Interview: Michael Deibert discusses Haiti elections again being delayed

January 5, 2006 from Talk of the Nation

NEAL CONAN, host: The United Nations Security Council has called an urgent meeting tomorrow to discuss why the presidential elections in Haiti seem to be mired in a series of false starts and delays. The elections have been scheduled and canceled four times in recent months, including the most recent date, which would have been this Sunday. Killings and kidnappings are still prevalent despite the presence of a UN peacekeeping force. Civil and judicial institutions appear to be in shambles. If you have comments or questions about what’s going on in Haiti, we’d like to hear from you. Our number again: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Joining us now is Michael Deibert. He’s a journalist and author of “Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti,” and he’s with us from our bureau in New York.

Nice of you to join us today.

Mr. MICHAEL DEIBERT (Journalist, Author): Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: So a fourth delay? What’s going on?

Mr. DEIBERT: Yeah, well, you know, it seems that there is a bit of a blame game going on between the CEP, the provisional electoral council of the Haitian government, and the OAS of the UN. And essentially the bone of contention right now is the distribution of voter identification cards, which the CEP is saying is because the OAS didn’t get them out to people fast enough. Now, myself, I’ve been going to Haiti for about 10 years and, you know, Haiti has a history since its elections in–its first democratic elections in 1990 of having them delayed and whatnot. So I think that’s something that, more or less, perhaps Haitians are used to. But as they’re being delayed in such a climate of upheaval, I think it’s a cause for people to worry in the country for sure.

CONAN: There have been other elections that had stops and starts before they were held. Is this time different?

Mr. DEIBERT: Well, I mean, yes, I think so because, as you know, these are the first elections that are taking place after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February of 2004. And essentially the government, the interim government that’s been in charge since then, basically their one kind of responsibility was to hold these elections. And the fact that they’ve been delayed so long, there’s been such a struggle in getting them off the ground, has served, I think, in some ways to reinforce the opinion in people’s minds that maybe the UN mission in Haiti has not gone according to plan.

CONAN: And I guess that’ll be discussed at the UN tomorrow. But given the back-and-forth between the UN and the OAS and Haitian officials, is there a prospect that these are going to be held anytime soon?

Mr. DEIBERT: Well, I mean, according to the plan, the new president is supposed to be inaugurated on February 7th. So they would have to be held sometime in the near future, and right now it looks like the definite front-runner is a man who was formerly the president of Haiti between 1996 and 2001, a man named Rene Preval.

CONAN: Rene Preval–and what is the mood in Haiti at this point, given the def–you know, the political instability and it’s not safe?

Mr. DEIBERT: Yeah, well, when I visited Haiti in May and June, I traveled all over the country and I traveled through a lot of places by tap-taps and communettes(ph), public taxis and whatnot. And talking to people, I must say I don’t think I have ever seen an electorate as dispirited in Haiti as I saw them this time. I think one of the reasons for that definitely was, you know, when Aristide was elected in 1990 and then when he was re-elected in 2000–inaugurated in 2001, there was a great deal of hope among the poor majority in Haiti that he was going to somehow ameliorate their situation and change their situation. And that proved definitely not to be the case during his term of office. And the way, you know, the bloody–his bloody ouster and the street violence that came with it, I think, and the violence that has continued up till the present day, I mean, I think it’s been a very traumatizing thing for the Haitian population.

But one thing I would like to stress actually, though, a lot of the real violence that we’ve been hearing about is definitely concentrated on–in the capital of Port-au-Prince. I mean, I went to the north to Cap-Haitien and to the Dominican border, Wanamet and back to a lot of small towns around there, and the mood was completely different than it was in the capital. I mean, it was still very poor and, you know, there was still, I guess, what you could call economic violence being perpetrated on people who are being forced to scrape by in very desperate circumstances. But the kidnappings, the killings, they’re definitely something that’s more or less focused on the capital at present.

CONAN: We’re talking with journalist and author Michael Deibert about the crisis in Haiti.

You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And if you’d like to join the conversation, again, (800) 989-8255 if you’ve been to Haiti lately or are curious about what’s been going on there.

Is there–you mentioned the traumatic ouster of Jean-Bertrand Aristide; of course, many of his supporters were left behind. There was, for a long time, a feeling that he might be able to figure out a way to get back again to Haiti. Is that outside the realms of reality at this point?

