Three days this month in strife-torn Haiti should have sufficed to show José Miguel Insulza, the brand new Secretary-General of the Organization of American States (OAS), that something is very wrong with both Haiti and his predecessors’ Haiti policy. But instead of using the OAS helm change and the visit to set a new course, Mr. Insulza recommitted the organization to its current failures, at the expense of Haiti’s long-suffering citizenry.
Normally, five Haitians asked almost any question about politics will give at least that many different responses. But today almost anyone asked whether they are better off than they were before Haiti’s regime change seventeen months ago will answer a resounding no. Poor urban dwellers will complain about regular, deadly police raids in their neighborhoods and even more deadly rises in food costs; middle class professionals will protest the kidnapping epidemic (according to the UN, about six per day); wealthy importers will grumble that customers who survive the trip to the store cannot afford to buy much. Supporters of the Lavalas movement, which has won every Haitian election by a landslide for fifteen years, will mention the dozen or so top leaders, and hundreds of supporters, who have been illegally arrested or imprisoned.
The OAS, however, has found very little fault with the unelected, unconstitutional Interim Haitian Government, despite a chorus of reports, from Amnesty International, the Harvard and the University of Miami Law Schools, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, documenting police massacres, political arrests and attacks against journalists. Nor has the World Bank- on July 27, the organization issued a glowing progress report, listing, among the interim governments’ achievements, “launching an ambitious electoral registration process.”
Secretary-General Insulza went to Haiti to observe the elections preparations by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (PEC) with OAS help. He spoke with Haitian and foreign officials, and inaugurated a voter registration center. He reaffirmed his support for the PEC, and found that “despite some delays, the process is moving ahead.”
“Moving ahead” in this case means that less than 5% of eligible voters had registered by Mr. Insulza’s visit. That number rose to 15% by the end of July, but registration closes on August 9. The registration center Mr. Insulza inaugurated was about the 105 th that the ambitious registration program had opened since another OAS official helped inaugurate the first one on April 25 th. The CEP had announced it would open a total of 424 centers, a fraction of the number of centers opened in the last election, run by an elected government in 2000.
The registration center shortage, like most shortages in Haiti, hits the poor hardest: there are no centers in or near Cit é Soleil, the crowded seaside slum that supports the ousted President Aristide, but there are three in P é tionville, the opulent hillside suburb that forms the Interim Government’s base. As of early July there were four in the whole Central Plateau, a large region with few good roads.
“Moving ahead” also means that many potential candidates, party members and voters continue to languish in jail, deprived of access to any judicial process, while many more citizens keep quiet to avoid a similar fate. It means that campaign event organizers need to consider arrest or beating, or worse, as one of the costs of their events.
Repression in Haiti also hits the poor the hardest. The vast majority of political prisoners are young men from poor neighborhoods who will never rise onto the radar screen of international human rights advocates. In many cases the police know little about them: their age, gender and residence provide reason enough for arrest and indefinite detention. But more fortunate people are punished if they speak out for the poor. Former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune has spent a year in jail on trumped up charges- he did not even see a judge for ten months. Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest inspired by liberation theology to both feed the poor and question why they cannot feed themselves, spent seven weeks in jail last fall. He was the most prominent critic of this fall’s election, but on July 21 he was arrested, without a warrant, and placed in an isolation cell, where he cannot speak with either a journalist or a judge.
Mr. Insulza’s proposed solution to this crisis, extending registration by a month, ignores the reality that the Interim Government is no closer to relinquishing power to a democratic successor than when it started in March 2004. Haitian voters have seen enough electoral charades to recognize one, and they call the upcoming votes a “selection.” They connect the dots from the arrests of political dissidents to the scarce and gerrymandered registration centers, and see a return to the days when a fraction of the citizenry chose the likes of “Papa Doc” Francois Duvalier from a list of approved candidates.
That international experts keep expressing confidence in such a transparently flawed process merely assures Haitians that the Interim Government’s international supporters are content with the charade. They foresee the OAS and the Americans conferring a stamp of approval on a vote that is unrepresentative by any objective standards.
Secretary-General Insulza, a respected political scientist and former exile from Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship, should be able to connect the same dots. He should also understand that even if the OAS gets away with calling undemocratic elections this fall a “success” in the short term, in the medium and long terms Haiti’s problems will keep resurfacing, until the people are allowed the government of their choice.
In his May 25 OAS inauguration speech, Mr. Insulza pledged that his “principal concern was to strengthen this Organization’s political relevance and capacity for action.” The Secretary-General will have no better opportunity to fulfill this promise than right now, in Haiti. The OAS should immediately use the tools it has available, including suspending Haiti from normal OAS activities, unless the Interim Government immediately frees all political prisoners and ceases persecuting dissidents. It should withhold the organization’s extensive technical, financial and political support until the PEC demonstrates a willingness to run the elections on a level playing field. Most importantly, the OAS should unequivocally declare that it will not recognize any election or resulting government unless Haitian voters are afforded the fair election they deserve.
Brian Concannon Jr., Esq. directs the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, www.ijdh.org, and is a former OAS Elections Observer and UN Human Rights Observer in Haiti.