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The Poor Always Pay: The Electoral Crisis in Haiti

Two of the three top contenders for president, in front of the National Palace. Photo: Joris Willems.

Unlike the earthquake, Haiti’s most recent crisis came with ample warning. Most Port-au-Prince residents scurried to their homes mid-afternoon last Tuesday, certain of the violence and chaos which would ensue once the electoral council announced which two presidential candidates would make it to the run-offs. The trouble-makers didn’t wait until the 8:00 p.m. announcement, but, just for good measure, started throwing rocks and erecting barricades by late afternoon. By nightfall, gunfire ricocheted around the capital and other towns. Through Friday, the black smoke of burning-tire barricades rose above the small crowds which rampaged through towns, destroying shops, government offices, electoral headquarters, and even a school; setting fire to cars; and occasionally shooting people. Haitian Radio Metropole reported five deaths.

The electoral council’s results were as transparently fraudulent as the vote itself. The only candidate with popular appeal, Michel Martelly, was excluded from the January 16 run-off. The widely hated president René Préval’s chosen successor, Jude Célestin, was inserted into the run-off along with Mirlande Manigat.

Scrambling to get itself out of its jam, the electoral council announced a recount, but both Martelly and Manigat have rejected this option. Cancellation of the vote is a distant option. The council’s routes through which to backpedal appear blocked.

Meanwhile, on Friday, Sen. Patrick Leahy, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, called for President Obama to withhold aid to the Haitian government and suspend travel visas of senior Haitian officials until “necessary steps” are taken to guarantee a democratic result. And yesterday, the ambassadors of the United Nations, Organization of American States, European Union,U.S., and four other countries urged the government on to the next legal step, requesting that the 72-hour period in which parties may contest the results begin today.

The weekend brought calm - partial on Saturday and broader on Sunday. Some ventured out hesitantly after days spent house-bound to stock up on food or view the destruction, but still motor vehicles and pedestrians remained scarce. This morning dawned as just another Haitian day, except that schools remain closed. But there are more electoral council announcements on the horizon. No one knows what the coming week will bring, but calm is not high on the list of options.

The only ones who stand to gain from the current upheaval are the candidates vying for victory, together with the demonstrators and agitators they have paid. Other acts of violence and construction of road barricades appeared to be random, enacted by thugs who control various neighborhoods or others who were perhaps simply bored. Those grassroots groups who normally sponsor demonstrations against Préval sat this week out; these are not the activities of an organized pro-democracy movement.

As always, it is the poor who have paid the heaviest cost. Sweatshop workers, carpenters, and other low-wage earners whose wages are based on the number of days they toil have been out of luck. So, too, have been those who live from the informal economy: the small army of vendors of phone cards who congregate at gas stations, the men who peddle long-expired medications from red buckets on their heads, the women who sell imported corn flakes or second-hand underwear. Because they were absent from the deserted streets from Wednesday through the weekend, their families lost the few cents they make on each sale. Those miniscule incomes can be the variable in whether a small or sick or elderly family member survives.

Those living in shantytowns where much of the violence was concentrated could not leave their homes out of fear. Neither could those living under plastic tarps or tents on the streets or in internally displaced peoples’ camps in volatile neighborhoods; they, moreover, could not even retreat behind walls or lock their doors. Numerous women in these settings, who call me whenever they have the funds for cell phone minutes, reported that their meager supplies of food and water ran out after a day or two. With no means to buy more even if they could have gone to the market, they ran to neighbors’ homes in calmer moments to try to collect small gifts to sustain their children – sometimes with more success than others. Hunger, every woman told me, has been the norm since Wednesday.

Yesterday morning, for example, one of my calls was from Dieuveut Mondestin. She is a widow who lives with four children and an infant in a tarp-covered lean-to in the shantytown of Martissant. She has no nearby relatives, no job or other support, no source of free or nearby water, and no electricity. Dieuveut had just returned from two days in the hospital, where she was watching over her dead husband’s father who had cholera. I asked how she’s made out these last few days. “I can’t suffer anything else that I haven’t already suffered, so I still have hope. But it’s been hard, hard, hard, I tell you. There was so much shooting in my neighborhood, there was nowhere to run. I haven’t had anything to feed my kids. They’re so skinny, even little Larissa; you remember she was chubby. They’re just sticks now.”