Mr. DEIBERT: Well, Haiti being Haiti, I mean, I would never be say never. I mean, I’ve seen some political transformations that have been quite shocking. But I would say right now on the ground in Haiti, I mean, there was a lot of–you know, there was a lot–it was very sad to watch, ’cause, I mean, I think when he was reinaugurated in 2001 a lot of people in the poor majority–even though the political class in Haiti had somewhat lost faith in him a long time ago, I think the poor majority still was very much behind him. But that, through a series of things, you know–a pyramid investment scheme that collapsed that was connected to the government and impoverished a lot of people, an attempt by his government to take over the state university. And I think one of the key things was there were many young guys from the slums of Port-au-Prince, many whom I knew, who were basically being used as the government as paid thugs, as armed thugs who would attack opposition demonstrations and things like that, a lot of whom I talked to and talk about in my book, including one, a guy by the name of James Petit Frere, who’s a very good friend of mine, who now has disappeared and I believe has been killed by the police.

CONAN: The fate of so many in Haiti over so many years. And at this point, is there an infrastructure left with which anyone could run a country?

Mr. DEIBERT: Well, that’s the interesting thing is, you know, often in the United States and abroad, the discussion about Haiti is about elections. But I think the thing that’s almost as important as elections, if not more important, is strengthening Haiti’s institutions ’cause you can have elections every five years, but ideally the institutions will continue from president to president.

And, you know, you need to definitely have an independent judiciary reform and depoliticize the police–the national police, which replaced the disbanded Haitian army. Since I’ve been going to Haiti, I mean, there were some steps made during Preval’s term in terms of professionalizing the police and whatnot, but generally, I mean, they have a really bad human rights record. They’re very poorly trained and there’s a lot of politicking that goes on among different political factions trying to stuff the police with their own supporters. And that’s something that has to change. And I think Haiti’s supporters abroad, you know, definitely have to admit to ugly truths in the sense of when someone’s being summarily ex–people are being summarily executed or people are being jailed without trial, whether it’s the government of Aristide doing it or the interim government doing it, it’s wrong.

CONAN: Let’s get a caller on the line. This is Harry. Harry calling from Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.

HARRY (Caller): Yes, I got the impression that the US supported the ouster of Aristide and somewhat helped engineer it with withholding of aid and that sort of thing. I was wondering who is doing the violence now? Is it Aristide supporters or is it both sides or is it the people who largely ousted him and took control?

Mr. DEIBERT: Well, I could say–you know, I could understand certainly from the rather nefarious nature, at times, of American involvement throughout the Americas why that kind of narrative would have passed into popular belief. But, I mean, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who were present in the OAS and CARICOM negotiations towards the end of Aristide’s term of office before he left the country, and from everything I’ve heard from those people, James Foley, who was the US ambassador at the time, was one of the people who was pushing very hard for the opposition politicians–the group of 184, the democratic platform–to accept a power sharing agreement with Aristide, which they would not do because, in some ways, you know, you had this “democratic opposition,” quote-unquote, in Port-au-Prince and then you also had a rebel gang in the north of the country who were not peaceful and not democratic particularly at all.

Right now, who is doing violence, you know, that’s a good question. I mean, a lot of people would say that as a lot of the kidnapping victims have been taken to a neighborhood called Cite Soleil, which is where a lot of my friends lived, that it would be Aristide’s former supporters who were–for many years, you know, would get a little bit Mickey Mouse jobs with the state industries such as the television–not the television station, but, you know, the telephone company and the water company and things like that, that they’re doing that now because their paycheck has been cut off.

But I would say, in my experience in Haiti, violence can come from every and all sides. So I think there’s a lot of former military and a lot of perhaps corrupt police are involved in it as well.

CONAN: Harry, thanks for the call. We just…

HARRY: All right, thank you.

CONAN: We just have a couple of seconds left with you. But is the Security Council meeting tomorrow likely to authorize more forces to make sure that the country could be controlled?

Mr. DEIBERT: Well, I mean, that would be one option. I mean, one option, I think, that they really need to do is they need to pick a date for the elections when they know they will absolutely be ready and stick to it, ’cause I feel that this continued delaying is just something that’s further–making the country further and further unstable. So…

CONAN: Michael Deibert, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. DEIBERT: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: Michael Deibert, a journalist and author of “Notes of–from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.” He joined us from our bureau in New York.