Controversial elections planned in Haiti
April 3, 2009
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More than 10,000 converged on the National Palace from the many neighborhoods of Port au Prince

Many thousands of Lavalas activists went to the airport to welcome the Clinton Delegation and demand the return of President Aristide

Controversial elections planned in Haiti

The Obama administration and the international community have remained silent the past two weeks on a decision by Haiti's election council to move forward with controversial Senate elections scheduled for April 19. Without disclosing its origin, the United Nations announced on March 24 that Haiti received over 100 tons of election materials to be distributed to 11,000 voting locations in advance of the poll.

The apparent decision to green light the contentious ballot comes on the heels of a ruling by Haiti's Provisional Election Council or CEP to exclude the Fanmi Lavalas party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on procedural grounds. Haitian president Rene Preval met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington on Feb. 5 and the council's decision to disqualify all of the party's candidates was announced the following day. While the recent visit to Haiti by former president Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has drawn attention away from the issue, fears continue to rise that excluding Lavalas from the upcoming ballot will be seen as undemocratic and call into question the validity of the elections.

Lavalas, which means flashflood, is a political party and social movement whose roots go back to the break between the Duvalier appointed hierarchy of the Catholic Church and independent parish communities known as "Ti Legliz" or the little church. Haitian priests deeply influenced by Vatican II and what was called the Liberation Theology movement led many of the Christian-based communities of Ti Legliz, particularly in the countryside. Among them were figures like Father Jean-Marie Vincent, the former Director of CARITAS in Haiti, and Father Antoine Adrien the superior of the Order of the Holy Ghost Father's. They, along with younger priests like Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Gerard Jean-Juste would later transform Ti Legliz into a resistance movement of the poor to successive coups and military regimes following the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986. The movement became known as Lavalas and has served as the largest base of Haiti's electorate since it galvanized around Aristide's first successful candidacy for president in 1990. Preval's election victory in 2006 and the success of his Lespwa party are widely seen as a result of support from the Lavalas electorate.

Factions of the Fanmi Lavalas party originally presented two slates of candidates to the CEP for the upcoming Senate elections scheduled for April 19. After the CEP demanded they present a single slate the Fanmi Lavalas party's leadership managed to hammer out a compromise list of candidates in time to meet the deadline. The CEP refused to accept the candidate's applications on the grounds that they did not have Aristide's personal signature from exile in South Africa as the National Representative of the Fanmi Lavalas party. One analyst close to the CEP and who spoke on condition of anonymity commented, "It didn't really matter what Lavalas did. The result was always going to be the same. There was greater division within Lavalas and more procedural irregularities with their candidates in the elections of 2006. The only difference is they needed them to provide legitimacy to those elections. They don't feel they need them to legitimize the April 19 elections. The political infighting only provided the CEP with a convenient excuse to exclude them."

Most observers acknowledge that Aristide and the Lavalas movement continue to be a force to reckon with in Haiti. It's said that no other social movement in Haiti, before or since, has shown more resiliency and commitment. They elected Aristide president in Dec. 1990 and the movement was forced to survive three years of brutal military repression after he was ousted in Sept. 1991. Lavalas was later instrumental in Preval's first presidential victory in Dec. 1995 and Aristide's second in Nov. 2000.

By the time Aristide was ousted a second time in Feb. 2004, his political opponents in Haiti had painted the Lavalas movement as a violent political organization within the human rights community and the international press. Such claims led to the imprisonment of many within the leadership of Lavalas including Catholic priest Gerard Jean-Juste, folk-singer Annette Auguste, and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. Their high-profile examples represent many lesser-known prisoners originally detained based on accusations related to political violence and Lavalas. According to human rights attorney Mario Joseph, lead counsel for the Haiti-based rights organization Bureaux Advocat Internationale (BAI), most of the Lavalas prisoners were held beyond the limits of the Haitian Constitution only to have the charges dropped months or even years later. Joseph explained, "I have personally represented many of the Lavalas political prisoners over the past five years. Most were never afforded the basic protection and rights guaranteed by the Haitian Constitution. If you were associated with the Lavalas movement or the Aristide government and they arrested you, you were treated as if the Haitian Constitution had been suspended."

Mario Joseph also describes a period of unprecedented human right violations committed by the U.N./Canadian-trained Haitian National Police (PNH) between 2004 -2006. "This was a terrible time in Haiti where we had examples of the police executing Lavalas supporters in poor neighborhoods of the capital. They would also gun down peaceful demonstrators. We have one well-documented case of the police planting weapons on demonstrators after shooting them." Preval's election in 2006 seems to have marked the end of the overt repression of that period but since then Haiti has also been wracked by a series of hurricanes and omnipotent hunger.

As further testimony to the endurance of the Lavalas movement in Haiti, nearly ten thousand supporters took to the streets of the capital to protest on the five-year anniversary of what they call the ‘second coup' against Aristide this past Feb. 28. Most protestors called for the Preval government and the United Nations to allow Aristide to return to Haiti while others used it as a platform to condemn the recent decision of the CEP. As Clinton and Ki-Moon arrived in Haiti on March 9, several roaming demonstrations estimated at more than 15,000, tried to get their attention through the thick cordon of U.N. security.

Many of the demonstrators demanding Aristide's return had hoped Clinton would join their call given his history of having helped return the Haitian leader once before in Oct. 1994. Their hope was soon dashed as it became clear that Clinton had no intention of supporting Aristide and, as one of their leaders put it, "is here to shore up the status quo and turn the page on the Lavalas movement." In the early evening about 5000 demonstrators continued to camp out on in front of Haiti's National Palace in a final plea on behalf of their exiled leader. Many vowed publicly they would never trust Clinton again.

Unfortunately, the natural and man-made disasters Haiti has experienced since Feb. 2004 have combined into a dangerous mixture of increased dependence on charity and growing resistance by Haiti's largest political party and movement. According to witnesses from the Haitian press corps, the Clinton/Ki-Moon convoy and a large contingent of foreign press took a route that was orchestrated to keep the protestors from view. The recent decision to bar the Fanmi Lavalas party and the challenge it poses for Obama administration policy and restoring democracy in Haiti may prove more difficult to hide.

Thousands more take the streets of Haiti, demanding the return of President Aristide Mar12

Listen to the Flashpoints Radio reporting
of Monday, March 9, 2009

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