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.

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.

Haiti's nine-person Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), working out of a dilapidated headquarters, with a broken generator, old computers and UN soldiers on the rooftop for protection, recognizes the technical and logistical minefield they are wading through, and has already delayed most anything that can be delayed in the election process.

Voter registration, which was to have ended on Aug. 9, was delayed until this weekend, even though only 2.3 million of the approximately 4.5 million eligible voters had registered. The list of 32 approved candidates - out of 54 who had sought to run - was only released Friday. Even election day itself has been delayed - from Nov. 6 to the 20th - but, say members of the CEP, will not be pushed back any further. According to the Haitian constitution the new president must be in office by Feb. 7, 2006.

Among the candidates approved to run are former President René Préval, a onetime close ally of Aristide; Former Prime Minister Marc Louis Bazin, who is running as a candidate of a moderate faction of the ousted leader's Lavalas Family party; and former President Leslie Manigat, who was forced from his post by the army in 1988 after five months in power.

Some of the most interesting candidates are arguably those not in the running - like Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the former dictator who was rumored to be heading back from exile in France to register for the ballot. He never showed up, but a Gallup poll released last week showed that if he had, he might have fared surprisingly well. Many respondents rated "Baby Doc" - an extravagant playboy on whose watch the country suffered famine and disease as his coffers grew - as the best president Haiti has had in the past 20 years.

The Rev. Gérard Jean-Juste, a Catholic priest and a top candidate of Aristide's Lavalas Family party, was refused a place on the ballot, on grounds that he needed to register in person - something impossible from his jail cell, where is he being held under investigation for the murder of a journalist.

Another rejection went to Texas-based Dumarsais Simeus, one of the most successful black businessmen in the US, who had recently returned to his native Haiti declaring his intention to "turn the country around as one does a business operation." The CEP ruled his dual citizenship and long-term residency in the US disqualified him.

In any case, says human rights activist Jean-Claude Bajeux, Haiti is in no mood for a savior - whether it be Jean-Juste or Simeus or anyone else. "We are not waiting for a miracle. Our expectations are modest," he says. "If we have learned anything it's that governing Haiti can't be a one-man show."

The mood here is pessimistic, according to Bajeux, or, at very best, cautiously curious. "The best we can hope for is a peaceful election," he says. "That, here, would be enough."

Ms. Harman is Latin America bureau chief for the Monitor and USA Today.

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