Vote result spurs Haiti riot
Deepening frustration and anger in Haiti erupted into violent rage Wednesday as thousands of Haitians rioted against the government and U.N. peacekeepers after the release of preliminary results from the nation’s presidential election.
The chaos-marred election was a final blow to a country stuck in squalid stagnation after a catastrophic earthquake Jan. 12 and reeling from a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 2,000 people.
Protesters Wednesday threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, burned down several buildings and generally paralyzed the capital, alleging that the government of President Rene Preval stole the election for his party’s candidate, Jude Celestin, head of the nation’s road-building department.
The electoral council caught many Haitians by surprise Tuesday night when it announced that Celestin would face Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old professor who was briefly first lady, in a Jan. 16 runoff.
The clear consensus among observers — including domestic and international monitors, along with dozens of journalists who watched the Nov. 28 balloting — was that Manigat and the singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly were the front-runners.
Even officials at the U.S. Embassy, which contributed $14 million to support the balloting, were taken aback.
“Like others, the government of the United States is concerned by the [council’s] announcement of preliminary results,” the Embassy wrote in a statement Tuesday, noting that the results were “inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council … which had more than 5,500 observers” as well as the observations of U.S. and international monitors.
The protests began immediately after the announcement Tuesday, with barricades of burning tires laid across roads and guns shot into the air. Schools were closed Wednesday and businesses locked up, many with plywood or steel shutters covering their windows. American Airlines canceled flights to the country.
At the main base for the United Nations peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym Minustah, young men pelted vehicles coming in and out of the gates with rocks.
The mission has been a target since October, when the cholera epidemic began. Lab tests showed that the strain of bacteria was from South Asia, which gave credence to widespread allegations that it was brought by troops from Nepal, where the disease is endemic.
“Minustah gave us cholera!” protesters outside the U.N. base chanted. “Minustah’s got to go! Preval has to go!”
In the Bois Verna neighborhood in the capital, protesters looted Celestin’s gated campaign headquarters and then burned it down.
At two offices of the electoral council, U.N. troops held back rock-throwing mobs with tear-gas and flash grenades. One man was carried away with bloody shrapnel wounds to his legs.
At some roadblocks, men were demanding gas from passing motorcycles to burn tires or parked vehicles. Those who refused were hit by rocks.
There were radio reports of several deaths, including two in the southern city of Les Cayes, where rioting was fierce.
Preval — as well as top officials from the U.S., the U.N., France, Canada and the Organization of American States — appealed for calm and urged the candidates to use a three-day period to contest the results to work out their grievances.
“Breaking everything, destroying everything is not going to solve the problem,” Preval said on Haitian radio.
Martelly remained notably quiet as his supporters paralyzed the city, much as Preval had done when his supporters took to the streets in 2006 and helped push him into the presidency. Martelly issued one short statement directed at his supporters, saying: “I understand your frustrations. You have the constitutional right to peacefully protest.”
In a small news conference last week, Martelly coyly sidestepped the issue when asked whether he would try to quell any upheaval by his people. He noted that this form of street protest was introduced to the country on a grand scale by Preval’s political godfather, exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
“This is their method that is killing them now,” Martelly said. “This is the Preval-Aristide system. And this is the system that is tired of them.”
Frank Thorp V is a special correspondent.