By Kim Ives, The Guardian
December 9, 2010
Having backed an electoral fiasco, Washington must reckon now with the uncertain future of its principal asset, René Préval
On 7 December, Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) announced the deeply flawed 28 November general elections’ “preliminary results”. The top three presidential candidates were former Senator Mirlande Manigat (31.37%), ruling Unity party candidate Jude Célestin (22.48%), and former compas performer Michel Martelly (21.84%). Abstentionist Haitians were the real winners because only 1.087m, or 23% of Haiti’s 4.7m registered voters, turned out.
The announcement ignited a violent response from supporters of “Sweet Micky” Martelly, who had widely asserted that he was the leading candidate, having “as much as 47% of the vote”. Demonstrations and burning-tyre bonfires immediately erupted in Pétionville, Cap Haïtien and Aux Cayes, where numerous government offices and Unity partisans’ houses have been torched.
Supporters of Jean Henry Céant, the leading Faux-Lavalas candidate with supposedly 8.18% of the vote, and nine other candidates, who have banded with Céant in an informal front, have also held large demonstrations in recent days calling for the election’s annulment, the CEP’s replacement and Préval’s resignation.
“The UN and the international community will never accept that a legitimate Haitian president leaves under pressure from the street,” responded UN Mission to Stabilise Haiti (MINUSTAH) chief Edmond Mulet on 3 December. “It would be a coup.” Ironically, Mulet leads an occupation force that entered Haiti following the February 2004 coup – backed by Washington, Paris and Ottawa and involving “pressure from the street” – against “a legitimate Haitian president” Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Over the past six years, MINUSTAH has killed dozens of Haitians militating for Aristide’s return. He remains exiled in South Africa, and his Lavalas Family party, Haiti’s largest, has been barred from all post coup elections.
In fact, the current electoral fiasco is merely the 2004 coup’s continuation. Préval and Washington became bedfellows because both seek to exclude Haiti’s poor majority, who are overwhelmingly pro-Lavalas. But their plot is failing, and, like thieves falling out, they increasingly distrust each other, despite Mulet’s profession of support.
Préval was one of the principal “enlightened bourgeois” to push Aristide into the electoral ring 20 years ago, thereby becoming Aristide’s first prime minister. After Aristide’s 2004 ousting, the US installed as de facto prime minister Gérard Latortue, who, two years later, handed over to Préval, a compromise candidate the Lavalas masses embraced because all their other choices – like the late Reverend Gérard Jean-Juste – had been either jailed or exiled.
This history is not lost on the US, as revealed in two confidential cables from March 2007 and June 2009 just made public by WikiLeaks. As the then US Ambassador to Haiti, Janet Sanderson, wrote:
“Despite his involvement in radical/communist circles as a student in Belgium and his entrance into Haitian politics through a populist movement deeply influenced by liberation theology, Préval’s public and private discourse is practically devoid of any notions reflecting that background.”
She reassured Washington that Préval was “a neo-liberal”, who “has embraced free markets and foreign investment” and is “uninterested in ideology”. Nonetheless, Sanderson warned in 2009 that “Préval remains essentially a nationalist politician … suspicious of outsiders’ intentions and convinced that no one understands Haiti like he does.” Sometimes working “at cross purposes with the US,” riskily, he “believes that he can walk a fine line without losing US or international community support.”
This analysis is surely being re-read by current US Ambassador Kenneth Merten, as Préval becomes more drag than lift to US policy in Haiti.
Last week, after three Haitian observer groups reported that Manigat and Martelly were leading by 30% and 25%, respectively, to Célestin’s 21%, Préval’s CEP told UN officials that it was considering a three-way second round, according to a Haitian government source. UN officials vigorously opposed the proposal and told Préval so. According to the source, a high-stakes game of chicken then ensued, with Préval responding that, if there could be no three-way runoff, then perhaps the election should be annulled. (AP reports that bellwether OAS/Caricom mission head Colin Granderson said a three-way runoff may be adopted in case of a near-tie.)
In the hours before the CEP’s announcement, there was a meeting at the National Palace between Préval, the CEP, the UN and the US ambassador. It may have been acrimonious, because the CEP’s proclamation was delayed until about 9pm, instead of 6pm, as foreseen.
As protests swept Haiti, Washington’s embassy immediately issued a disapproving statement that it would help “to thoroughly review irregularities in support of electoral results that are consistent with the will of the Haitian people”. The US said it was “concerned” that the CEP’s results were “inconsistent” with those of the Haitian observers, among others.
So, here is Washington’s dilemma. Does it heed Sanderson’s 2009 conclusion that “while we may argue with [Préval] about pace and priorities, we will have to adapt to his rhythm” because he “remains Haiti’s indispensable man”? Or, now that his popularity has hit new lows following the 12 January earthquake and the botched election, is he, in fact, dispensable?
As for Préval, Sanderson reported that “his overriding goal is to orchestrate the 2011 presidential transition in such a way as to ensure that whoever is elected will allow him to go home unimpeded,” avoiding prison or exile. Will he continue “stubbornly holding to ideas long past their shelf life” and resist, “convinced that no one understands Haiti like he does”? Or will he succumb to the pressures now sandwiching him from above and from the streets below?
Both parties will want a compromise, unless the uprising worsens. The UN may rubberstamp a CEP rule change to hold the three-way runoff, thereby appeasing Préval and, hopefully, Martelly’s mobs (although “Micky” has vowed not to share any runoff with Célestin).
Ambassador Merten is undoubtedly pondering Sanderson’s prophetic conclusion: “Managing Préval will remain challenging during the remainder of his term, yet doing so is key to our success and that of Haiti.”
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