The Fight for Haiti
It seemed almost too good to be true, and it was. And then it wasn't. Haitian politics played out in classic form in February, with all the drama aptly associated with this enigmatic and impoverished nation. Guns had gone underground, kidnappings had stopped and Port-au-Prince streets that had resembled target practice became accessible as an unprecedented number of voters took to the polls to vote in Haiti's presidential and parliamentary elections February 7. The elections were as much a triumph for the Haitian people, whose resolve for change was matched only by the absence of organized violence and intimidation previously associated with Haitian elections, as they were a vote for a new government.
But like so much of what happens in Haiti, the tide of good will quickly dissolved into a sea of protest, confusion and bitter déjà vu as days dragged on without electoral resolution. Initial results showed that the most popular candidate, René Garcia Préval, was leading with more than 60 percent; when his numbers began to drop, the Carnivalesque atmosphere in the streets morphed into angry demonstrations that paralyzed the capital, halted traffic, closed schools, shut down businesses and caused flight cancellations. Partisans stormed the mountainside hotel that had become ground zero for election results, with hundreds of clothed protesters taking a dip in the pool to cool off as visiting South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu looked on from his balcony. Six days after the election, with 90 percent of the vote tabulated, Préval's lead had dipped to 48.7 percent, just short of the 50 percent he needed to declare a first-round victory. Stolen again, the people cried, taking to the streets the next day, and the day after, until they finally heard that a technical decision had been reached allowing the Electoral Council to announce that Préval was the winner, reigniting the celebratory pumping and gyrating.
There had been reason for concern. The most polarizing figure in Haiti's recent political arena, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, had twice won the presidency and had twice been forced out, first in a 1991 military coup d'état seven months after taking office and then again in 2004, two years shy of the end of his five-year term. Although the former president currently lives in exile in South Africa with his wife and two daughters, the distance hasn't diminished his influence on the Haitian political scene. He remains wildly popular at the same time that he is feared and despised, a contradiction that accurately reflects Haiti's fractured society and that was played out again in the allegiances of the thirty-three presidential candidates. And therein lies the quandary, the decisive make-or-break challenge for Préval: Can he unite a country that has as many divisions as political parties? Can he negotiate a détente with an actively hostile opposition, a wary international community and armed supporters? Finally, can the man who ten years ago stumbled into his first presidential term on the coattails of his predecessor demonstrate that he is no longer Aristide's twin?
In Haiti perception is everything. For Préval partisans, many of whom rose before dawn to form long lines that snaked down country dirt roads or alongside urban piles of garbage and sewage, no amount of explanation was going to justify their candidate having to compete in a second round. That would be like losing Aristide a third time. In contrast, anti-Aristide people viewed the presence of tens of thousands of Préval supporters on the streets as a clear signal that the tactics of the two leaders were the same, to be feared and tempered. They denounced the negotiated solution, questioning the power of mass demonstrations in a country where the rule of law has never been practiced by the book. In this case, the ambiguity of the law served to keep the lid on the powder keg: The electoral law required that blank votes be included in the final tally. An unprecedented number, about one out of twenty-five, had decreased Préval's percentage; but when the blank votes were divided proportionally among the presidential candidates, Préval's total tipped over the 50 percent mark, allowing a first-round victory.
The international community was quick to embrace the solution, in which its members had played a part behind the scenes but which they just as quickly said was a "Haitian solution to a Haitian problem with a president who is a favorite of the majority of the country," according to United Nations spokesman David Wimhurst. This was not necessarily the best solution, admitted one of Préval's closest advisers, because it left unanswered the question of what role fraud had played in the election. "What else can you do?" he asked. "You have a population about to erupt. It may come out later what this was all about, but for the time being, there aren't any other options. Let's look forward now."
How things play out over the next five years depends in large part on Préval's leadership, which doesn't seem to be a trait critics and even some of his friends say is strongly developed, yet was evidenced in his handling of the electoral crisis. While he is credited with building roads, beginning the implementation of a national agrarian reform program and lowering the price of fertilizer during his 1996-2001 term, he was also perceived as a puppet of Tabarre, the area where Aristide settled after his first five-year term ended in 1996. Préval may be most famous for being Haiti's only democratic leader to complete his five-year term, a remarkable feat given that Haiti has had more than forty governments since it declared independence in 1804 and at least twelve just since the 1986 fall of the Duvalier dictatorship. In 2001 Préval retreated from the public eye to his family's home in Marmelade; with an investment from Taiwan he developed coffee, citrus and bamboo plantations. He re-emerged on the political scene and registered as a presidential candidate on the last day possible with a new party, Lespwa--"hope" in Creole--rather than with Aristide's party, Family Lavalas.
Préval, who had voted in Marmelade, wasn't planning to return to the capital until the vote was certified, but recognizing the potential for a social explosion, he boarded a UN helicopter six days after the elections to consult with his core group of advisers as well as key members of the international community. On February 14 he announced that he was going to launch a legal investigation into the vote, charging massive fraud, which was supported by the discovery a day later of thousands of ballots and other electoral material in a dump just outside the capital. In a calm but passionate appeal, Préval defended his supporters' right to demonstrate but asked them to do so peacefully and with respect. And they did. Préval's statesmanlike call and the response that followed were in marked contrast to a similar situation that had occurred in 1991, in the weeks between Aristide's election and inauguration, when thousands of his supporters took to the streets to prevent a coup, then went on a rampage and destroyed property. Aristide's defense as to why he didn't tell people to go back home was that he was just president-elect.