Averting Election Theft in Haiti

A blatant and shameful attempt to steal a presidential election was blocked yesterday in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. This outrageous injustice was being perpetrated by the same forces that have been oppressing the Haitian people for decades.

In the past, Haiti has been ruled by brutal dictators such as Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier. These dictators controlled a brutal army that protected the interests of a small group of wealthy elites and foreign industrialists, while repressing the poor. The people of Haiti have been exploited in every conceivable way. Haitians worked in sweatshops for foreign industrialists, receiving just pennies per day. The elites and the industrialists profited from cheap labor without doing anything to develop the economy or improve the country's infrastructure. Those who protested the exploitation and demanded better living conditions were arrested or killed by the army. The U.S. government trained the army and supported the elites.

President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a priest who came from Cite Soleil, an impoverished region of Haiti, and advocated for the nation's poor. He was democratically elected by the people of Haiti in 1990, representing the Lavalas Party. He was elected on a platform of better working conditions for workers and improvements in health care, education and the quality of life for the poor. The elites hated President Aristide and were threatened by his platform, which required them to use a small fraction of their wealth for the good of the country. He was deposed less than a year later in a coup d'etat by the Haitian army. With the help of a death squad, the army terrorized the population for the next three years until the United States intervened under President Clinton to allow President Aristide to return.

The wealthy elites did everything within their power over the next decade to make it impossible for President Aristide and the Lavalas Party to govern the country effectively or implement policies that benefited the poor. Andre Apaid, a notorious sweatshop owner who holds an American passport, organized the Group of 184 to oppose President Aristide. Although President Aristide disbanded the army after his return, many of the soldiers did not disarm. Instead, they worked with the elites and the foreign industrialists to maintain control of the impoverished population.

The Bush administration worked with the Haitian elites to force President Aristide to step down. The International Republican Institute, which is affiliated with the Republican Party, funneled U.S. taxpayer dollars to the Aristide-haters, and Roger Noriega, President Bush's former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the former chief of staff for Sen. Jesse Helms, conspired with Andre Apaid to organize, train and finance the opposition.

In January 2004, former soldiers and other heavily armed thugs took over several Haitian cities and then marched into the capital, while the Group of 184 staged confrontational demonstrations throughout the country. On Feb. 29, 2004, U.S. Marines and embassy officials entered President Aristide's home and told him to leave immediately or he and thousands of other Haitians would be killed. President Aristide was flown aboard a U.S. plane to the Central African Republic and left there.

After the 2004 coup d'etat, the Bush administration installed an unelected interim government led by Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, who came from Boca Raton, Fla. Human rights violations have been widespread since the coup. Amnesty International has documented numerous cases of extrajudicial executions attributed to members of the Haitian National Police, and the interim government has imprisoned hundreds of political prisoners without trials.

The U.S. government promised to help Haiti organize elections in order to restore democracy. The interim government was supposed to oversee these elections. However, the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), which had the responsibility for organizing the elections, did not include any representatives of the Lavalas Party, the party that represented the poor majority. The CEP refused to place any polling stations in several of Haiti's most impoverished areas, including Cite Soleil, a home to over 60,000 registered voters. It was a blatant attempt to disenfranchise the poor.

Several of Haiti's political prisoners could have run for office if they had not been in jail. Yvon Neptune, the former Prime Minister of Haiti, and Annette August, a popular Haitian singer, have both been detained illegally for over a year. Both are prominent members of President Aristide's Lavalas Party, but neither was able to participate in the elections.

Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest who ran a soup kitchen for poor children, was arrested last July and held without charges for six months. He was released in January only because he was diagnosed with leukemia, and an international outcry demanded that he be able to receive medical treatment. When several of Father Jean-Juste's supporters tried to register him as a candidate for president last fall, they were told that candidates must appear in person in order to register.

Ironically, the Lavalas Party did have a candidate in the presidential election. The interim government certified a local politician named Marc Bazin as the Lavalas' candidate for president. This would be comparable to the U.S. government arresting John Kerry, John Edwards and Howard Dean before the 2004 New Hampshire Primary and then letting the Republican Party choose a Democrat to run against President Bush.

