Fear and frustration in Haiti capital

A day after bloodily thwarted elections, fear and uncertainty over unfolding political events prevailed among Haitians. Slum dwellers timidly darted from their hillside mazes to buy food and quickly return home. And political leaders tried to regroup while looking over their shoulders for danger.

``I am so frustrated,'' said Jean-Robert Sabalat, an official with the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), which was to oversee the election. ``I can't explain the feeling of being a Haitian after 27 years of exile and fighting so hard for these elections,'' Mr. Sabalat said.

``I was astonished,'' says a political insider close to Haiti's religious and rural communities. ``Even though we know the Duvalierist forces could use their guns, I never expected it [to be so brutal].''

This Haitian is critical of what he calls ``naive'' United States support for the military-dominated government's promises of guaranteeing free elections. He welcomed Sunday's cutoff of $1.2 million in US military aid and other non-humanitarian economic aid. (US aid to Haiti totals about $100 million.) This Haitian says international support may be the only way to bolster unarmed civilian masses against the antidemocratic violence here.

But Haitians are pessimistic about such prospects. Political leaders' options are limited. On Sunday afternoon, the ruling National Governing Council fired the independent CEP - whose nine members were the most important allies of the democratic sector's push to elect a civilian government by next February. All nine members are reportedly taking refuge in Western embassies.

The political scene, however, is sharply divided between those who want to see a freely elected president and those who would benefit from keeping the military in power.

Opposition leaders say the military government - by tacit approval or direct participation - helps maintain the tradition of rule by corruption and brute force that was established in the years of the dynastic Duvalier dictatorship. A broad spectrum of Haitians had lined up behind the CEP, which, soon after it was set up last spring, was at odds with the interim government. The two dueling forces provided the backdrop for demonstrations that helped strengthen public resolve for democratic elections.

A high-level government official admits that this weekend's violence - in which at least 34 people were killed - ``clearly would serve the interests of some of the people axed by the CEP.'' He was referring to 12 presidential candidates disqualified by the CEP last month for Duvalierist connections.

But he says the council took a ``prima donna'' attitude about the scope of its powers. He accuses the CEP of consulting foreign governments - such as the US - on its decision before conferring with the Haitian people or government. Further, he claims the CEP arbitrarily disqualified 12 of the 35 candidates for their Duvalierist pasts while allowing others - such as Marc Bazin, a former finance member for Jean-Claude Duvalier - to remain on the slate.

``It appears that they picked some candidates under foreign pressure,'' he claims. But he says the government felt it was better to let the council prove its inability to carry off the elections before firing the officials.

The government says it still expects that a civilian president will take office by Feb. 7 and that elections will be held under a newly formed electoral council. Democratic leaders believe a new CEP is unlikely to stand a better chance of bringing off elections.

The government official says he expects violence to continue, because the military leaders ``do not have the political muscle to do anything about it.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.