By Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald
PORT-AU-PRINCE — First presidential hopeful Michel `Sweet Micky’ Martelly asked for a dayslong campaign truce. Then, opponent Jude Célestin announced that he was temporarily suspending all radio and TV ads, and called on his opponents to follow.
Now, Leslie Voltaire is asking to postpone the Nov. 28 election.
A deadly outbreak of cholera in an already earthquake-wracked Haiti has become one more complication in a nation still grappling with the effects of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that left an estimated 300,000 Haitians dead and at least 1.5 million Haitians living underneath tents and tarps.
As campaign jingles continue to play on local radios and three presidential candidates taped a televised debate Wednesday morning, Haiti health officials reported that after days of successfully containing the epidemic to the rural valley where it first broke last week, cholera had finally spread.
Officials said 174 cases had been confirmed in the city of Arcahia, a small rural village 20 miles north of Port-au-Prince. There were also suspected cases in nearby Cabaret, and they were investigating reports in Cité Soleil, a slum in the capital not far from the main international airport.
The waterborne bacterial infection had killed 303 Haitians, including five in Arcahia, and hospitalized 4,722 Haitians, the government said late Wednesday.
“It’s encroaching, and we are taking measures,” said Dr. Ariel Henry, the chief of cabinet for the Ministry of Health. “We are training people on the ground to give out oral rehydration salts. We are putting in place cholera treatment centers. We are also doing a big effort all over the country with 50,000 people. We are training them, and we are preparing to deploy them.”
The health ministry has not asked for a delay of the vote, but it has asked candidates to refrain from holding rallies in cholera-affected communities. For some like Voltaire, an urban planner who is among the 19 presidential candidates seeking to replace President René Préval, that is not good enough.
“The vote should happen when the World Health Organization says it is contained, or when the [Provisional Electoral Council] says this election will not use rallies,” Voltaire said.
So far, neither the WHO, which is working alongside Haitian health officials to contain the epidemic, nor the electoral council charged with putting on the elections has called for a postponement out of public health concerns.
Gaillot Dorsinvil, president of the council, told The Miami Herald the fate of the elections is up to the government, and as far as the council was concern, the vote was moving ahead as scheduled.
That message was reiterated Wednesday in Washington when the diplomat leading a joint Organization of American States/Caribbean Community observation mission reported that “the electoral process is progressing steadily toward 28 November.”
“The political environment is more reassuring with the increasing participation of parties, political platforms and candidates who initially intended to boycott the elections,” said Colin Granderson, who is also the assistant secretary general of CARICOM.
Still, Granderson conceded that the evolution of the cholera outbreak and its potential impact on the process remain a concern.
Célestin, who participated in the televised debate Wednesday in which the question of cholera was raised but not possible postponement of the elections, said he’s not seeking a delay.
Rather, he believes that Haitians should not have their attentions divided while the government and international humanitarian community scale up a massive prevention and public education campaign, alerting Haitians on how they can save themselves from a disease that kills within hours when not treated in time.
“The population should not have to listen to campaign jingles while people are dying,” said Célestin, tapped by Préval to succeed him. “To see candidates put posters in a hospital in Mirebalais where people are dying, it’s sad.”
Martelly also complained about how some candidates are trying to politicize the epidemic to their benefit, wearing campaign T-shirts and vehicles as they visit the sick. He’s disappointed, he said, that his request has fallen on deaf ears.
“We need to start working together even though we may be different candidates,” he said. “At the end of the day, Haiti must be the priority.”
Not everyone favors a pause. Lawyer Jean-Henry Céant, who debated Célestin, said the elections should continue as planned. Sen. Youri Latortue, whose coalition is supporting longtime opposition leader Mirlande Manigat, also wants to see the schedule maintain. Manigat had a slight lead over Célestin in a recent poll.
“We are entering into this election under difficult circumstances, but we cannot leave the country without a government,” said Latortue, who on Tuesday summoned the health minister to a session to get a report on the government’s efforts. “We have a lot of problems to resolve. We already do not have any money. Each time you postpone the date that is money.”
Observers say even if no decision is taken on the election, how the government handles the outbreak could influence the outcome of the vote in what is emerging as a competitive race. Though Célestin is neck-and-neck with Manigat in the most recent poll, he is trailing in a number of quake-battered cities, including the capital where observers say he’s being hurt by the government’s often-criticized handling of the quake response.
“If the management of the outbreak is not well-handled, it may jeopardize the government’s image or any one associated with the actual management and government,” said Gregory Brandt, president of the Haiti-French Chamber of Commerce.
Rosny Desroche said he doesn’t see how the government can escape unscathed.
“People are suffering. Either way, the government will be held responsible,” he said.
But Reginald Boulos, the chairman of the Economic Forum of the Private Sector, which commissioned the poll, said cholera could also be a chance for the Préval government to redeem itself.
“The earthquake was a negative for the government because they didn’t react appropriately,” he said. “It could turn out to be a positive thing if they manage it well; if they show leadership, and compassion in the people. Or it can be a downfall for them if again there is lack of coordination and waste of money, and people are dying.”
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