Haitian progress?

Haitians will vote Sunday for thousands of local and regional authorities, the entire Chamber of Deputies, and two-thirds of the Senate. These elections are a crucial test of democracy in Haiti - and thus, a measure of the success or failure of the September 1994 US military intervention to restore then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Yet political leaders in Port-au-Prince and Washington are too busy with partisan battles to create conditions for a vote that might offer hope to Haiti's desperately poor people.

These elections have already been delayed three times from their original November 1998 date. Since January 1999, President Ren Prval has been ruling by decree after disbanding the Congress. If this vote fails, Haiti risks becoming a political pariah and haven for drug traffickers.

The good news is that most of Haiti's eligible voters reportedly have registered to vote. However, they may want the photo ID on the registration card more than they want to vote. In the last parliamentary elections, the turnout was a dismal 5 percent. Furthermore, escalating violence has hampered candidates' ability to campaign and may reduce turnout. Low turnout is thought to favor Mr. Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas (FL) Party.

Aristide's opponents assert that he is tolerating or encouraging violence in hope of delaying these local and parliamentary races until the November presidential race that he - Haiti's most prominent politician - is almost guaranteed to win. In such a general election, the coattail effect increases FL's chances of winning clear majorities at all levels of government.

Despite pressures from international human rights groups and US policymakers, Aristide's only recent personal repudiation of violence is a letter, written in English, to an American congressman. This does not cut it, and Aristide knows that. He is a gifted orator in Creole, and he must use this talent to speak directly to the Haitian people.

Haiti's other political parties have stayed in Sunday's election because they believe they can win a significant number of seats, given reasonably fair conditions. If they're unhappy with the results, they may pull out, denouncing violence and fraud, hoping to deny FL a victory.

This zero-sum-game politics does a grave disservice to the Haitian people. All Haiti's political leaders should call on their supporters to abstain from violence, fraud, and intimidation, and agree to abide by the election results.

The international community has been united in pressing for these elections to take place now. Yet US policy remains marked by partisanship. Republicans have long been determined to prove that President Clinton made a gross error of judgement when he restored Aristide. In response, the Clinton administration too often has been evasive and defensive. Neither approach is helpful to Haiti.

Also unhelpful is Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who appears to have his own private foreign policy toward Haiti. He refuses to release money promised to the Organization of American States' election-observing mission - standing his ground despite pleas from Haiti and some private requests to his staff from Republican colleagues. Recently, Mr. Helms also placed holds on development assistance for Haiti because of a dispute between Haitian customs officials and a US rice-exporting company. It is profoundly inappropriate to punish the Haitian poor because of a commercial dispute.

Such actions only fuel Haitian conspiracy theories about US intentions, weaken international leverage, and boost Aristide.

The business-as-usual politics in Haiti after Aristide's return has lost that country much support abroad. Encouragingly, a few congressional leaders who still care - Republicans and Democrats - recently made joint statements on Haiti. A bipartisan policy, coordinated with other donors and based on the best interests of Haitians, is desperately needed to help Haiti move ahead. It shouldn't focus on Aristide's personality or merits as a leader, but on the pressing need to get basic political and economic processes in place before too many Haitians reach such desperation they risk their lives in tiny boats trying to reach Florida.

Rachel Neild is senior associate with the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights research and advocacy organization.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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