All indicators suggest a fiasco for the scheduled fall elections in Haiti. The International Crisis Group (ICG) observed that 18 months after former President Jean Bertrand Aristide was forced out of the country, Haiti remains insecure and volatile. On the part of much of the population ICG saw “disenchantment, apathy and ignorance about the electoral process.” Rightfully so, this reputable Geneva-based organization concluded it is essential and urgent that those conditions be reversed.
Apathy and lack of familiarity with the electoral process is no surprise. Last April Ron Gould, a consultant with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), wrote “the voter registration process is technology driven as a result of a decision of the Organization of American States.” Gould, who openly worried about the “the high cost, high risk nature” of this decision given Haiti’s lack of infrastructure, concluded still “there is no turning back.”
It is hardly surprising that ICG reported “a week before the scheduled close of registration, only 870,000 [of 4 million] potential voters had registered, and none had yet received the new national identity card required to vote.”
So, could authentic elections be held in today’s Haiti? The answer is linked to the willingness of powerful countries like Canada to let Haitians control their destiny and determine the political fate of their leaders.
There are several critical developments that offer a basis for believing that a genuine election remains possible. First, Aristide, the exiled president, confirmed he shall not defy the Haitian Constitution to seek a third mandate. Second, Aristide’s return to complete a botched second mandate is being demanded by himself and by his supporters as part of a national reconciliation process which they insist must include free elections. Thirdly, all members of the interim government signed an agreement confirming they shall not seek political office in the upcoming elections. And finally, the fully deployed UN mission (MINUSTAH) by far outguns and outnumbers Haiti’s armed factions and, consequently, has suffered minimal casualties. Provided adequate political direction, a MINUSTAH refocused on true peacekeeping rather than targeted political repression could easily secure the country for elections.
Clearly, the challenge facing the foreign powers (Canada, U.S., and France) that supervised the disastrous “regime change” in Haiti is political rather than military. The question, then, is whether the necessary shift in political vision can take root in the minds of Martin, Bush and Chirac. Will they recognize that the main problem is the illegal nature of the post-coup regime they installed, which Haitians and foreigners alike find difficult to take seriously?
Meanwhile, it is generally recognized and even admitted by senior officials at Canada’s Foreign Affairs department that Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas remains Haiti’s most popular party. It goes without saying that an election without Lavalas would be considered a sham. Yet, the U.S., Canada, France, and the interim government have openly and actively sought to destabilize and eliminate Lavalas from the running, by promoting a split within the party. Martin’s Special Advisor on Haiti, Denis Coderre, has gone so far as to name two individuals he deems suitable replacements for Aristide. This ill-inspired strategy has served to irredeemably discredit these foreign-blessed “moderates” who have lost the respect of Haitians. It has become such a cynical farce that news broke on Aug. 4 that Guy Phillipe, the infamous paramilitary now presidential candidate who headed the violent coup from the Dominican Republic, has announced seeking an alliance with moderate Lavalas. As could be logically expected, Lavalas officials reaffirmed that the condition of their participation in the elections remain unchanged: release some 1,000 political prisoners, end political persecutions and return President Aristide to complete his mandate.
What does Canada offer?
Despite the efforts of a growing number of Haiti solidarity activists, Martin shows no signs his official policy is diverging from the course championed by Pierre Pettigrew, who continues to openly embrace the character assassination of the exiled president. Most disturbingly, Pettigrew continues to dismiss the many reports from credible independent organizations such as the Miami School of Law, Harvard University, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey and Amnesty International which indicate that post-coup civilian killings and political assassinations have been primarily directed against Lavalas supporters. According to Pettigrew, the painstakingly documented horrors described in these reports are mere “Lavalas propaganda.” Consequently, the violations are ignored and the illegal regime committing them continues to enjoy Canada’s unflinching complicity.
Claude Boucher, Canada’s Ambassador to Haiti, told the Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas on Dec. 9, 2004: “We hope that Aristide is going to disappear… I believe that he should never come back. [...]We hope [an enquiry into alleged corruption by the Aristide government] will show Aristide is guilty of so many criminal actions.” Obviously, for Canada to play a productive role in Haiti, official Canadian policy cannot be so partial and paternalistic. Pettigrew and Martin must accept that Haitians have the final say in matters concerning their nation’s future, that CARICOM (Caribbean Community Secretariat) and South Africa are important players whose peace-seeking role must be accorded due respect, and that voices of moderation both from within and outside Haiti must be heard and listened to.
Canada is openly supporting the machinations of an economically powerful but unlawful minority in Haiti. The just grievances of Haiti’s impoverished, now humiliated, disempowered and marginalized majority are still being ignored. What is urgently needed, as recommended by Thabo Mbeki and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), is a genuine peace initiative that actively and respectfully engages exiled President Aristide as well as his opponents. Canada could play an active role in this, but only if a significant paradigm shift occurs in its foreign policy towards Haiti.
Our fast growing movement of solidarity with Haiti shall not be detracted by opportunistic political statements or symbolic appointments made to deviate attention from the real issues. From Prince Edward Island to British Columbia, and certainly in Pierre Pettigrew’s Papineau riding in QuÃ©bec, our cry will continue to resonate loud and clear: No to sham elections in Haiti! Yes to genuine and fair elections, following the release of all political prisoners and the return of Haiti’s exiled constitutional president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
There remains one question: Does our prime minister, who recently shocked everyone with the surprised nomination of Haitian-born MichÃ¤elle Jean as Governor General of Canada, have the courage to do the right thing when there are few evident political points to gain even if risking disapproval from Bush?
Mr. Prime Minister, won’t you surprise us again, this time, by boldly taking a foreign policy roundabout to embrace the rightful aspirations of the Haitian people to social justice, recovered dignity and sovereignty?
Jean Saint-Vil is a founding member of the Canada Haiti Action Network: www.canadahaitiaction.ca