Let Voters Choose
The Bush administration is pressuring Haiti to halt preparations for elections this year that are mandated by Haiti’s Constitution and by an Organization of American States resolution. The stated justification — security conditions — is a smokescreen to protect opposition parties supported more by our tax dollars than by Haitian voters. Supporting democracy means letting Haitians choose their own leaders, even ones we do not like, and forcing politicians we do like to win at the ballot box or not at all.
A U.S.-led multinational force, pursuant to a U.N. Security Council Resolution, restored Haiti’s first elected president in 1994. Since then two voluntary democratic turnovers of presidential power — the only two in the country’s troubled history — have occurred. The hated army, a perpetual source of instability, embezzlement and horror, was disbanded. Haitians have embraced democracy, almost always voting in higher percentages than Americans do.
Yet we cannot seem to embrace this foreign policy success. In addition to discouraging elections, the U.S. is leading a development assistance embargo against the Haitian government that blocks urgently needed aid (including World Bank loans) for health care, education and sanitation. We also prop up the Convergence Democratique, a motley assortment of parties from across the spectrum, united only in their opposition to the governing Lavalas party. Some of these parties once had electoral credibility — a plurality in the1995 Parliament. But U.S. encouragement to adopt unpopular policies, attack the popular Lavalas and ally with right-wing veterans of brutal dictatorships parlayed that plurality into a 4 percent credibility rating (per U.S.-sponsored Gallup polls).
Haiti’s democratic transition is far from complete. The country left behind the human rights problems of dictatorship (army massacres, political prisons and censorship), but struggles with human rights problems that challenge all democracies (crime by private citizens, some of it politically motivated, and non-systematic police abuses).
This year’s elections are a critical and urgent step in building Haiti’s democracy. Critical because the political crisis must be placed in the hands of the voters, who alone can resolve it. Urgent because most legislators’ terms expire in January. For these reasons, a resolution with unanimous OAS support (including the U.S.) last September called for elections in 2003.
Both the U.S. and the CD claim that security conditions are not right for elections. Haiti is a polarized society, with a young, inexperienced and underfinanced police force and a short tradition of democratic elections. But it is far less violent and polarized than war-torn Colombia, which had successful elections last year, or the U.S. in 1968, when riots marred the Democratic Convention and political assassinations claimed leading dissident Martin Luther King and presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.
Haiti, like all democracies, needs an opposition, but it needs one prepared to court Haitian voters, not just Washington policymakers.
Brian Concannon is an American human rights lawyer,who has worked in Haiti since 1995, first with the U.N., then with the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a law office set up by the Haitian government to help prosecute human rights cases.
Brian Concannon Jr.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
September 22, 2003