confront people in places like Cité Soleil or Bel-Air with this sort of objection, they tend to smile or shrug. Aristide helped us to organize ourselves, they say. Of course his own freedom of movement was limited, but he helped us to constitute ourselves as active participants in national politics, to gain the measure of our strength. Aristide loyalists cannot easily be portrayed as the dupes of a populist manoeuvre. Their investment is independent of its object, and it remains as resilient as ever. Again and again, they told me that they believed in Aristide less as a leader than as their spokesman.

The same goes for the popular investment in militant local leaders – veteran advocates like Father Gérard Jean-Juste, or younger activists like Samba Boukman,

Moïse Jean-Charles, Amaral Duclona, William Baptiste, who continue, often at the risk of their lives, forcefully to articulate Lavalas demands. People like Duclona or Jean-Charles are the only political activists in Haiti today who can organize disciplined and massive political demonstrations, if need be at a momentʼs notice. At one point during the 2006 presidential campaign, for instance, the leading elite candidate Leslie Manigat advertised a major rally in the historically charged town of Vertières (site of the last major battle in Haitiʼs war for independence from France). According to JeanCharles, the event was promoted in the press and on national radio for over a week, but only a tiny handful of supporters showed up. In order to demonstrate the real balance of forces, Jean-Charles and other Lavalas activists in the north of the country made a single fifteen-minute pitch on local radio, calling a counter-demonstration for the following day. It was attended by tens of thousands of people.

Wherever they stand on the political spectrum, most ʻwell-educatedʼ critics of Aristide and Lavalas share similar values and priorities, and suffer from similar limitations. Their lack of popular appeal, their reluctance to work in the neighbourhoods where most people live, their contempt for what they call ʻpopulismʼ, deprives them of any significant political strength. The left-leaning critics of Aristide and Lavalas who work for media-friendly groups like PAPDA or Batay Ouvriye are now regularly cited as ʻalternativeʼ voices in the international press, but when they hold a sit-in or demonstration in Haitiʼs capital, no more than fifty to a hundred people are likely to attend.

For now and for the foreseeable future, no one will win an election in Haiti if they do not enjoy grassroots Lavalas support.

The elite: democracy reversed

The second and equally obvious feature of contemporary Haitian politics stands in acute contradiction with the first. If Lavalas remains the decisive electoral force, all significant social and economic power is still securely concentrated in Haitiʼs tiny ruling class. No other country in the western hemisphere is structured along such dramatically polarized lines. One per cent of Haitiʼs population controls around half of its wealth. While the great majority of the people subsist on one or two dollars a day, a tiny clique of wealthy and well-connected families continues to dominate the economy, the media, the universities and professions, along with what remains of the state. They alone dispose of the countryʼs disposable income. They speak French and sometimes English, in a country where the vast majority speak only Kreyol. They have university degrees, in a country where most children have little chance of getting to secondary school. They travel and often live abroad, in a country where most can move only as far as they can walk. They have far more in common with their corporate, diplomatic or intellectual colleagues in France and North America than they do with their compatriots in the countryside or the poorer neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince. These are the people who interact with the UN and with foreign embassies, who are hired by and who profit from the chaotic and growing profusion of national and international NGOs that now provide around 80 per cent of Haitiʼs basic services.

The richest and most powerful among them – Brandt, Boulos, Apaid – maintain a monopolistic grip on industrial production and international trade. They are probably the only people to have profited from the US-imposed structural adjustment plans that have afflicted the country since the 1980s. The more Haitiʼs economy has slid from an impoverished self-sufficiency towards outright destitution and dependency, the richer and more powerful these magnates have become. Subsidized American imports now undercut domestic production, driving thousands of peasant families to abandon their farms for the squalor of slums like Cité Soleil and Carrefour.

Take the case of rice, the staple food for most of the population. In the 1980s Haitians grew almost all the rice they consumed. Today, American rice currently trades at 75 per cent of the price of local rice, and over the past twenty years Haitian rice imports from the USA rose from just 7,000 tons to more than 220,000 tons (out of a total market of around 350,000 tons). If you visit a market in Haiti, the first thing traders will tell you is that the prices of rice and other foodstuffs have quadrupled over the last few years, as the Brandts and other importers began to capitalize on this collapse in local supplies.

Combine our first and second features and the third follows predictably enough.

Since 1990, perhaps nothing has served to consolidate the ruling elite more than their paranoid and vitriolic hatred of Aristide and Lavalas. If Haitiʼs class structure is to be preserved, it is essential that whatever gains the popular movement might make through the ballot box be reversed in some other way – either by direct military action or through the more respectable but equally malleable channels of ʻcivil societyʼ. In the early 1990s, in a hemispheric context still marked by the defeat of the Sandinistas and the final skirmishes of the cold war, the military alternative remained a viable option.