This past week has also provided the perfect conditions for a spike in cholera, what Partners in Health calls “a disease of poverty” which impacts those without safe drinking water. With roads blocked and all but a valiant few health care workers at home, much of the humanitarian coordination effort in Port-au-Prince and other parts of Haiti was in “lock-down,” a high-level cholera response worker told me on Friday. My inbox brought an urgent call for anyone who could travel to ten camps to deliver the cholera-prevention essentials of water purification tablets and bleach.

Because sanitation workers could not get to the camps, toilets and garbage overflowed to extremes. (For a chilling account, see Sasha Kramer's recent article in Counter Punch.) The sporadic rains throughout the week, moreover, spread contaminated water and sewage, ideal vectors for the disease.

One eye-witness told me that the group controlling the burning tires on the central Champs de Mars Boulevard refused to let medical transport vehicles through; ambulances were similarly blocked all over. The barricades and the lack of available drivers limited possibilities of the cholera-struck to get to health care centers during the window in which healing is possible, which in extreme cases is as short as four hours. The near-absence of drivers for medical vehicles also meant that corpses of many cholera victims remained in camps, bringing serious risk of contamination.

The socially and economically marginalized will gain nothing for their troubles, as no president sympathetic to their cause is forthcoming from these elections. None of the 19 candidates has been outspoken or active on behalf of the needs of survivors languishing in camps, or on behalf of a reconstruction process or economic model which prioritizes the most vulnerable. The unknown Célestin, from the party that has failed the citizenry, is so clueless about state responsibility that he even told a campaign crowd, “To counteract this illness [cholera] is a matter of hygiene more than anything. Hygienic measures, the state can’t assume that… It’s a personal and individual matter.”1 The right-wing intellectual Mirlande Manigat briefly served as first lady in 1988 to the figurehead president of a military dictatorship, but is otherwise undistinguished. Michel Martelly has made public no policy agenda, though it’s hard to imagine that he could effectively push through any policies. His notoriety stems being a buffoon and carrousing musician, known for such distinctly non-presidential antics as flashing his butt in public.

A vote for Martelly, several people interviewed for this article said, was a vote against the standard political elite. Human rights lawyer Patrice Florvilus said, “The [people] don’t know if Martelly will give them anything different, but they know that they won’t gain anything from the suits who are the current politicians. Martelly is a product of the vacuum of alternatives. People need an alternative to the current conditions of their life but they’ve been totally abandoned.

“So many have been under tents for eleven months with nothing coming to them. They haven’t seen any of the international aid. They’re at the end of their rope with their social problems. It’s such a shame that politicians are using them for their own political profit.”

Regardless of who wins and how, the next president will come in with constitutionally constrained powers. Because the parliament ceded its power in April to the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, a 28-member body whose membership is 50% foreign and whose co-chair is Bill Clinton, the president holds little power over the country’s future beyond the right to veto the commission’s decisions. What with the World Bank as the group’s fiscal sponsor and all that international muscle around the table, even the veto option is unlikely to translate to much authority. This constraint will remain at least until the commission’s current mandate expires in August 2011.

The electoral debacle appears to have one other beneficiary besides whoever wins the presidency. It is the boys who, for once in this super-dense city with almost no recreational spaces, have had endless open streets on which to play soccer. Block after block is full of fleet-footed kids moving between the broken cinderblocks which serve as goalposts. On an outing to check out the state of the streets, I called out to one group of boys, “This electoral craziness gave you your soccer field. You lucked out!”

One called back, “No way! We’d rather have a free election!”

Many thanks to Allyn Gaestel for her research help.

An earlier version of this article was posted on December 13th, and has since been revised.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

[1] Campaign speech of Jude Célestin, Port-au-Prince, November 25, 2010, taped by Reuters journalist Allyn Gaestel.

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