Haiti's Growing Momentum Towards Democracy

The possible return of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and a pushback against the electoral fix give hope

It didn't get much attention in the media, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did something quite surprising on Sunday. After taping interviews on five big Sunday talkshows about Egypt, she then boarded a plane to Haiti. Yes, Haiti. The most impoverished country in the hemisphere, not exactly a "strategic ally" or a global player on the world's political stage.

Inquiring minds might want to know why the United States' top foreign policy official would have to go to Haiti in the midst of the worst diplomatic crisis she has faced. The answer is that there is also a crisis in Haiti. And it is a crisis that - unlike the humanitarian crisis that Haiti has suffered since the earthquake last year - Washington really cares about.

Like the Egyptians, Haitians are calling for free and fair elections. But in this case, Washington will not support free and fair elections, even nominally. Quite the opposite, in fact. For weeks now, the US government has been threatening the government of Haiti with various punishments if it refuses to reverse the results of the first round of its presidential elections. Washington wants Haiti to eliminate the government's candidate and leave only two, rightwing candidates to compete in the second round.

Just three weeks ago, this looked like a done deal. The Organisation of American States (OAS) expert verification mission compiled a report on Haiti's 28 November presidential elections, and on 10 January it was leaked to the press. The report recommended moving the government's candidate, Jude Celestin, into third place by just 0.3% of the vote; leaving rightwing candidates Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady, and Michel Martelly, a popular musician, in first and second place, respectively. This was followed with various statements and threats from US and French officials that Haiti must accept this change of result. US officials strongly implied that aid to Haiti would be cut if the government didn't do as told. It looked as if desperately poor Haiti would have to give in.

But then, there was pushback. President Preval noted that six of the seven "experts" from the OAS mission were from the US, Canada and France - the three countries that led the effort to overthrow Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 2004.

Then, the OAS report was found to be so deeply flawed as to be worthless in determining which candidates should proceed to a second round. The report, for instance, ignored the problem of more than 150,000 missing votes that - given the voting patterns in the areas affected - would have shifted the result to Celestin. It also examined only a sample of the tally sheets, and did not use any statistical inference to estimate how the 92% of the tally sheets that it did not examine might have affected the result.

The call for new elections began to grow. It was joined from the start by 12 presidential candidates who had competed in the deeply-flawed first round, in which only about a quarter of Haitians voted. This was down from 59.3% in the previous presidential election, partly because the country's most popular political party - Fanmi Lavalas, which supports Aristide - was excluded from participating in the election.

Preval himself has been reported in the press to support new elections.

Then, on Tuesday 1 February, the congressional black caucus leaders, in their first break with the foreign policy of the Obama administration, issued a statement that they called a "response to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's support of the OAS report":

"The CBC urges the United States and the international community to uphold the ideals of fairness and support a new Haiti election process that is free and fair, respecting the rights of the Haitian people."

But it is the rights of the Haitian people that Washington does not want to respect. Another reason that very likely contributed to Hillary Clinton's sudden trip to Haiti on Sunday was that the Haitian government decided it is willing to issue a diplomatic passport to former President Aristide, who has been kept in exile in South Africa since the US-organised coup ousted him. Recent WikiLeaks cables show that the United States has pressed hard to keep him out of Haiti, and to prevent him from exerting any influence from abroad. And his party, Famni Lavalas, was banned from participating in the November elections, as in other elections since he was removed from the country on a US plane in 2004. Aristide issued a statement on 19 January that he was ready to come home.

It may seem strange that US officials care so much about controlling a government as poor and without influence as Haiti, but they clearly do. They not only helped organise the 2004 coup, but had also contributed to the death squads who terrorised the populace after Aristide was overthrown the first time in 1991.

The amazing thing about the last two months is that US officials are meeting such resistance from within Haiti, and from the Congressional Black Caucus - which forced then President Bill Clinton to restore Aristide to the presidency in 1994. Signs of further international support for democracy in Haiti were shown on 26 January, when the OAS resolution on Haiti failed to endorse the recommendations of its own mission's report - due to resistance from left governments in Latin America. And the Rio Group, which includes 23 nations encompassing almost all of Latin America and the Caribbean, was also blocked by left governments from passing a resolution on Haiti.

The government of Haiti is scheduled to announce its decision on the elections on Wednesday, and it may well fold under the enormous pressure from Washington. But with Aristide's return imminent, the battle is far from over.

It is not only Egyptians who want free and fair elections, and not only the Arab world that is resisting US-backed tyranny.

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