The army duly sent Aristide into exile in September 1991, and over the next three years killed some four to five thousand of his supporters. But Aristide deprived the elite of its traditional mechanism for protecting the status quo when he disbanded this same army in 1995. When he won his second and still more resounding victory in 2000, consequently, it fell first and foremost to the leaders of civil society to discredit his government by any means necessary. A ʻCivil Society Initiativeʼ was cobbled together in late 2000 for precisely this purpose, followed in quick succession by the ʻDemocratic Convergenceʼ, the ʻHaiti Democracy Projectʼ and the ʻGroup of 184ʼ. Financed and led by Boulos, Apaid and other private-sector magnates, in direct and generous cooperation with USAID and the International Republican Institute (together with their counterparts in Canada and France), none of these comically ineffectual vehicles for the ʻdemocratic oppositionʼ ever stood the remotest chance of defeating Lavalas in an election. A combination of direct destabilization, economic aggression and paramilitary subversion was the only workable strategy.

As soon as the extent of the Fanmi Lavalas victory of 2000 became clear, Aristideʼs frustrated opponents condemned the elections on account of a minor technicality, concerning the method used in several Senate contests to calculate the number of ballots needed to win a seat in one rather than two rounds of voting. Although Lavalas candidates would certainly have won most of the contested seats no matter what counting method was used, the allegation of ʻtainted electionsʼ was used by the USA to justify an immediate and non-negotiable aid embargo, and became the most frequently cited (and most infrequently explained) criticism of the FL administration in the international press. The US aid embargo instantly stripped Aristideʼs government of around half its revenue, with predictable consequences; the US refused to lift it even when, in July 2001, Aristede forced the winners of the contested sensate seats to resign. A US arms embargo further deprived the Haitian National Police of the means of defending itself and the population against increasingly murderous attacks launched by disgruntled exsoldiers – ex-soldiers who later, in 2005, were publicly to admit the full extent of their close cooperation with the leaders of the Convergence and Group of 184.

Meanwhile, groups like Human Rights Watch and the blatantly partisan NCHR deprived the government of much of its moral legitimacy, by portraying Aristide as a latter-day Duvalier surrounded by lawless gangs of ʻbanditsʼ or chimères. To make such a portrayal convincing was no easy task, since during Aristideʼs second administration, reports from these same human rights groups suggest that perhaps twenty or thirty individuals may have been killed by people with some (often tenuous) connection to the FL – a number difficult to compare with the tens of thousands killed by the Duvaliers, to say nothing of the additional four or five thousand killed during Aristideʼs exile in 1991–94.

The interim government led by Latortue and imposed on Haiti by the USA after the second coup in 2004 immediately took up where the perpetrators of that first coup left off. Some of the most notoriously violent authors of the 1991–94 violence were set free on the very day of Aristedesʼs expulsion. In the spring and summer of 2005, in a perversion of justice spectacular even by Haitian standards, Jodel Chamblain and his death squad colleagues were retrospectively exonerated of all charges. Conservative estimates of the number of Lavalas sympathizers killed over the last two years stand at two to three thousand; many more were forced into hiding or exile. Latortueʼs government has done nothing to prosecute those responsible for the most gruesome killings, including the drowning of scores of victims in Cap Haïtien soon after the coup in 2004, the public execution under police supervision of at least twenty people at a football match in Martissant in August 2005, or the repeated slaughter, condoned (and more often conducted) by the police and UN troops, of hundreds of so-called Lavalas ʻbanditsʼ in neighbourhoods like Village de Dieu, Bel-Air and Cité Soleil. Instead, the police have packed the national penitentiary in Port-au-Prince with Lavalas sympathizers and residents of the pro-Lavalas slums. Built to house around 500 prisoners, the squalid penitentiary now holds more than four times that number. Of the 2,115 people imprisoned there as of mid-April 2006, only 81 had been convicted of a crime. The list of overtly political prisoners still includes Aristideʼs final prime minister Yvon Neptune and his interior minister Jocelyn Privert, among many others. After being held for more than a year without charge, both are accused, without any semblance of proof, of indirect participation in a deliberate ʻmassacreʼ at La Scierie in mid-February 2004 that no one apart from the head of NCHR believes ever took place.

The international community could not bring itself to send soldiers to defend Haitiʼs last elected government from paramilitary assault. The job of killing and intimidating Aristideʼs supporters in the slums, by contrast, has been zealously undertaken by some 7,000 heavily armed UN troops, who to this day go to great lengths to treat parts of Haitiʼs capital like a war zone. Meanwhile, although this same international community went along with USAIDʼs Sharon Bean when she told journalists in 2002 that Aristideʼs inappropriately elected government would ʻnever receive a penny of foreign aidʼ,

Latortueʼs unelected government was treated rather more generously. $1.2 billion was pledged at a donorsʼ conference in July 2004, and early in 2005 the World Bank and IDP finally released millions of dollars promised in long-delayed loans. No doubt there is now more money available in the private sector too, since soon after taking office in 2004 Latortue suspended income tax payments for the next three years — thereby reversing a policy of Aristideʼs that had proved especially unpopular among the small minority of Haitians who have any income to be taxed. You would be hard pressed, however, to find much sign of this new money in Port-au-Prince or the countryside, apart from the temporary appointment of lavishly equipped and mostly foreign UN and NGO staff whose presence does little more than drive up rents and prices in the capital.

