Haitian Election Planning Hampered by Disagreement

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Elections in Haiti are scheduled for Jan. 8, the first polls since last year's ouster of former President Aristide. But the vote, which is being coordinated among the Organization of American States, the United Nations, and Haitians, has been plagued by difficulty and postponements.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Haiti is preparing for elections in the new year. The voting on January 8th will be the first since last year's ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide or rather it'll be the first voting assuming the election happens. It's been postponed three times and many in that Caribbean nation are predicting that it will be delayed again. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.

(Soundbite of bells)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Bells toll at Port-au-Prince's main cathedral as the faithful and the powerful in this troubled country gather to pray. Sponsored by the Organization of American States which is helping to organize Haiti's elections, the ceremony was billed as a Mass for democracy and peace. Haiti can use all the prayers it can get.

While US and international pressure has been mounting to stick to the January 8th date, there has been talk that the elections will have to be moved yet again. OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza denied that it was being considered.

Secretary-General JOSE MIGUEL INSULZA (Organization of American States): It's a big mistake to start thinking about postponements because things are usually, in this country as in several other countries, are done at the last moment.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's an understatement. With less than two weeks to go, the process here is in disarray.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At Plasjeremi(ph) near downtown Port-au-Prince, dozens of Haitians standing in the hot sun fight to get into a collection center. Some have been waiting in line for three to four hours and frustration is mounting. Inside a stuffy basement room with fans blowing full tilt, people line up to receive their national identity card. The OAS, which was in charge of the successful if slow registration process, got 3.5 million people to sign up. For many, these cards are their first-ever formal identity papers, but the cards took a long time to come back from Mexico where they were made, and now that they've arrived, there have been difficulties. Makenson Lorse(ph) helps distribute the cards.

Mr. MAKENSON LORSE: (Through Translator) We have a lot of cards that are messed up that we have to send back to Mexico and that will slow the process again because those cards are no good. I don't have my card. Mine was totally burned. You couldn't see my face. You could only see my eyes. These cards need to be redone. Here in this office alone, I have 1,700 cards that are no good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cards have also been slow to get to outlying areas to be handed out. The United States has turned a request by the United Nations for a loan of 10 helicopters to transport the material. Many voters have also yet to be assigned to polling centers. The 40,000 poll workers needed are only just starting to be selected and trained.

Mr. GERARD LeSHAVEAU(ph): The office here, these ones, if I had known, I wouldn't have taken the job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gerard LeShaveau, in charge of the election coordination for MINUSTAH, the United Nations stabilization mission in Haiti, has conducted 40 elections in 22 countries over the years. One of the main problems here, he says, has been the infighting in Haiti's provisional electoral council or CEP.

Mr. LeSHAVEAU: Even in mythological tales, monsters only have seven heads or a maximum of seven heads. Here the CEP had nine and no Hercules to deal with. So there was nobody to take positions. The organization was immobilized by the lack of decision-making procedures.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The problem with the CEP, say observers, have been twofold. First, the CEP is a provisional body, meaning that the organization meant to steward the elections has no institutional knowledge to draw on. Second, it's made up of a committee of representatives of political parties who distrust one another and not technocrats who understand how to make elections happen. It was only two months ago that a director was appointed. Pierre Richard Duchemin is with the CEP, whose members have been blaming the OAS and the United Nations for the election delays, saying they have not lived up to their commitments.

Mr. PIERRE RICHARD DUCHEMIN: There is no perfect election in the world. There is a level of acceptability and this is what is being questioned now and this is the question that has to be--rather we have to find an answer very fast.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Apart from the technical problems, Haiti is faced with a host of other challenges. Haiti's interim government has been criticized for imprisoning supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, among them Father Gerard Jean-Juste, an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience who was considering a run for president. At a recent protest on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Sama Mackendell(ph), an activist representing a wing of Aristide's party Lavalas, said that the elections are illegitimate and cannot be held in the current conditions.

Mr. SAMA MACKENDELL: (Through Translator) If we are making this protest today, it's a way for us to ask that they free all political prisoners from Lavalas before the elections because it's a sad day today when we hear speaking of elections and we realize all the political prisoners are Lavalas sympathizers. And today for these elections to be constitutional, they would need President Aristide to legitimize them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Aristide left Haiti on February 29th, 2004, after months of protests and an armed uprising. His supporters contend he was kidnapped. The Haitian police have been criticized for gross human rights abuses in Lavalas areas, including beatings and killings. Several people were murdered in cold blood over the summer in a soccer stadium in a poor neighborhood of the capital.

Lavalas has now split three ways. Of the other two, one has as its official candidate former Prime Minister Marc Bazin. The other is supporting former President Rene Preval. There are a total, though, of 35 presidential candidates and 44 parties. And after this first round of elections, there is expected to be a runoff between the two leading presidential contenders.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Security continues to be a huge issue. Radio stations last week led with the news of the killing near the violent slums of Cite Soleil of a Canadian peacekeeper. On Christmas day, a Jordanian soldier was gunned down. Pitched battles between heavily armed UN troops and gang members in Cite Soleil are a frequent occurrence. Haiti is now one of the kidnapping capitals of the hemisphere. Recently, a busload of children was taken and several election workers were abducted, too.

People: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just next to the cathedral where the Mass is being held, a group of unemployed young men sing to pass the time in the neighborhood of Bel Aire, another stronghold of support for Aristide which is now heavily patrolled by minister troops. They call themselves Under The Almond Tree(ph). Ridric Von Charles(ph) steps away from them to talk.

Mr. RIDRIC VON CHARLES: (Through Translator) This area was hot and violent and we were always viewed as wild animals, but we are human beings and this is an area where many innocents fell victim to the situation of violence. Now we've entered an era of peace and we need to sensitize everyone to the fact that we are all Haitians. The majority of people here are hungry. Some cannot go to school. Some cannot afford to put clothes on their backs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And for these Haitians and many others like them, the elections with all the delays and difficulties seems like a distant and intangible thing on which to pin their hopes for change.

People: (Singing in foreign language)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

People: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: Tomorrow, we'll profile some of Haiti's 35 presidential candidates.

People: (Singing in foreign language)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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