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The Poor Always Pay: The Electoral Crisis in Haiti

The start of 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 started throwing rocks and erecting barricades by late afternoon for good measure. By nightfall, gunfire ricocheted around the capital and other towns. Through Friday, the black smoke of burning-tire barricades rose above the small crowds who rampaged through towns, destroying shops and other structures, burning 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 run-off. The widely hated president René Préval’s chosen successor, Jude Célestin, was inserted into the January 16 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 United Nations, Organization of American States, European Union, American, and four other ambassadors in Haiti 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 Saturday. 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 officially 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, and the demonstrators and agitators they have paid. Some 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 organizations 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. For starters, those who live from the informal economy have lost days of the miniscule incomes which barely keep their families alive. 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, and all the rest were not to be found on the deserted streets from Wednesday through the weekend, meaning that their families lost the few cents they make on each sale.

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 door. Numerous women in these settings, among a circle who call me whenever they can buy 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 daily 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 source of 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 ask how she’s made out these last few days. “I can’t suffer anything 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 and sanitation 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. Clean drinking water, another essential, also ran out in many places early on in the days of mêlée.

Because sanitation workers could not get to the camps, toilets and garbage overflowed to extremes. (For a chilling account, see Sascha Kramer's recent article in Counter Punch.) The sporadic rains throughout the week, moreover, spread contaminated water and sewage, perfect 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. The street barricades and 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. Lack 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 civilian 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 non-presidential antics as flashing his bare backside 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. Since 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 decision. With the World Bank as the group’s fiscal sponsor and all the international muscle around the table, even that 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 cinder blocks which serve as goals. On an outing to check out the state of the streets, I called out to one group of boys, “The elections 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.

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