If Haitiâ€™s much awaited (and four times postponed) elections take place on February 7, many questions will be answered: are the reduced number of voting centers sufficient, as the government promises? Did the troubled process of registering voters and distributing cards, which caused most of the delays, finally work? And of course, the big question: can the Haitian police and the UN Peacekeepers protect voters against those who will use violence to derail the process?
February 7 will close the book on other questions that will never be answered. We will never know how much a third consecutive peaceful and punctual transfer of power from an elected President to an elected successor would have consolidated Haitiâ€™s fragile democracy. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made the first such transfer in Haitiâ€™s history in 1996, President Rene Preval the second one in 2001. The Constitution sets the third transfer for this February 7, but on that day the current elected President, President Aristide, will be in exile in South Africa, thousands of miles away, and his successor will not have been picked. We will never know how all the prominent politicians confined unjustly to jail, like former Senate President and Prime Minister Yvon Neptune- one of the top vote getters in the May 2000 legislative elections- would have done had they run in the elections. We will never know how many votes the Lavalas party- which has won every election since the end of the Duvalier regime in 1986, by a landslide- would have won this time. Lavalas announced eighteen months ago that it would participate in elections when the repression against it stopped, but the interim government has not been willing to make that concession.
But the biggest question of all will not be answered on February 7 or in Haiti at all: whether the international community will accept the Haitian votersâ€™ choice this time. Haitiâ€™s last elections, in November 2000, were held in relative security, with broad public participation and a clear popular choice. But the U.S., France, Canada and other countries disagreed with that choice, so they undermined the elected government with three years of political and economic coercion, and eventually bundled the President onto a U.S. plane headed for the Central African Republic.
Haitiâ€™s Caribbean neighbors, the CARICOM countries, know that the answer to this question is vital to Haitiâ€™s democracy, as well as to their own. They understand that as long as wealthy countries retain their veto power over Haitian elections, and elite minorities can appeal their losses to Washington, that Haiti will never develop a sustainable, peaceful democracy.
The CARICOM countries also know that instability in Haiti endangers their own stability, and not only because of the refugees generated by each successive coup dâ€™etat. If the powerful countries can get away with brazenly kidnapping Haitiâ€™s president, they can cause similar disruption elsewhere in the neighborhood, especially as Caribbean governments spend an increasing share of their budgets on foreign debt service.
So CARICOM has been asking questions about the international communityâ€™s commitment to democracy in Haiti for two years now. They requested the Organization of American States (OAS) to investigate the circumstances of the February 2004 coup dâ€™etat, hoping that shining light on that coup dâ€™etat would prevent a recurrence in Haiti, or in their own countries. Although CARICOM countries have almost half the votes in the OAS, they do not pay half the expenses, so the organization ignored their request. The Africa Union, which together with CARICOM has a third of the seats in the United Nations, asked that body to investigate, with similar results.
Although many powerful countries would like to see this question go away, it is too central to everything that is happening right now in Haiti to sweep under the rug. If the elections go well on February 7, it will be because hundreds of election workers toiled long hours at great risk and with little pay to make it so. If there is high participation, it will be because millions of voters walked a long way to wait patiently in long lines in the hot sun to exercise their right to vote. But all this sacrifice will be an empty exercise if foreign powers and a minority in Haiti once again veto the results.
The New York Times raised the question about U.S. tolerance for Haitian votersâ€™ decisions on January 29, with a long story titled â€œDemocracy Undone.â€ The article documented the Bush Administrationâ€™s systematic implementation of unconstitutional regime change, even against the objections of its own ambassador to Haiti. Four human rights groups- Yale Law Schoolâ€™s Human Rights Clinic, TransAfrica Forum, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux and the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti- raised the question again on February 2, in a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the human rights arm of the OAS. The petition was filed on behalf of Haitian citizens whose democratic rights were violated by the overthrow of their democracy. The petition demonstrates that the OASâ€™ own conventions- especially the Inter-American Democratic Charter- guarantee Haitian citizens the right to vote and to participate in government. It shows how those rights were violated by the overthrow of Haitian democracy and its replacement with an unelected, unconstitutional regime run by Prime Minister flown in from Boca Raton, Florida.
The Inter-American Commission petition also notes that the OAS conventions prescribe consequences when those rights are violated. It notes that the OAS has not, in fact, implemented the prescribed consequences, and it challenges the Inter-American Commission to take democratic rights seriously by conducting an investigation.
The petitioners know their lawsuit will not bring their elected government back, or compensate Haitians for the two years of violence and repression that the coup dâ€™etat unleashed. Just as the poor of Port-au-Prince who will brave gunfire to vote on Tuesday, and the peasants who leave fields in need of tending for the hoursâ€™ long hike to the voting centers understand that they are making limited choices, making the best out of an extremely flawed election. But they believe in the principles of democracy that the worldâ€™s powerful institutions, like the OAS, the UN and the U.S. government so frequently preach, so they keep trying.
If past is any guide, Haitian voters will do what they can on Tuesday. They will collectively make a Herculean effort to vote, and will persist against all obstacles except massive deadly violence. And their choice will, once again, be clear: one candidate will win, as usual, by a large margin, while the remaining 31 candidates split a fraction of the votes. And more importantly, behind the clear choice of leadership will be an unequivocal mandate to fundamentally change the horrible social and economic conditions that have plagued Haitiâ€™s poor for centuries.
If the past is any guide, the powerful institutions will immediately try to limit the implementation of this mandate, through sanctions, embargos and other coercive measures that are explicitly prohibited by international law. If necessary, they will physically remove non-compliant elected officials.
Haitian votersâ€™ persistence in choosing their own leaders, and the wealthy countriesâ€™ persistence in undermining that choice, challenges the rest of us- we who believe in democracy and can participate in government without walking for hours, dodging bullets or risking political prison. We are challenged to decide whether we believe in democracy enough to speak out when our tax dollars and political power are used to veto the Haitian votersâ€™ choices.
Brian Concannon Jr. directs the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), http://www.ijdh.org, and was an OAS election observer for several elections in Haiti in 1995.