Originally: Critical November election in Haiti faces tough obstacles

Political strife, armed gangs, corruption could derail presidential vote


PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haiti, a once proud nation that abolished slavery more than a half-century before the U.S., is struggling to hold critical presidential elections that could finally help pull it from the clutches of despair.

But organizers face a daunting series of obstacles, from savage political violence and corruption to apathy and insecurity.

The Provisional Electoral Council has not recruited the estimated 40,000 poll workers needed to run the elections or hired the hundreds of regional election supervisors. Polling locations have not been designated. And ballots cannot be printed until the Haitian Supreme Court resolves disputes over who can and cannot run for president.

The council recently barred 22 of the 54 presidential candidates, including Dumarsais Siméus, who runs a $100 million food empire in Mansfield, Texas, saying that his U.S. citizenship precludes him from running. Mr. Dumarsais is appealing the ruling.

Haitian officials conceded this week that they will probably need to postpone the Nov. 20 election because preparations are in disarray.

This kind of turmoil isn?t new to Haiti, which has seen four U.S. military interventions since its independence in 1804. But there?s a sense in both Washington and Port-au-Prince that the next elections represent Haiti?s best – and maybe last – chance to become a viable nation.

“These elections are a great opportunity,” said James Morrell, director of the Haiti Democracy Project, a Washington, D.C., research organization. “Haiti has a real chance to turn things around.”

And a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity said, “This is the first chance for Haitians to have a government that will serve the population rather than prey on it.”

But if the elections don?t succeed, some experts fear that Haiti will spiral into a permanent state of lawlessness, making it a burden to the U.S. and other foreign powers for generations to come.

Already, Haiti is the least developed country outside Africa. Born of the only successful slave revolt in history, it is a country where most of the 8.1 million impoverished residents live on less than $1 per day. Five percent have AIDS or HIV, the highest rate outside sub-Saharan Africa, and life expectancy at birth is just 53 years.

The Haitian government is funded almost entirely by the U.S. and other foreign donors.

Political strife is widespread and hundreds of people have been killed since a sudden rebellion forced former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile in February 2004.

In recent weeks, armed gangs have been blocking voter-registration efforts in some of the capital?s densely populated slums, particularly Cité Soleil, home to at least 500,000 people, candidates say.

As a consequence, only 2.3 million of the country?s 4.25 million eligible voters have been registered.

U.S. officials are worried, saying that Haiti?s Provisional Electoral Council has failed to meet several key deadlines. But council spokesman Stéphane Lacroix has defended the preparations, saying, “The situation is improving every day.”

Still, some candidates fear that the hastily organized elections won?t be fair or honest, and some activists have threatened to boycott the contest.

Transparency International, a nonprofit organization devoted to fighting corruption worldwide, ranked Haiti as the most corrupt of 145 nations surveyed in 2003 and 2004.

Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., vouches for the current government, saying that Gerard Latortue, a former Boca Raton, Fla., resident who has been prime minister since March 2004, runs a clean operation.

“We are doing such a good job on the financial front that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have again begun dealing with Haiti, allowing Haiti to have loans and provide Private student loan without cosigner to those in need,” Mr. Joseph said.

Latortue administration investigators contend that Mr. Aristide was the corrupt one, overseeing a government that illegally funneled at least $21 million in public funds into his charities and into private shell companies that existed only on paper.

Mr. Aristide – now in exile in South Africa – and his supporters have denied the claim. But allegations persist that hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid vanished during his tenure.

“How did Aristide, a poor priest, become a multimillionaire on a salary of $10,000 a month ?” Mr. Joseph asked. “I don?t understand that.”

As the finger-pointing goes on, many ordinary Haitians are enraged that so little money trickles down to the people who need it the most.

“I don?t really trust anyone,” said Jean-Marie Joseph, 22, a student attending a campaign rally for candidate Evans Paul. “I don?t know of any Haitian politician who has ever done anything good.”

Even the rich are disillusioned.

“The bulk of the tax money is stolen by those who run the country,” said Andy Apaid, a powerful Port-au-Prince businessman who helped force Mr. Aristide from office.

His protests draw little sympathy from the poor in Haiti, where 1 percent of the population has nearly half the country?s wealth.

But the rich and the poor – along with the international community – are coming together to help rebuild Haiti and ensure that the next elections will be a success, he said.

“All sides of civil society … all sectors are coming together in an unprecedented way,” said Mr. Apaid, who describes what he?s seeing as “the awakening.”

Not everyone is quite so optimistic.

Even some Haitian officials agree that, with all the problems and controversies, it is unlikely the election will take place on time. “There is no way this is going to happen on November 20,” said council member Patrick Fequire.