Obama’s First Foreign Policy Disaster?

The Obama administration and the international community have largely remained silent the past two weeks concerning a decision by Haiti’s election council to move forward with controversial Senate elections scheduled for April 19. A visit in early March by former president Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to ‘draw attention to Haiti and promote development,’ an international donors conference on Haiti held in Washington D.C. yesterday, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Haiti today, have only temporarily distracted attention away from the controversial election.

The apparent decision to green light the contentious ballot follows a ruling by Haiti’s Provisional Election Council or CEP to exclude the Fanmi Lavalas party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on procedural grounds. Haitian president Rene Preval met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington on Feb. 5. The election council’s decision to disqualify all of the Fanmi Lavalas party’s candidates was announced the following day. Major stakeholders in Haiti such as the U.S., Brazil, Canada and France have to worry whether excluding Lavalas from the upcoming ballot will be seen as undemocratic and call into question the validity of the elections.

Lavalas, which means flashflood, is a political party and social movement in Haiti. Its roots begin at the break between the Duvalier appointed hierarchy of the Catholic Church and independent parish communities known as “Ti Legliz” or the Little Church. Lavalas has served as the largest base of Haiti’s electorate since it galvanized around Aristide’s first successful candidacy for president in 1990. Preval’s election victory in 2006, and the success of his Lespwa party, is widely seen as a result of support from the Lavalas electorate.

Factions of the Fanmi Lavalas party originally presented two slates of candidates to the CEP for the upcoming Senate elections scheduled for April 19. After the CEP demanded they present a single slate, the Fanmi Lavalas party’s leadership managed to hammer out a compromise list of candidates in time to meet the deadline. The CEP refused to accept their applications on the grounds they did not have Aristide’s personal signature from exile in South Africa as the National Representative of the Fanmi Lavalas party. One analyst close to the CEP and who spoke on condition of anonymity commented, “It didn’t really matter what Lavalas did. The result was always going to be the same. There was more division within Lavalas and greater procedural irregularities with their candidates in the elections of 2006. The only difference is they needed them to provide legitimacy to those elections. The political infighting only provided the CEP with a convenient excuse to exclude them. They don’t feel they need them [Lavalas] to legitimize the April 19 elections. ”

Most observers acknowledge that Aristide and the Lavalas movement continue to be a force to reckon with in Haiti. It’s said that no other social movement in Haiti, before or since, has shown more resiliency and commitment. They elected Aristide president in Dec. 1990 and the movement was forced to survive three years of brutal military repression after he was ousted in Sept. 1991. Aristide’s second ouster in Feb. 2004 was followed by two years of intense repression that included well-documented instances of summary executions by the Haitian police, killing of unarmed demonstrators and the mass imprisonment of Lavalas supporters.

During the last presidential elections of 2006 the Lavalas movement was unable to field its desired candidate, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, who was being held in jail on trumped up charges. Lavalas then threw their weight behind Preval’s candidacy as a means to end the severe repression of the U.S.-backed Latortue regime, free political prisoners and return Aristide from exile. When the elections of 2006 were nearly stolen through fraud, it was thousands of Lavalas demonstrators supporting Preval who were responsible for shutting down Haiti’s capital for over a week.

As further testimony to the endurance of the Lavalas movement in Haiti, nearly ten thousand supporters took to the streets of the capital to protest on the five-year anniversary of the second coup against Aristide this past Feb. 28. Most protestors called for the Preval government and the United Nations to allow Aristide to return to Haiti while others used it as a platform to condemn the recent decision of the CEP. Chants directly accusing Preval and his government of being behind the CEP’s decision to exclude Lavalas from democratic elections were heard in the streets of the capital.

On March 9, former president Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon arrived in Haiti with several ‘business leaders’ and celebrities. Their much touted visit received wide press coverage that distracted attention away from another important event. That same day Haitian judge Jean-Claude Douyon ruled, “The political rights of Lavalas have been violated,” and he ordered “the reintegration of candidates of that party, if they each individually meet the legal standards.” On April 3, Preval’s Minister of Justice Jean-Joseph Exumé fired Douyon accusing him of corruption in a seemingly unrelated case. Douyon has since made it clear in the Haitian press he believes the move is in retaliation for his ruling ordering the CEP to include Lavalas in the upcoming elections. He further claims Exumé threatened him not to take the case and made it clear the Preval government’s constitutional interpretation is the judiciary has no jurisdiction to overrule a CEP decision.

This interpretation makes Preval’s handpicked election council “the final arbiter” in any dispute related to the electoral process. Ironically, that was the same position taken by the Latortue regime in Feb. 2006 when it tried to use the CEP to stack the deck against Preval. Their decision was final and there was no appeal until burning tires and massive crowds blocked every major intersection of the capital finally forcing them and their patrons in the international community to back down. As the analyst close to the CEP put it, “Anyone who remembers the ‘Belgian Option’ knows who was really pulling the strings,” referring to the face saving solution where Belgian electoral law was invoked to count thousands of blank ballots. Under Haitian law blank ballots are discarded but in in Belgium they are divided evenly among all the candidates. After thousands of discarded ballots were discovered in public dumping sites throughout the capital, the U.S., France and Canada agreed to use this irregular measure to return a majority of the ballot count to Preval. That unprecedented decision bore no relationship to Haiti’s constitution and has called into question the legitimacy of official rulings on electoral law by the CEP ever since.

The Washington-based group the Haiti Priorities Project recently dispatched a team of 70 pollsters throughout Haiti. According to their findings, “Only 5% of potential voters nationwide say they are ready to go to the polls in order to elect 12 senators for the upcoming elections on April of this year.” In polling from several areas of Haiti they make it clear that, “The majority who participated in the survey intend to stay home due to the inconsistency exhibited by the administration of President Préval and the international community wanting to practice [electoral] exclusion, a system in which the people have been rejected since the fall of Duvalier 1986.” If there polling is correct, the upcoming elections in Haiti may be first real foreign disaster of the Obama administration since it took office.

KEVIN PINA is a journalist and film maker who divides his time living in California and Haiti. Pina reported extensively from Haiti for FLASHPOINTS, a radio program heard daily on KPFA, the flagship station of the Pacifica Network. He is also the Founding Editor of the Haiti Information Project (HIP), an alternative news agency operating in Port au Prince, Haiti.


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