Critics of the Lavalas administration are no doubt entitled to claim that it did not do enough to benefit the poor. But the contrast is startling between what the defenceless and cash-starved FL government managed to accomplish – significant advances in health and education, investment in public spaces and social housing, the creation of thousands of new jobs for residents of the poorest neighbourhoods, the doubling of a grossly inadequate minimum wage – and the absence of any pretence of social investment under Latortueʼs incomparably better armed and better funded government.


Given all this, what was supposed to happen in February 2006 is clear enough. There should have been a smooth transition from the Latortue government to a similarly minded administration run by a tried and tested veteran of the Democratic Convergence like Professor Leslie Manigat. Aristide supporters were to be barricaded into a few forgotten slums. Fanmi Lavalas was either to be excluded from the process altogether or ʻintegratedʼ into the system like a more conventional political party. As it turned out, this last expectation was indeed partly, though only temporarily, fulfilled.

At a party conference in August 2005, the FL decided that it would only participate in the elections if it could run Aristideʼs close associate Father Gérard Jean-Juste as its new presidential candidate. Latortueʼs government imprisoned Jean-Juste on an absurdly implausible charge, thereby blocking his candidacy. Frustrated, the FL leadership then split into two camps. A couple of former senators were somehow persuaded to adopt Aristideʼs old opponent Marc Bazin as their candidate. Two other formerly influential figures in the party decided to present themselves as candidates in their own right.

The rest of the leadership, including all those who enjoy genuine grassroots support, decided that the party should boycott the election unless Latortue agreed to free the political prisoners and allow FL exiles to return. At the same time, however, these same leaders – including Jean-Joseph Joel, Moïse Jean-Charles, René Montplaisir, as well as Jean-Juste himself – joined progressive peasant groups in pressing René Préval (who relied on but never officially joined the FL itself) to make a last-minute candidacy. In the space of a few short weeks, Prévalʼs supporters cobbled together an ad hoc political coalition they dubbed Lespwa, or ʻhopeʼ. This way, the FL party could officially abstain from the election, while encouraging individual members to vote for the marassa dʼAristide. Much to the horror of the traditional elite, the stratagem worked like a charm. Grassroots FL activists threw their full organizational power behind Prévalʼs campaign, while the hapless Bazin went on to win just 1 per cent of the vote.

The interim government then did everything it could to avoid the inevitable.

Whereas Prévalʼs own government had provided over 10,000 voter-registration centres for the elections in 2000, Latortue set up less than 500, in sites carefully chosen to disadvantage pro-Lavalas neighbourhoods. In 2000, some 12,000 polling stations were distributed all across the country; in 2006, a much smaller number were concentrated in just 800 voting centres, again situated in such a way as to marginalize voters in politically active and well-organized places like Cité Soleil, most of whom would have to walk and queue for the entire day to cast their vote on 7 February. By 9 February, with 22 per cent of the votes counted and in keeping with reliable exit polls, it was announced that Préval was leading with 62 per cent, ahead of Manigat with 11 per cent.

Two days later, however, the electoral council had lowered Prévalʼs tally to just 49.6 per cent, and early on the morning of 13 February, it was estimated at a mere 48.7 per cent. This was about 22,000 votes short of the 50 per cent majority a candidate needs in order to win in a single round of voting. Around the same time, thousands of Préval ballots were found half-burned in a rubbish dump, and election officials started reporting exceptionally high numbers of null and blank ballots. Some 85,000 ballots (or 4.6 per cent of the total) were classified as blank, a number that veteran political journalist Guy Delva described as dramatically inconsistent with normal electoral practice.

In response, tens of thousands of Aristide and Préval supporters paralysed Port-auPrince with demonstrations and barricades. On the afternoon of 13 February, thousands of angry voters streamed up from Cité Soleil to demand a recount from the electoral council at its headquarters in the exclusive Montana Hotel. (Several hundred demonstrators grabbed the opportunity to take a quick swim in the Montanaʼs pool, before leaving the hotel and its rattled guests undisturbed.) Under pressure, the council eventually decided to fudge the issue, and divided the number of allegedly blank ballots proportionately among the candidates. This was just enough to nudge Prévalʼs proportion over the requisite 50 per cent mark, giving him a marginal victory in the first round. It was also enough, no doubt, to leave the impression that this was again a ʻtaintedʼ or ʻcompromisedʼ election, should the need for another corrective round of democracy-enhancement arise.

Préval is more pragmatic than Aristide, and a more accomplished administrator. He is more comfortable with the language of compromise and reconciliation. He may not risk taking decisive action on behalf of the poor majority if it is likely to stir up opposition from within the closed ranks of Haitiʼs ʻcivil societyʼ and its international patrons.

Even so, the imminent emergence of such opposition is almost a foregone conclusion.

Even mildly progressive policies are sure to provoke a new campaign of ʻdemocraticʼ and ʻhumanitarianʼ destabilization. The FL activists in the slums of Port-au-Prince anticipate it. And they are already preparing for another, more decisive victory in the elections scheduled for 2010.