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‘Belgian Option’ Helped Avert Crisis in Haiti

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Times Staff Writer

When word leaked out in the powder-keg streets of Port-au-Prince that former President Rene Preval’s lead was shrinking, his supporters took to the hills. By the thousands, they stormed up to the hilltop Hotel Montana, where they believed the overseers of the Haitian presidential vote were holed up, clambering over the luxury compound’s gates and overwhelming its meager defenses.

But electoral council officials hadn’t shown up at the Montana that Monday. Neither had those administering the vote tabulation at the Sonapi industrial park near the airport. Although workers hired to input voting data had made it to the industrial park, they had been sent home for their safety.

It had been nearly a week since 2.2 million voters crushed into overwhelmed polling places Feb. 7 in Haiti’s first elections in six years. Initial returns had given Preval 61%, but further counting had whittled that lead to just over 50%, and the percentage kept going lower. Suspicious that their votes were being stolen, Preval’s supporters were spoiling for a confrontation.

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The top United Nations diplomat in Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes, summoned peacekeeping commanders and officials of Haiti’s interim government to an emergency meeting early Monday afternoon at the operational compound of the U.N. mission, which is known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH.

A decision was made to send a helicopter to Preval’s remote hometown, Marmalade, to bring the man at the center of the spiraling unrest to the capital to calm his supporters. When Preval disembarked the U.N. helicopter, he said only that he had come to try to save the election.

Preval’s camp was crying foul, pointing to the large number of blank ballots -- nearly 5% of the total -- as suspect. Haitians hadn’t walked for miles and stood in unruly lines for hours to cast ballots for none of the 33 presidential choices, his aides argued. They wanted the blank ballots removed from the count or redistributed proportionate to each contender’s vote share, either of which would boost Preval’s percentage above the simple majority needed for victory.

Meanwhile, diplomats from the United States, Canada, France, Brazil, Chile, the United Nations and the Organization of American States gathered at the National Palace to meet with interim President Boniface Alexandre.

“We felt what was needed was a big brainstorming. We thought we should try to find a way to smooth things over,” said Brazil’s ambassador to Haiti, Paolo Cordeiro de Andrade Pinto, whose nation commands MINUSTAH forces and contributes the largest contingent.

“There was a Latin American perception that the way the blank votes were handled here is completely different from the way they are considered in any other country,” Cordeiro said.

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As tension mounted, political analysts blamed exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for orchestrating the unrest and raising the specter of violence -- a tactic remembered from his two truncated presidencies.

Preval emerged Tuesday morning to say he had not summoned the crowds to the streets and did not have the power to recall them. But in an address carried live on nationwide radio, he urged his supporters to keep up their demands for a fair vote count but to do so “peacefully, intelligently and with respect for private property.”

Immediately, the roadblocks were lifted and Preval’s supporters turned to festive marches to press their demands that he be declared the presidential victor.

Tuesday night, another political bombshell exploded. The Telemax TV station, privately owned and seen as a pro-Aristide bastion, carried footage of thousands of marked ballots and election material dumped atop a sodden trash heap. The roadblocks reemerged. The vote-counting remained suspended.

The interim government announced an investigation, but by midday Wednesday, the volatile city crackled anger.

Officials of the Provisional Electoral Council, a nine-member body named before Aristide’s February 2004 departure and composed mostly of his political opponents, locked themselves into a suburban villa at 11 a.m. to hash over compromise proposals.

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Preval’s opponents, noting that he lacked a clear majority, wanted a second round of voting to be held March 19. But Preval refused to submit to a runoff, warning of chaos as his supporters were certain that only fraud could have deprived him of a first-round win.

“They thrashed through the different proposals and eventually settled on a formula for handling blank votes that is applied in Belgium,” said David Wimhurst, a MINUSTAH spokesman who said the council’s decision was made behind closed doors and solely by its members. “We were out of it, completely out of it.” Others involved in suggesting solutions concede that foreign diplomats were instrumental in pointing out options.

The Belgian Option, as the compromise has come to be known, met the technical requirement of the Haitian election decree that unmarked ballots be counted, Cordeiro said. Along with Chilean Ambassador Marcel Young, he convinced counterparts from the United States, France and Canada that insistence on a runoff risked an explosion of violence.

In their respective capitals, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Brazilian Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Amorim.

“The deal cut was under the lead of Brazil and Chile. Washington and Paris reluctantly accepted it,” said a source involved in the palace brainstorming. Contending that the United States has handed off responsibility for Haiti to South American allies, he said that “when you outsource an issue, you can’t dictate how to run things.”

Several sources privy to the three-day diplomatic scurry say the fate of Aristide didn’t enter into the equation, that despite consensus that the exiled populist’s return would be destabilizing, they never tried to trade declaration of a Preval victory for his promise to keep his predecessor out of the country.

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One observer described the U.S. role as “pretty silent” amid more active roles by the South American diplomats whose countries contribute the bulk of MINUSTAH’s forces. Cordeiro confirmed that with more than 1,200 Brazilian troops in Haiti, his government felt a responsibility to search for “creative solutions” in the face of the mounting threat of violence.

Timothy M. Carney, former U.S. ambassador and acting charge d’affaires, said he did not know whether the subject of Aristide came up during the council’s deliberations because neither he nor the other diplomats spoke with the Haitian officials during their 14 hours of discussions, which ran until early Thursday.

“But there has never been any doubt about the U.S. position on Aristide’s return since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was here last autumn and said he was a man of the past,” Carney said.

The council’s 3 a.m. announcement that the blank vote redistribution had pushed Preval over the victory threshold inspired joyous celebrations throughout the country. But the 63-year-old president-elect’s challengers denounced the declaration as illegal.

“We are not duped by this Machiavellian comedy of imposing a winner,” said Leslie F. Manigat, the 75-year-old former president who finished a distant second to Preval and would have been his challenger in a runoff. He accused “foreign forces” of compelling election officials to break their own regulations.

But as congratulations poured in from around the world, Preval’s election became a fait accompli.

At the U.N., Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the council’s compromise as “a reasonable way to attempt to resolve a conflict, an impasse that could have led to conflict and violence.”

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Rice, in Washington, said the administration looked forward to working with the new government and expressed hope for a new beginning for a country long in the grip of dictatorship and corruption.

Preval retreated to his sister’s home in the upscale Peguyville neighborhood and has yet to address his supporters.

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