Ready or not, Haiti preps for vote
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to visit the violence-wracked capital Tuesday.
Less than half the students showed up on the first day of classes at the New American School. The others fled the country over the summer - their families escaping the kidnappings, violence, and uncertainty that have marked the lead-up to elections in Haiti's capital.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Up the mountain from the school, in wealthy Petionville, the upcoming Nov. 20 elections - the first since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted following a violent rebellion in February 2004 - are having a different effect.
It's getting hard to find a quiet spot at The Montana, Port-au-Prince's fanciest hotel: The tennis courts have been converted into a car park, Canadian election observers with clipboards sip sweet lemonade in the upstairs bar, and UN officials wander the lobby, mumbling into radios.
"Ready or not, something is stirring," says Patrick Brutus, a local Petionville politician. "This is no time for criticism or cold feet. We are as ready as we can be," he says. "... and there is no alternative to elections now."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to touch down Tuesday for a one-day unannounced visit, to this violence-wracked capital, seeking to underline Washington's commitment to the upcoming elections and fend off criticism that the US has abandoned its poorest neighbor.
The last time a secretary of State came to town - Colin Powell in 2004 - heavy gunfire erupted outside the presidential palace while he was inside. Times have changed, but security has not improved much since then.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Close to 80 percent of the population lives on less than two dollars a day, and 42 percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition, according to the UN's World Food Program.
Haiti's national budget of $300 million is less than the budgets of many large US school districts. Sewage flows freely through the streets, there is often no electricity, and only one traffic light in the whole capital is functioning.
Worse yet, there is a near absence of law enforcement here, according to Amnesty International, which reports that "politically motivated arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions, deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, rape, death threats and intimidation are routine and are perpetrated with impunity."
Violence has claimed almost 800 lives since September 2004 and some parts of the capital remain no-go areas even for the UN troops. In May, the US embassy ordered nonemergency staff to leave Haiti along with their families.
The United Nations - which has close to 8,000 peacekeepers on the ground to stabilize the situation - hopes elections next month will produce a legitimate government.
But some observers say that Haiti is not ready - and that elections might further hurt the fragile democracy here. "In a country that is slipping every day towards permanent failed state status and whose constitution has been largely ignored for years, keeping a symbolic date [for elections] must not be the first priority," warns the International Crisis Group, a think tank with offices in Brussels and Washington.