Haiti's Structural Crisis
The Haitian government started to rig the recent presidential election well before the actual balloting on November 28. Mainstream US press accounts have mistakenly used words like “chaos,” “confusion” and “disorganization” to describe the election, which triggered street uprisings that closed the country down for several days after the falsified results from the first round were announced.
In fact, the strategy to install the unpopular president René Préval’s handpicked successor, Jude Célestin, was well planned. First, the government recognized that the 1.5 million displaced Haitians, most of them still living in tents nearly a year after the killer January earthquake, were naturally the most hostile, due to its inept and corrupt response to the disaster. So it made no serious effort to re-register the tent-dwellers to vote, or even to set up convenient polling stations for them.
On election day, my great friend of fifteen years, Milfort Bruno, guided me through the vast tent city on the Champs Mars, Port-au-Prince’s equivalent of Central Park or the Boston Common, right next to the damaged white presidential palace. We did not find a single person who had been able to vote. We did run into Madame Marie Chavannes, one of Milfort’s former neighbors, a dignified woman in her 70s who is under five feet tall and is still sweltering in one of the tents. She showed us her photo-ID voting card and said with a mixture of disappointment and disgust, “I walked all the way over to the bureau de vote and they said my name was not on the list.”
Another government maneuver was just as sneaky. A few days before the vote a political pollster announced that Célestin was in second place, behind law professor Mirlande Manigat but six points ahead of Michel Martelly, the popular singer. This poll posed a big puzzle: Célestin’s well-financed campaign had pasted up his posters everywhere, but you could hardly find anyone who actually planned to vote for him. Meanwhile, Martelly, known as “Sweet Micky” from his singing days, was drawing gigantic, enthusiastic crowds.
Another Haitian friend, who is close to the centers of power, cleared up the mystery. “They exaggerated Célestin’s support in the poll,” he said the day before the election. “That way, they have a false prediction so they can fix the results.”
The actual vote-counting was done by the Provisional Electoral Council (the French initials are CEP), which many Haitians regard as a government tool. Even before the vote, the International Crisis Group, a prestigious, sober organization headquartered in Brussels, had raised doubts about the CEP’s neutrality and fairness.
Despite dark rumors of these and other machinations, election day itself was peaceful, and full of hope. Vehicular traffic was banned, so groups of people, particularly young Martelly supporters, walked up and down the unusually quiet streets in a celebratory mood, sensing they were part of a widespread and growing movement for change. So that when a week later the election commission tried to claim that Célestin had somehow edged out Sweet Micky and would face Madame Manigat in a January 16 runoff, the explosion of disappointed rage was completely understandable.
For once, the United States was on the right side. Just hours after the announcement, the US Embassy said pointedly it did not believe the results, and other international donors added to the pressure. The Préval government backtracked, offering a partial recount. But the opposition refused to agree. As of December 16, the sullen stalemate continued, although the government would probably have to yield even further.
The Préval government’s descent into corruption and vote-stealing is repugnant, but also a tragic betrayal of once proud hopes. The 2010 election represents the final collapse of the huge reform movement that brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic slum priest, to power twenty years ago. René Préval was Aristide’s right-hand man, succeeding him twice as president. Only five years ago Préval won a convincing and genuine popular victory; his support included all those people who filled the streets to try to stop his effort to steal this latest election.
This time around, neither leading opposition candidate is offering anything like a radical alternative. Madame Manigat seems sincere, and promises good government. Michel Martelly is a vague populist who emphasizes primary education. (Many of his supporters are in fact overlooking his past, when, as a performer, he was close to Haiti’s military rulers.) Either Madame Manigat or Martelly would be better than the government’s candidate. But neither will threaten the Haitian elite’s grip on power in any fundamental way.
Haiti still needs profound, revolutionary change, even if this particular reform movement is exhausted. Daily life for most Haitians is a struggle that is incomprehensible to outsiders. Take water, for instance; most people, even in Port-au-Prince, have no piped water and buy from young women who walk up and down the streets balancing buckets on their heads. Two decades ago, the American professor Simon Fass (his Political Economy in Haiti is a masterpiece) estimated that poor people in Port-au-Prince could only afford slightly more than three gallons per adult per day for all their drinking and washing. (By comparison, a single American toilet flush uses over five gallons.) That figure has probably not improved, which makes the fight against the cholera epidemic that has already killed more than 2,000 people even harder.