Haitians Protest Instability Ahead of Elections

Protesters filled the streets in Haiti Thursday to denounce violence and kidnappings ahead of national elections scheduled for next month. The vote has already been delayed four times. Steve Inskeep talks with Haiti's U.N. Mission Chief Juan Gabriel Valdes.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Haiti is supposed to hold a national election early next month. And we say `supposed to' because the election has already been scheduled four times and delayed. The official reasons are a lack of preparation and a lack of security in a country suffering from street crime and kidnappings. Just yesterday, protesters filled the streets to denounce the violence. All of this comes almost two years after a revolution in Haiti that swept out a government without leaving much in its place. To learn more, we called the United Nations mission chief in Haiti. Juan Gabriel Valdes described the situation in the city where we found him, Port-au-Prince.

Mr. JUAN GABRIEL VALDES (United Nations Mission Chief, Haiti): Well, it's a city full of cars, full of people in the streets, hundreds of thousands of people selling things, buying things; of course, very poor people. And what you see normally if you come here is a peaceful place, except for the areas that surround the famous Cite-Soleil, Vitto Ville(ph) or shantytown, where around 200,000 people live in impossible conditions and where gangs control the place.

INSKEEP: To the extent, as we understand it, that even your United Nations peacekeeping troops from a number of nations do not patrol there. Is that correct?

Mr. VALDES: We do patrol there but we are attacked every day and every night by the gangs. This has become even more difficult in recent times because of the increase of the kidnapping business in this city when the gangs found in Cite-Soleil the hiding place to put their victims.

INSKEEP: You refer to it as a kidnapping business. Is it a business for money?

Mr. VALDES: Yes, it's a business for money. And...

INSKEEP: And you said it's increased as the elections near. What's the political connection to the kidnappings?

Mr. VALDES: Well, this is something--this is a very good question. I think it's a very difficult question to answer because there are many sources of these kidnappings. You have organized groups of former policemen or people who are linked to some leaders who sometimes have public activities and sometimes have private activities. We are working very close with the international police that is here in order to prevent these kidnappers from moving from one part of the city to the other.

INSKEEP: Is it fair to say that supporters of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the Haitian president who was ousted by the revolution almost two years ago, who's now in exile--that supporters of Aristide still control parts of the capital city and that's part of the problem here?

Mr. VALDES: I would say that it is a fact that there are enemies of the democratic process and there are people who fear the elections and do not want elections. Gangs that in the past were seen as linked to the Aristide regime continue to be armed and continue to cause problems to the election.

INSKEEP: Do they have an agenda to bring Aristide back?

Mr. VALDES: If they have that agenda, and some of them declare that, we think it is a very improbable possibility, particularly because most of the leaders of the party of Aristide and those whose--who participated in the government with him are candidates for the next election.

INSKEEP: Will there be sufficient ballots, sufficient polling places and sufficient security to hold elections on February 7th as now planned?

Mr. VALDES: The voting centers have been established, considering the geographical distribution of the population. They are--we have 809 voting centers and more than 10,000 voting booths. There is no reason, no technical reason, no logistical reason to postpone the elections furthermore. The elections will take place on the 7th of February.

INSKEEP: Here's one more question about Haiti that people are also asking about another country, Iraq, right now. Do you believe, or at least hope, that holding these elections will help to diminish violence in Haiti?

Mr. VALDES: The elections are no solution for the problems of poverty and the development and institutional decay this country has. Elections are the necessary first step to return to Haiti sovereignty and to return to Haitians their real responsibility. Therefore, the international community has to stay here and has to be able to help the new government to rebuild institutions, but particularly has to indicate to the Haitians that it is their responsibility to find agreements and to be responsible in the management of the political system.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to Juan Gabriel Valdes. He's the United Nations mission chief in Haiti. Thank you very much for your time.

Mr. VALDES: Thank you very much, sir.

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