Along Avenue John Brown in Port-au-Prince, freshly painted graffiti reads aba seleksyon! ? down with the undemocratic selection process.
It is a key message in a visual protest against the failure of democracy in Haiti. It has been added alongside older messages that read aba MINUSTAH, aba okipasyon, calling for an end to the commonly perceived foreign occupation by the United Nations stabilization mission, known by its initials as MINUSTAH.
The highly contested November 28 legislative and presidential elections and the unrest that followed have sharpened criticisms against the international forces and heightened concerns about self-determination as the nation seeks to rebuild one year after the devastating earthquake of January, 12, 2010.
Haitian voters have been voicing their concerns about flawed elections for months, and many boycotted the vote as it shaped into a selection process intended to secure President Preval’s Inite party in power. Preval’s handpicked electoral board managed every aspect of the election and excluded the popular Fanmi Lavalas and other progressive parties from running.
On Election Day itself, ballot tampering and voter intimidation was documented in numerous locations, and hundreds of thousands of voters were turned away because their names were missing from voter lists.
The international community effectively ignored the illegalities and pushed ahead with the elections in the name of stability. MINUSTAH has tried to move the process along uninterrupted by quelling demonstrations and providing logistical support to the government.
On Election Day, Edmond Mulet, the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti, offered a statement to international media that “everything is going fine,” disregarding widespread outrage over irregularities. The OAS-CARICOM Joint Mission of observers noted the problems but validated the elections anyway. As Haitians protested the fraudulent elections and called for a new and fair process, Mulet went as far as to threaten that the international community would withdraw from Haiti if the results were not respected.
Forcing Haitians to accept undemocratic elections will not set a foundation of stability, the purported goal of MINUSTAH’s operations. It will do the opposite ? evidenced by last month’s unrest when voters took to the streets and paralyzed the capital to demand that their right to vote be respected.
To Haitians seeking to defend their right to vote in these elections, MINUSTAH’s militarized response to their protests is yet another example of the UN on the wrong side of the democratic struggle. The MINUSTAH mission has had a troubled relationship with democracy in Haiti from its inception. The force was brought in to secure a U.S.-led coup d’etat that removed democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power in 2004. Today, MINUSTAH has 12,000 troops in Haiti, and is an odd case of a nation that has a UN peacekeeping mission in the absence and no conflict.
The mission is led by Brazil, with many other Latin American countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, and Uruguay contributing. As support for MINUSTAH dwindles both within Haiti and countries that contribute forces, the mission continues to expand because it serves the self-interest of regional powerhouses.
Wikileaked documents reveal that Brazil continues to head MINUSTAH because it hopes to secure a seat on the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. seeks to maintain a stronghold in Haiti and is concerned that free elections would likely lead to the election of a progressive leader more aligned with left-leaning governments like Venezuela and Cuba. Haiti is thus an important pawn in a regional game of chess.
Free and fair elections are an essential vehicle of democratic expression. The denial of the right to vote has led Haitians to seek popular democracy through other means ?by holding demonstrations and protests to make their voices heard.
Protests that start off as peaceful all too frequently meet forceful and disproportionate responses from the UN forces. The week after the elections, the wife of a camp organizer in Cite Soleil was taken to the hospital after a MINUSTAH soldier shot pepper spray in her eyes. During another protest, a colleague rescued a panicked elderly woman from her makeshift home as a poorly aimed canister filled her tent with tear gas. While crowd control may serve a legitimate purpose in certain circumstances, tear gas, rubber bullets and flash grenades are not the answer to restoring stability in Haiti, and can have drastic consequences.
What Haiti needs are new, free, and fair elections. Underlying the unrest on the streets is a sense that Haitian’s sovereignty has been stripped away. The undemocratic election is viewed as imposed on Haiti by the international community: by those who paid for the election, the observers who validated it, and MINUSTAH forces that militarily enforced it.
New elections are the only hope of securing a government with popular support, and thereby stability. As a result of the irregularities, even the front-runner of the November 28 elections has the support of only six percent of eligible voters. Rather than investing in the democratic process, however, the international community is giving millions to the U.N. stabilization mission that many Haitians do not want.
Four days after the elections, the U.N. proposed a 2011 budget for MINUSTAH of $853 million dollars, or $2.3 million a day. This amount nearly surpasses total aid distributed by Haiti’s top 30 donors and represents five times the budget the U.N. requested to combat cholera.
New elections would cost a fraction of this ? just $29 million, or 12 ? days of MINUSTAH’s operations in Haiti ? and would render MINUSTAH’s continued operations unnecessary.
The unrest that has gripped Haiti since the elections should serve as a wakeup call to governments in the Americas to stand up to international political interests and invest in true democracy in Haiti by calling for new elections. Stability through Haiti’s difficult rebuilding process will require as much.
BEATRICE LINDSTROM is a human rights lawyer and Lawyers’ Earthquake Response Network (LERN) Fellow at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti/ Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, a human rights law firm located in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She is a graduate of New York University School of Law and a contributor to the Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.