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Haiti Election Grows More Distant as Preparations Move Sluggishly

Times Staff Writer

When Haiti’s interim government was named 20 months ago, rules were established making the transitional leaders ineligible to run in the next election to ensure they wouldn’t use their offices to advance personal political agendas.

That strategy of creating disinterest may be working too well.

With Haitian Cabinet members, senior advisors and national elections organizers excluded from elected office for the next five years, none of them has been moving with much enthusiasm to arrange a vote for a new president or parliament.

The election campaign officially started Saturday, but the hamstrung Provisional Electoral Council used the occasion to concede that voting, originally scheduled to begin Oct. 9 and twice postponed to dates in November, must now wait until at least mid-December.

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“We remain committed to a Feb. 7 inauguration,” interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told reporters on the eve of the campaign kickoff, referring to the deadline imposed by the international community for Haiti to have a democratically elected government.

Aspiring candidates, voters and international observers say they fear the transitional rulers and members of the electoral council are reluctant to relinquish power.

“Those people are completely incompetent. They don’t want technical assistance from outside to facilitate elections because they want to keep power for themselves,” said presidential candidate Marc Louis Bazin, running for the Lavalas Party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Officials of the United Nations and the Organization of American States who have fanned across Haiti to register voters and distribute generators, mobile telephones, computers and other voting equipment, say they are still waiting for the government to designate polling places, not to mention election dates.

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“From our side, we are ready,” said U.N. mission spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona. “But we are not in charge of the elections. We are assisting and serve at the government’s discretion.”

A State Department official here called the electoral council “dysfunctional” and said the U.S. government was “very concerned.”

The council has yet to publish a list of approved candidates even though registration closed two weeks ago. Friday’s planned lottery for ballot positions has been canceled. The candidate list is a necessary first step, to be followed by three weeks for legal challenges, another three weeks for contractors to print ballots and two weeks to get the materials distributed to polling places. A similar period would be needed ahead of second-round voting, which would push the run-off and outcome well beyond Feb. 7.

“Do the math,” said Gerard Le Chevallier, the U.N. election coordinator who has overseen contentious ballots the world over. “We can’t compress this critical path of eight weeks any more than we already have.”

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The electoral council and Latortue’s government have also come under fire for rejecting 22 of 54 presidential hopefuls, including some of the most popular figures to emerge from a field dominated by faces from Haiti’s tainted political past.

Texas tycoon Dumarsais Simeus, born here to illiterate rice farmers, was denied a place on the ballot on the grounds that he allegedly had taken U.S. citizenship. Also barred from running was a recently defrocked Catholic priest and staunch Aristide ally, Gerard Jean-Juste, because he failed to deliver his application in person. Jean-Juste has been in jail since July 21, without being formally charged, on suspicion of illegal weapons possession, incitement to violence and involvement in a journalist’s murder.

Both Simeus and Jean-Juste accuse the interim government of illegal interference in the elections.

“This election is about putting food on the table. I’m sick and tired of hearing about dual-nationality issues. Haitians don’t care about that,” said Simeus, a 69-year-old food processing magnate.

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Simeus believes his track record of honestly acquired wealth would inspire hope in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, which has the lowest literacy rate in the Americas, is racked by disease and corruption and has a long history of despotic rule.

Simeus refused to confirm that he was a U.S. citizen, but accused Latortue of personally ordering border authorities to dredge up the old customs declaration that the electoral council used to exclude him.

Haiti’s 1987 Constitution excludes from the presidency anyone who has ever renounced citizenship, as is required for U.S. naturalization. It would take parliamentary action to allow Simeus to become president -- just as Austrian-born California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could not seek the U.S. presidency without a Constitutional amendment -- and Haiti’s legislative bodies ceased functioning long before Aristide left the country on Feb. 29, 2004.

Jean-Juste has languished at a villa-annex of the national penitentiary since Latortue’s government took him into custody nearly three months ago. Amnesty International calls him a prisoner of conscience.

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“The main purpose of my arrest is to keep me out of the campaign,” said the ex-clergyman, who is wildly popular in Haitian slums. Like Aristide, Jean-Juste has been accused of using his influence among aimless youths to unleash gangland warfare and vandalism against the nation’s elite.

A biometric voter card initiative also has been delayed. More than 3 million of the estimated 4.25 million eligible voters in Haiti have signed up for the cards. But less than 1% of the cards, which would be the first national ID cards in Haiti, have been produced. Until recently, violence in the teeming slums also prevented registration workers from opening sites for hundreds of thousands of the poorest Haitians.

At an abandoned schoolhouse in the heart of troubled Cite Soleil, brash youths and timid women lined up by the hundreds over the last three days to apply for the ID cards, which would also be needed in the future for travel and business transactions as well as voting.

Rene Abner, 19, said he had decided to register because candidates loyal to the exiled Aristide, such as Jean-Juste and former President Rene Preval, have hinted the Lavalas Party founder might return to Haiti if they win.

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“We want Aristide back. He cares about this situation,” Abner said, gesturing to the charred, bullet-scarred wasteland of cinderblock hovels that he calls home. “That is what we talk about all the time.”


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