Rice Visits Haiti Ahead of Elections

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Haiti Tuesday, urging voters to turn out for upcoming presidential elections. A U.S.-backed interim government has run the Caribbean nation since former President Jean Aristide was pushed from power in January 2004. U.N. peacekeeping forces have struggled to control violence.

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stopped in Haiti ahead of elections there. She urged the interim government to work more quickly to make the vote go smoothly, and she also appealed for Haitians to show up for the voting in November. NPR's Michele Kelemen traveled with the secretary to Port-au-Prince.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

A year and a half after a US jet carried Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile from a bloody uprising, Secretary Rice avoided talking about the US role in Aristide's hasty departure. Instead she called on Haitians to look toward the future and, as she put it, `reclaim the right to choose a democratic leader.'

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (State Department): Throughout history, people have fought for the right to vote. Some have indeed died for the right to vote. There is no more powerful weapon in the hands of a citizen than the vote, and so to the people of Haiti, I urge you to use that powerful weapon, the vote, in the days ahead.

KELEMEN: The secretary and her entourage had to move under heavy security, traveling by helicopter from the airport to the presidential palace, where United Nations forces stood guard. In one carefully scripted photo-op, she stopped by a makeshift registration center where election workers were registering a couple of voters.

Sec. RICE: It's very uplifting to visit this registration center and to see voters lined up here to register to vote. It's a very impressive system that the Organization of American States has helped the Haitian people put in. It's computerized. People are getting their national identification cards, which they will then use to vote, and it's really very impressive.

KELEMEN: But US officials are clearly anxious about how this vote will go. As one official traveling with Rice put it, the Haitians have `a hell of a job' if they're to meet a February deadline to have a permanent government in place. There are more than 30 presidential candidates. Registration deadlines have been extended repeatedly, and Secretary Rice said she's concerned that the Haitians haven't ironed out crucial details, such as where to put polling stations. At a joint news conference with Rice, the prime minister of the US-backed Haitian government, Gerard Latortue, sounded defensive.

Prime Minister GERARD LATORTUE (Haiti): (Through Translator) These concerns that were expressed by the United States and by the international community are the same concerns of the Haitian government. These technical problems need to be resolved.

KELEMEN: Congressman Kendrick Meek, a Florida Democrat, who joined Secretary Rice on her trip, still has doubts. He's been a critic of the Bush administration policy on Haiti, but praised Rice for what he called `a full-court press' on the need for clean elections and for encouraging Aristide's Lavalas party to take part.

Senator Mike DeWine, a Republican from Ohio, said the US has to remain committed to helping the hemisphere's poorest nation.

Senator MIKE DeWINE (Republican, Ohio): It's not going to be easy. It's not going to be just having democratic elections. That's the first step. You know, it will give validity to the government, but that's not enough.

KELEMEN: DeWine talks about the grinding poverty and environmental degradation that was visible even on this one-day whirlwind tour, and he's realistic about the future. As he puts it, Haiti is `a country of disappointments.'

Michele Kelemen, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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