Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

OPINION: Haiti’s election in painful circumstances

By Bob Keeler, Newsday

For all their long familiarity with heartbreak, Haitians haven’t seen too many years quite like this one. It began with a killer earthquake, followed by months of snail’s-pace recovery, then a hurricane and a cholera outbreak. Now, it might end with a low-turnout election that produces more controversy than healing.

In the diaspora – enclaves of Haitians here on Long Island and in cities like Montréal and Miami – this brew of natural disaster and political uncertainty is a source of deep concern.

A few weeks ago, a large crowd gathered at a Westbury restaurant, Mirelle’s, to contribute to the campaign of one of the 19 candidates for president, Jean-Henry Céant. But even one of Céant’s contributors, Georges Casimir, a Rockville Centre psychiatrist who taught him in high school in Haiti, is ambivalent: Should the elections for president and legislators go forward Nov. 28, or be postponed until they can be fairer?

“If they were to postpone them, I would say I understand,” Casimir said, “even though I’m pretty sure there were games being played.”

That reflects wide distrust of the government of President René Préval, who is leaving office. One reason for the skepticism is Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council, seen as a Préval puppet. It disqualified 15 presidential candidates, including hip-hop star Wyclef Jean. And it shut out Fanmi Lavalas, the popular party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

On top of that, the ongoing physical disruption of the island is making it tough to ensure that all those eligible to vote can actually cast a ballot.

“It’s not a real election,” said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. He joined in a group letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging U.S. action to rectify what many see as an unfair electoral process. “It should be postponed until you can have an election that’s free and fair.”

One fear is that the exclusion of Lavalas and other factors will produce a low turnout, like last year.

But Carrié Solages, a politically active Mineola lawyer of Haitian descent, who attended the event in Westbury, wants the election to happen. “I’m a firm believer in democracy,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that people can organize themselves.”

Both Solages and Casimir are hopeful that whoever emerges as president – neither is committed exclusively to any candidate – will try to involve diaspora Haitians more in the motherland’s affairs.

Haiti’s constitution doesn’t allow those in the diaspora to vote. But a standard candidate promise is to change that, to reach out to Haitians abroad, turning the brain drain into a brain gain.”The diaspora has always been interested in hearing that, but nothing happens,” Casimir said.

As always, it’s easy to root for Haitians, who have suffered far too much: slavery; dictatorship; poverty; wind and rain; the deadly, unpredictable shift of tectonic plates, and the all-too-predictable ineptitude and venality of their politicians. We all want this recovery to move faster and relieve the misery.

But it’s maddeningly difficult to figure out what to root for in the elections: a flawed process now – or a wait for one that may or may not be better.

“I’ve been doing Haiti work for 15 years now, and I’ve never been this pessimistic,” said Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, based in Boston. “I think this is setting Haiti up for five years of social unrest.” Concannon hopes he’s wrong. So should we all.

Haiti needs a miracle: wise, unselfish, effective leadership, to clear the rubble, to make life better in the tent cities, and to give this long-suffering people hope and homes. If only.

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