Lost in the uproar over the return of Jean-Claude Duvalier to Haiti and his to-ing and fro-ing from hotel to courthouse to hotel to mountain home, is the much more important political crisis. On election day in November, only 22.3 percent of Haiti’s eligible voters cast their ballots in what turned out to be an election plagued with fraud. The reason for the low turnout was apathy, coupled with the catastrophic loss of identity papers in the earthquake of January 2010. Given the miserable conditions of so many Haitians since the earthquake, the anemic turnout provided resounding evidence that Haitians don’t believe their vote matters.
And they are right. Many parties were kept out, including the popular party of Haiti’s first freely and fairly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been living in exile in South Africa since a coup backed by the international community forced him from power in 2004. Many see post-Duvalier Haitian politics as a back-and-forth between the forces who support Duvalier, a prototypical right-wing strongman, and those who support Aristide, theoretically a leftist prodemocracy leader. Although this analysis is grossly simplistic, it is also partly true.
Despite personal and political flaws, Aristide is a stand-in for the Haitian people, and his fate symbolizes the political fate of most Haitians, who are excluded from what now passes for the democratic process. The fighting for position in the ongoing election is mostly about who will control the valves on the stream of post-earthquake reconstruction dollars—in the billions—that are supposed to arrive once a new president is seated; not one of the major candidates is widely popular, although Michel Martelly, a compas bandleader whose music is well-known in Haiti’s urban centers, has a broad fan base there.
None of this much troubled Haiti’s current president, René Préval, a former Aristide protégé, until Jude Célestin, the candidate he had been backing, was eliminated from the runoff vote by the Organization of American States in its preliminary report on the election results. That was when it became clear to Préval that he was not the master of this ceremony. Until election day he’d been led to believe that this was his candidate’s election, but in the end the international community turned against him. At this point, how the vote actually went is pretty much irrelevant, since the OAS and the rest of Haiti’s international advisers have steamrollered the possibility of a recount.
The OAS report found that Martelly and not Célestin had come in second and thus should be in the constitutionally mandated runoff against frontrunner Mirlande Manigat, an educator and former first lady of Haiti. (Both Manigat and Martelly are to the right of center.) The January 16 runoff was indefinitely postponed, not least because it was unclear which candidates would be on the ballot. Préval, one of whose great qualities is his stubbornness, at first dug in his heels and refused to accept the OAS decision, running the risk that, like Aristide, he too would be thrust aside. On the day the runoff was to have taken place, the Haitian people instead witnessed the return of Duvalier, smiling and waving from a hotel balcony like the queen of England.
Indeed, Ricardo Seitenfus, the OAS special representative in Haiti, reported that as early as election day itself, the forced expulsion of Préval was being discussed at a meeting of the “Core Group,” which includes representatives of donor countries like the United States, France and Canada, as well as the OAS and the United Nations. Préval says the Core Group did offer him a plane out of Haiti, which he refused. “At around noon, they called me,” he said in an interview at the palace recently. “‘It’s no longer an election,’ they told me. ‘It’s a political problem. Do you want a plane to leave?’ I don’t know how they were going to explain my departure, but I got rid of that problem for them by refusing to go. I want to serve out my mandate and give the presidency over to an elected president.” As we go to press, Célestin is being pressured by his own party to concede.