Haiti's so-called democratic elections have always been under a cloud of suspicion because of the interim government's efforts to manipulate the electoral process. The elections were scheduled, postponed and rescheduled several times. Violence was rampant throughout the country, and there were shootouts between the Haitian National Policy and armed gangs allied with various political factions.

Finally, the elections took place on Tuesday, Feb. 7, and they were rife with impediments to voting, especially in poor neighborhoods. Numerous polling stations opened several hours late because election workers did not show up on time or did not have the proper supplies. At one polling station outside of Cite Soleil, thousands of voters arrived hours before the polls were scheduled to open at 6 a.m., but they still had not cast a single vote by 11:30 a.m., because the election officials did not have any ballots.

Despite all of the obstacles, voters lined up and waited for hours, determined to exercise their democratic rights.

Early results showed an overwhelming victory for Rene Préval, the candidate with widespread support among the country's poor. Many polling stations posted their results the day after the election, and Préval won between 60 percent and 90 percent of the vote in all of these polling stations. By Thursday, the CEP was reporting that Préval had 61.5 percent of the votes counted thus far. The candidate in second place, Leslie Manigat, had only 13.4 percent. A sample of the results by the National Democratic Institute predicted that Préval would win the election with 52 percent to 54 percent of the votes, and a survey by the Organization of American States showed Préval with an estimated 55 percent.

The anti-Aristide elites hated Rene Préval, because the latter was elected president of Haiti in 1995 as a member of the Lavalas Party and succeeded President Aristide. President Préval served as president until President Aristide's reelection in 2000, and he is believed to be influenced by President Aristide. The elites' opposition to Préval is based on their belief that he would carry out President Aristide's policies, policies that benefit Haiti's poor.

The anti-Aristide elites reacted to the news of Préval's decisive victory by trying to steal the election. Evidence of election fraud was abundant. For example, hundreds and possibly thousands of burned ballots marked for Préval were found in a garbage dump. On Feb. 12, Jacques Bernard, the executive director of the CEP and a longtime opponent of President Aristide, miraculously discovered Préval's lead had dropped below the 50 percent required to avoid a runoff in March.

The counting rules used by the CEP seemed to be designed to deny Préval a victory. About 125,000 ballots, or 7.5 percent of the votes cast, were declared invalid by the CEP because of alleged irregularities. Another 4 percent of the ballots were allegedly blank but nevertheless included in the vote count, thereby making it more difficult for Préval to exceed 50 percent. Who in their right mind would believe that 4 percent of the electorate would get up early in the morning and wait for hours outside of polling stations that failed to open on time in order to cast a blank ballot?

The same forces responsible for the coup d'etat were determined to prevent the candidate who represents the poor majority from winning the election. Forcing Rene Préval into a runoff would have given them another opportunity to steal the election and deny the people of Haiti the opportunity to be governed by the president of their choice.

Haven't the Haitian people suffered enough? The man-made terror and violence coupled with natural disasters that have been inflicted upon the people of Haiti will be recorded in history as catastrophic events that caused tremendous loss of life and an unbearable and tragic existence for the Haitian people.

After all of this suffering, it would have been outrageous for the United States to continue its failed policies and deny the poorest of people, who have withstood so much pain, poverty and disenfranchisement, and who persevered on election day, walked for miles and waited for hours, the right to elect the president of their choice.

Yesterday, as Haitians demonstrated in support of Rene Préval and international observers examined the charred remains of ballots found in a garbage dump, the CEP and the interim government finally agreed not to count the so-called blank ballots. Excluding them from the vote count brought Préval's share of the votes up to 51.15 percent, and Préval was declared the winner of the presidential election, nine days after the votes were cast.

Rene Préval is obviously the elected president of Haiti. He received considerably more than 50 percent of the vote, and he must be granted the right to serve without further interference, obstacles or violence. If the wealthy elites of Haiti are willing to accept the outcome of this election and allow President-elect Préval to govern, Haiti may be able to move forward, and the Haitian people will finally have the democracy they deserve.

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