Haiti's presidential campaign is clouded by violence. US legislator worries that voters will be intimidated by killings
Washington — With just over six weeks remaining before Haiti's first presidential election in 30 years, Walter Fauntroy (D) of the District of Columbia is increasingly worried. Shadowy groups of armed men - some believed to be members of the security forces - are killing civilians nearly every night in the capital of Port-au-Prince, according to human rights groups and the US State Department.
Yves Volel, a presidential candidate and a critic of the government, was shot dead Tuesday outside police headquarters. Police did not respond to accusations that he had been killed by policemen. And in August, another presidential candidate was killed in the streets by a mob. Other candidates are fearful about campaigning.
Hundreds of antigovernment protesters and others have been killed, injured, or arrested by the security forces since late June.
``I'm caught between hopes and fears,'' confesses Mr. Fauntroy, the nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus's task force on Haiti.
``My hopes are that the Haitian people will be able to withstand the efforts to undermine the electoral process,'' he says in an interview.
``My fears,'' adds Fauntroy, referring to the almost nightly killings in Port-au-Prince, ``are that the current tactic of death squads as a means of intimidation of the electorate and the candidates may prevail.''
Some members of Congress, along with Haitian and United States human rights groups, go one step further, questioning whether free elections can be held in the current political climate. The Reagan administration, however, says it is optimistic.
``I am increasingly confident that elections will take place and they will be held with sufficient independence that the results will be respected,'' says Richard Holwill, deputy assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.
Despite their differing evaluations of the electoral process, Fauntroy and the State Department agree that US aid to Haiti - roughly $100 million in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 - will be terminated if the Nov. 29 elections are canceled or fraudulent, or if the eventual winner does not assume power next Feb. 7.
When President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier fled into exile in February 1986, a three-man interim National Council of Government (CNG), headed by Lt. Gen. Henri Namphy, took power.
In the intervening 20 months, Fauntroy, who has closely followed Haitian affairs for 10 years, has become increasingly skeptical of the CNG's commitment to democratization. A key turning point was June 22, when the ruling council took over the powers of the constitutionally created Provisional Electoral Council (CEP).
This move, along with the banning of an opposition labor union, touched off violent protests and strikes. In the next week, the Army and security forces killed at least 35 people and injured another 110, according to the US-based National Coalition for Haitian Refugees. But the protests forced the CNG to back down, and it returned control of the electoral process to the CEP on July 2.
This ``effort at a coup shook my confidence in the CNG,'' Fauntroy recalls. But he says he saw no real alternative to the ruling council, mainly because Mr. Duvalier left the desperately poor island nation with almost no political infrastructure.
While the harried elections board scrambles to register candidates and voters and keep the election on schedule, the violence continues. Soldiers have killed and injured more protesters demanding the CNG's resignation. On July 23, a mob - reportedly comprised partly of the Tonton Macoutes secret police which served under Duvalier - massacred more than 300 members of a cooperative in the town of Jean Rabel.
On Aug. 2, a crowd shouting, ``Communist! Communist!'' killed centrist presidential candidate Louis Eugene Athis in the streets. On Aug. 23, five opposition priests were beaten by another mob just yards from a military checkpoint. And unidentified bodies continue to turn up in Port-au-Prince slums practically every morning, according to Americas Watch, the Washington Office on Haiti, and other human rights groups.
In spite of these incidents, the Reagan administration certified to Congress on Aug. 26 that Haiti was making ``progress'' toward democracy. The certification cleared the way for the provision of the remainder of $1.6 million in US military aid (mainly police training and riot gear). Human rights groups and some lawmakers angrily charged that the certification and the aid sent the wrong signal to the CNG.
The State Department's certification report acknowledged that the CNG's human rights record has been ``mixed.'' However, it said the security forces' killing of protesters resulted from ``inappropriate crowd control actions,'' and blamed ``radicals from both extremes of the political spectrum'' for any politically motivated ``mob violence,'' such as the Jean Rabel massacre.
In addition, Mr. Holwill says it is nearly impossible to determine who is responsible for the mysterious death squad-style killings in Port-au-Prince. ``There is no evidence that they are connected to the Army,'' he says in an interview. ``I believe the government is not in any way ordering or condoning this.''
Although the State Department continues to give the CNG the benefit of the doubt in public, US officials have sternly warned Namphy and Gen. Williams Regala, his powerful No. 2 man, that the US will not tolerate a delay in the election schedule, informed sources say.
But some US congressmen join with human rights groups in arguing that the administration's approach will not guarantee a fair election in Haiti. The US ``should suspend immediately all military aid to Haiti and make clear to the interim government that an election held under the current circumstances will not be viewed as legitimate,'' Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts said on the Senate floor Sept. 29.
The administration should ``call on Namphy to keep the troops in the barracks, and elicit a promise that the CNG will prosecute anyone found impeding the electoral process in any way,'' says Holly Burkhalter, Washington representative of Americas Watch.