HAITIAN DIASPORA ALLOWED TO VOTE
(AFP) - By Clarens Renois
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haitian lawmakers have granted the diaspora the right to vote for the first time, a major political shift for the Caribbean nation as it seeks to recover from a catastrophic 2010 earthquake.
In an amendment to the 1987 constitution drawn up after the fall of dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, legislators voted late Monday to recognize multiple citizenship for the up to four million Haitians living abroad.
Members of the diaspora must still renounce foreign nationality to campaign for president and most other elected offices, but the residency requirement for candidates was reduced from five to three years.
The small print was still to be fleshed out before the measure becomes law by the weekend, but officials said dual nationals would be able to serve as mayors and local councilors as well as enjoy better property rights.
In a separate development, the National Assembly rejected a controversial amendment to the constitution that would have allowed president-elect Michel Martelly to serve two consecutive five-year terms.
Under current law, Haitian presidents can serve twice, as the incumbent Rene Preval has done, but the terms must not be consecutive.
The decision to enfranchise the diaspora, most of whom live in the United States and Canada, was welcomed abroad but there was some anger too at the lingering restrictions.
"The step that was taken is positive," said Jean Robert Lafortune, leader of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition.
"But it did not go far enough, because this reform formally established two kind of Haitians: those who can run for the most important posts of the country like the prime minister and the president, and those who cannot."
Given the comparative wealth of the diaspora, allowing them to vote or hold office are hugely sensitive issues for ordinary Haitians, many of whom live in abject poverty and are extremely wary of outside influence.
"It's a welcome decision for the Haitians living abroad," said Clarel Cyriaque, president of the Haitian Lawyers Association in Miami. "It's a very important step, at least the people have the feeling of being included."
In the presidential run-off in March that saw Martelly, a 50-year-old former carnival singer and entertainer, elected to replace Preval, only one million of the estimated 4.3 million eligible Haitians voted.
Allowing the diaspora to vote could therefore have a significant impact on politics in the Caribbean nation of less than 10 million, which was left shattered by a January 2010 earthquake that killed more than 225,000 people.
"Despite the restrictions, however, a positive step has been taken," said Edwin Paraison, Haiti's diaspora minister. "We waited 25 years for the government to grant Haitians living outside the country the right to vote."
Last year, international hip-hop star and former Fugees frontman Wyclef Jean was ruled out of running in the presidential elections because he had not lived long enough in Haiti. It was unclear if he would now be eligible to run.
Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert and politics professor from the University of Virginia, said estimates of the size of the Haitian diaspora vary between two million and four million people.
"It could have a very significant impact, especially if the diaspora was to organize itself," he told AFP. "It could become a very powerful bloc, it could have significant political consequences."
Fatton was not surprised lawmakers did not change the presidential term limit in a country whose recent past has been plagued by dictatorship and violent political upheaval.
"I think people are still fearful if someone has two terms they will find a way to become president for life," he said.
Haiti's newly elected leaders face the daunting task of rebuilding the Western hemisphere's poorest country after the earthquake.
More than 14 months on, hundreds of thousands of survivors subsist in squalid tent cities, unemployment hovers around 50 percent and three in four Haitians live on less than two dollars a day.
The relatively peaceful March 20 run-off and the convincing win for Martelly have raised hopes of a brighter future after a drawn-out election process tarnished by violence, fraud and political turmoil.