Cholera, Quake Recovery Impede Haiti's Elections

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The Haitian government has released new figures showing the cholera outbreak has reached eight of the country's 10 provinces; more than 1,300 people have died. The cholera epidemic hit as the country is still recovering from January's devastating earthquake. On top of that, presidential elections are scheduled for this weekend.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

New figures from Haiti show that cholera continues to spread. More than 1,300 people have died and the epidemic has spread to eight of the country's 10 provinces. All this, of course, happens as Haiti struggles to recover from an earthquake. And there's a presidential election scheduled for this weekend. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in Port-au-Prince. He's on the line.

Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Can Haiti really have a presidential election in these conditions?

BEAUBIEN: Well, the powers that be certainly are saying that they are going to go forward with this election. Both the U.N., which is going to be overseeing this election, providing the security, and the Haitian government are saying it's very important that this election happen. And they're saying that on Sunday people are going to go the polls and select a new president.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned the United Nations here. I wonder if that complicates things, because many people in Haiti blame the U.N., or people associated with the U.N., for bringing in this epidemic in the first place.

BEAUBIEN: That's right. And basically the rumor, the feeling of many people here is that cholera was brought in by a group of Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers. Not intentionally, but that it came in with them.

And there have been riots and protests across the country, mainly in the capital and in Cap-Haitien, which is the second largest city in the north. And that in and of itself has affected the cholera response. Aid agencies were unable to even work in Cap-Haitien for several days. The airport was shut down last week as people took to the streets in protest.

INSKEEP: What kind of campaigning have the candidates been able to do?

BEAUBIEN: Well, Port-au-Prince itself is completely sort of covered in flyers for the various candidates. You've got 19 different people running for president here at the moment. Given the crowded field, it has been fairly difficult for anyone to sort of pull forward.

And it also has been difficult, given just the logistics in Port-au-Prince with so much of the infrastructure affected, you know, there aren't really great places for people to hold big rallies. So people have been taking to the airwaves, to the radio stations. But the campaign has also been somewhat limited because of both the earthquake and the cholera.

INSKEEP: Well, what are Haitians telling you as they try to deal with all of these factors at once?

BEAUBIEN: You know, yesterday I was out walking around in one of the camps, and people are afraid of the cholera. And part of the problem is that Haitians have not had cholera here in this generation. So people don't understand it. It can be treated quite quickly. But also it's a legitimate fear. Given that people are living in these incredibly crowded camps - the sanitation is terrible, you can smell the toilets, you can smell the human waste - people are very afraid that this is just going to completely take off and it's going to kill them.

INSKEEP: Well, I'm wondering how the election then plays into all of that, because you could imagine an election campaign being the kind of event that would give people some confidence and enthusiasm. But you can also very easily see how elections can lead to uncertainty and even greater fear or anxiety about the future.

BEAUBIEN: And I think it's the latter which is happening here. I think it's leading to more anxiety, more fear, because people don't know what's coming. President Preval has been criticized for not being strong enough.

None of these candidates, because there's such a crowded field and because no one has sort of emerged as a leader, someone that's saying we are going to solve your problems definitively, I think it has lead to more sort of insecurity in people's minds, because they don't know what's coming.

And also I think there's a concern that some of the large rallies and large street protests could turn violent in terms of people's overall frustration just starts pouring out.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jason Beaubien is on a rooftop in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. That nation is holding a presidential election this weekend.

Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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