It's a New Day for Haiti, If U.S. Would Accept It

Amy Wilentz is the author of "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier."

Elections in Haiti have traditionally been corrupt, and the walk-ups to them, as well as election day itself, have often been violent. Few people who were there, for example, can forget the first time post-Duvalier Haiti tried to hold elections, in November 1987. On election day, bands of hooligans stormed into a polling place at a school on the Ruelle Vaillant in Port-au-Prince and killed a score of people waiting in line to mark their ballots. The elections were called off. It was a day of death and national mourning.

But times have changed. Two weeks ago, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Lavalas Family party swept to victory in municipal and legislative elections that, while marred by sundry irregularities--some of them not negligible--were deemed credible by more than 200 international electoral observers of the Organization of American States who monitored the vote.

For months before the elections, opposition leaders in Haiti cried foul: It's their favorite thing to do, and the one thing they do well. They alleged that Aristide's supporters and Lavalas were using violence to try to put off scheduled municipal and legislative elections as long as possible, hoping to postpone the vote until the end of this year, when presidential elections are also slated to take place. The reason the opposition gave for Lavalas' alleged stalling? It claimed Aristide was afraid the opposition would win the early elections and that a legislature run by his opponents would effectively paralyze a future Aristide administration. Whereas a vote taken during the presidential election would bring in a Lavalas legislature on Aristide's presumably capacious coattails.

But the opposition's analysis was wrong, partly because it was not an analysis, it was propaganda.

With Lavalas poised on the rumble of a landslide, the opposition took up the cry of fraud and has now formally demanded the election be annulled. Reflecting the vacuum of ideas and policies in which the opposition has been festering for years, the head of the Espace de Concertation (Common Ground), a coalition of five parties, called the election "a disaster" and said the vote puts Haiti in "a new crisis."

Poor opposition. First, they claim Aristide doesn't want to play the game because he can't win. Then, when he plays and wins, they pick up their marbles and say it wasn't fair. But they can't have it both ways.

Or can they? It is unfortunately true that almost from the moment the U.S. government reluctantly reinstalled Aristide to power in Haiti in 1994, three years after a military coup sent him into exile, Washington has been trying to figure out how to rid itself of this troublesome priest.

During the almost five years since Aristide's term as president ended, the U.S. Embassy and the office of the U.S. Agency for International Development in Port-au-Prince, which have been at the root of so many of the enduring problems Haiti suffers, encouraged unpopular opposition leaders; funded slapped-together political parties with no electoral constituencies; and helped to destroy any possible consensus in the Parliament, which after a year and a half of embarrassing contentiousness and paralysis was effectively dissolved (extraconstitutionally) by President Rene Preval in January 1999.

With backers like the Embassy, the opposition is dangerous and destructive, which it would not be if it were a real adversary of Aristide's--and if it would confront him openly on the desperate economic and policy crises Haiti faces.

This is not to say there are not worthy and decent men and women leading the Haitian opposition. There definitely are--many of them. But their mission--which, for the moment, should be to put honest and public checks on the Lavalas juggernaut, to protect the interests of whatever Haitians support them and to add their voices and ideas to a serious national debate--has been hijacked by the U.S.

The opposition attacks made on Aristide in the days leading up to the May 21 election were an echo of the allegations and disinformation, sometimes word for word, used against him back in 1990, in the run-up to Haiti's first successful free and fair election, which put Aristide in the presidential palace. Because much of that stuff came from Embassy sources (which based their "facts," in part, on hearsay from the Haitian elite), it's only logical to assume the current attacks on Aristide come from the same place. The U.S. just can't wrap its mind around Aristide, no matter how democratically he may be elected: They remember him vividly from the days before his presidency as a left-leaning, anti-U.S. nationalist.

Too bad for the U.S. and the Haitian elite that the Haitian people still prefer Aristide, as this election has again shown. A free and fair election is a free and fair election, and the opposition parties are, one can only hope, going to have to deal with what the electorate has chosen. Perhaps if Lavalas' opponents address the issues of concern to the Haitian people (some that come to mind: land reform, agricultural credit, schools, health care); perhaps if they can find the time to go out among the people and ways to connect to the people--perhaps then they, too, will be able to win elections one day.

For the moment, however, the ball is squarely back in Aristide's hands. If the international community remains firm in supporting this election's validity (even the State Department said it was satisfied with the high turnout and the "atmosphere"--if not the outcome), then there will be no runoff election and a period of calm should continue until the presidential election. President Preval will be able to start in on the Lavalas agenda as soon as the new legislature is seated.

What will his--and Aristide's--platform contain? One wonders if the new government will have the guts to confront the kinds of reforms Aristide has talked about for two decades. For example: getting wealthy Haitians to pay their taxes, instead of forcing the government to rely almost exclusively on little receipts from poverty-stricken market ladies. Another crisis facing the new legislative session: convincing Washington to restore the $30 million in aid earmarked for Haiti that has been blocked by the bizarre machinations of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and his staff.

These are difficult issues in a difficult time. Fortunately for Lavalas and Aristide, the new Haitian government will function with the support of the Haitian people. Right now, with the memory of that huge, enthusiastic and courageous turnout fresh in their minds, Lavalas legislators and leaders should be busy thinking about policies that will be responsive to the needs of their constituents. To squander their wide margin of victory on the kinds of bickering and backbiting that have been a hallmark of Haitian legislatures since the Duvalier dynasty fell (and before, too) would be a historic waste, and a tragedy. To use such massive support to intimidate its opponents would also be wrong--but there have been ominous reports of post-election detentions of a number of opposition members.

The Haitian people still believe in Aristide, in spite of--or possibly because of--the last few years of violence, economic disaster and a rapidly decaying social and physical infrastructure. They still believe he's the best man to pull them out of their national nose dive. They deserve to be proven correct. *

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