Duncan Campbell, The Guardian
Tuesday February 21, 2006
A Country at Boiling Point
President Préval needs the backing of the world – and his opponents – to bring calm to Haiti
In his magisterial work The Black Jacobins, about the slave revolt in Haiti that led to the country’s independence, CLR James concluded “that the new nation survived at all is for ever to its credit for if the Haitians thought that imperialism was finished with them, they were mistaken.” Nearly 70 years after James wrote those words and more than 200 years after Haiti became independent, the nation has just – to its credit – survived an election process that sometimes seemed as if it might never end and might have, as the disputed results came in last week, plunged the country into fresh turmoil.
After four postponements of polling days and more than a week of counting votes, René Préval was declared the winner, with more than 50% of the ballots cast. He attracted more than four times as many votes as his closest rival in this 33-horse race, so no one can pretend he is not a worthy winner. But what now?
The first essential is for the international community – the US, the UN, the EU and those countries with most influence within Haiti – to recognise that Préval is the popular choice and to ensure that no attempts are made to undermine him from without or within, as happened with his predecessor and one-time ally Jean-Bertrand Aristide. One of Préval’s notable past achievements – sadly unique in Haitian history – has been to complete his previous term of presidential office without being ousted, assassinated or tempted to cling on to power beyond his allotted time. His election is an indication of the desire of the Haitian people to have a leader who recognises that poverty and corruption are two of the country’s most pressing problems and who will pass on power when he has served his term. And while everyone involved in the election would agree that neither its conclusion nor Préval’s victory will solve Haiti’s many problems, it is equally true that without the elections and the confirmation of his success, chaos beckoned.
Préval knows he has to use his mandate to bring calm to a country that has been near boiling point in the two years since Aristide – whose initial triumph on a leftwing platform was seen as such a threat by the US – was ousted for the second time. Préval’s pleas last week to his supporters to eschew any violent protest are an indication that he is well aware of the current tinderbox nature of the country. His rivals in the election also have a duty to accept the decision with good grace and to advise their own more volatile supporters that they will achieve nothing by carrying on the violence. It is too early to tell whether this will happen; some are already trying to undermine his victory by claiming that it was a threat of violence from his supporters that prompted his confirmation as victor.
The second necessity is for an investigation of the electoral processes that led to such chaos. As Charles Arthur, director of the Haiti Support Group in Britain, puts it: “If the allegations of vote-rigging and fraud are not cleared up, how can anyone be sure that the results of the parliamentary elections that took place on the same day will be an accurate reflection of the electorate’s intentions? If the legitimacy of the new parliament is in doubt, political instability will continue.” This is a far from simple but essential task for both the UN peacekeeping force and Haitian election officials to carry out with transparency.
Third, Haiti now needs the assistance of the world in rebuilding itself and in encouraging its vast and talented diaspora to consider returning home. Many skilled Haitians across the world would love to return but will only do so if they believe a stable, honest government is in place. The Haitian economy and its potentially highly profitable tourist industry has collapsed as visitors and investors steer clear of what they thought was a hopelessly dangerous place.It is worth remembering that Haiti’s colonial masters were breathtakingly sadistic. No lessons of compassion or decency were bequeathed to the country by the west.
Two candidates in the election, Guy Philippe, the former police chief who led the overthrow of Aristide in 2004, and Charlito Baker, the businessman who was the elite’s main chance of success, had assured me they had a vast invisible support that would wipe out Préval’s challenge; they won fewer than one vote in 10 between them. There could hardly be a clearer indication of what the Haitian people want. The task for Préval now is enormous and he needs the ungrudging support of the world and those of his opponents at home and abroad who profess to believe in democracy.