FRIENDS TUG HAITI IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS
(Miami Herald) - By Jacqueline Charles
As a chaotic Haiti fell deeper into a political crisis, solutions remained elusive.
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- The seeds of chaos were sown just hours after a skeptical United States issued a statement questioning the preliminary results of Haiti's first presidential runoff elections since the 1986 fall of the dictatorship.
The next day, in the midst of widespread tire burning and destruction, the U.S. Embassy released a more muted message but not before Brazil fired off its own communiqué.
The Brazilians, it turned out, supported the work of an international observer mission, which said while there were serious ``irregularities'' in Haiti's Nov. 28 elections, they were not grave enough to void the vote.
The flip-flop by the United States, and conflicting positions of two of Haiti's most important allies, underscore the split in the international community over Haiti, a country in chaos.
``I don't have an answer,'' Mark Schneider, a longtime Haiti watcher with the International Crisis Group said, uncertain of the next move. ``Somebody has to really take charge.''
The crisis over who should replace President René Préval when he leaves office on Feb. 7 has caused airlines to cancel flights, businesses to shut down and Haiti watchers to once more shake their heads in dismay.
``Political stability is at stake,'' Erik Solheim, Norway's minister for international development, told The Miami Herald. ``It's not clear whether it's [Jude] Célestin or [Michel] Martelly who won the right to be in the runoff for the presidency.''
Also at stake are billions in promised reconstruction dollars to help victims of the devastating January earthquake reclaim their lives. Eleven months after the quake, at least one million Haitians continue to live beneath tarps and tents as both reconstruction and the suppression of a deadly cholera outbreak take a backseat to the current crisis.
``This election is a sad and unfortunate step backward for Haiti's political process,'' said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at Trinity University in Washington, D.C. ``Candidates who assume they can decide things in the streets; the incredible hypocrisy of all of the candidates....It's all about the individuals, `All about me.' ''
As a special commission of Haitians and foreigners met Saturday to work out a review of the disputed tallies, a national observation group continued its refusal to participate unless elections officials invite all 19 presidential candidates to be a part of the review.
Mirlande Manigat and Martelly, among the leading vote getters, also refused to participate, saying they lack faith in the process.
Both were among a dozen presidential candidates -- of 17 candidates on the ballot -- who disrupted the vote on Election Day, demanding it be canceled. The two accused President René Préval's INITE (UNITY) coalition of engineering ``massive fraud'' to install Célestin, the former head of the government road construction agency. They later back-tracked.
After election officials announced that Célestin, 48, had edged out Martelly, 49, by fewer than 7,000 votes to join Manigat in a runoff, Martelly's supporters took to the streets, burning tires and destroying businesses, chanting that the vote had been stolen. The protests have paralyzed the capital and the southwest city of Les Cayes as the international community appeals for calm -- and Préval and Célestin, for now, hold back their supporters in the slums.
``You are in a situation where things can really degenerate into a civil war. People just fighting in the streets, complete chaos,'' said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. ``You clearly don't have a consensus in the international community. All of the Haitian actors are playing on that.''
Fatton said there is nothing surprising about the days of paralyzing street demonstrations. It is something the international community, which paid most of the $29 million election bill, should have envisioned -- and planned for in a country where it has become common to take political battles to the streets.
In recent days, key actors in the international community have each floated their own proposals: Brazil pushed a three-person runoff that would involve Manigat, Célestin and Martelly. The United Nations suggested that Célestin withdraw. The United States asked for a true recount with foreign experts going through not just the tally sheets but checking the actual ballots against the partial voter lists. Canada floated cancellation and new elections under an interim government.
``The international community cannot reach an agreement,'' said Fatton.
The lack of a unified voice has also raised suspicions among Haitians as to what the international community is really after.
``What are their interests? What is their agenda?'' said Manigat, 70, lamenting the fact that since the elections no foreign diplomat has contacted her to be part of a solution. Ready for the runoff, she could very well be among the biggest losers as the elections turn into a battle between her rivals.
``Elections are an alternative to revolution. If you want change, you make your voice heard with your ballot,'' she said. ``But ever since the 1987 constitution in Haiti, every election has been an occasion for problems because there is always an effort by those in power or a particular group to manipulate the vote.''
Some fear as all sides dig their heels in, from Préval to the candidates to elections officials, the international community may be left with no other choice but to cancel elections or come up with a political solution that the opposition would not accept unless it involves the departure of Préval.
``People are fed up with him and if anything the election has shown that he has lost credibility in the eyes of Haitians,'' Fatton said of Préval. ``If the international community is not prepared to push for three candidates in a runoff...what else do you do? You cancel, tell him he remains president until Feb. 7 and have new elections.''
Cancellation and new elections would involve a transitional government, a move opposed by some like Manigat and, for now, the United States, which has said it wants to have Préval replaced by an elected president and legislature.
The fear is that with countries already reluctant to ante up nearly $11 billion in promised aid, a non-elected government would make it even more difficult to help Haiti rebuild and lure investors.
Martelly, despite protests, has yet to formally contest the preliminary results, the electoral council's spokesman said. His continued refusal to participate in the process could lead to the beleaguered elections council proceeding with the review without him, deciding that Célestin did indeed edge him out, and moving to a Jan. 16 runoff.
In that case, whichever candidate wins the second round, Manigat or Célestin, would come into office under a cloud of suspicion.
``President Préval should remember he is the president of all Haitians before he is the head of INITE and he should be able to look at the national interests of the country and make a decision,'' said Michel Eric Gaillard, a political analyst in Haiti. ``He doesn't have any more political capital. He spent it on Jan. 12 [the date of the earthquake]. There was a complete lack of leadership that weakened his status.''
Gaillard said the international community is looking for a political solution to what is a technical question in the face of general outcry by Haitians that something went terribly array on Nov. 28.
``To have Jude withdraw is not the answer. He cannot do that. You either have to say the results are good, or the results are bad. What if they are correct?'' he said. ``What they would need to do is an audit of the election ballots, a document tracing.''
But with Martelly refusing to take part in the process -- and Manigat demanding a real recount -- it remains unclear what will happen even as the commission begins its review of the tally sheets.
``Usually in the past somebody has come out of the Haitian election scenario smelling good. I don't see anybody coming out of this looking good, including the international community,'' Maguire said.