The United States has exerted great efforts to solidify the electoral institution in Haiti and especially to assure that there is an elected president. In 1994 we even used twenty-two thousand troops to return an elected president to office, an unprecedented (and not repeated) step for the United States to take in Latin America. Since then the policy stance of three U.S. administrations has been to overlook minor and perhaps major transgressions but to draw the line at flagrant derelictions. The following chronology shows where the United States has decided to draw the line in specific instances:
U.S. case-by-case policy actions
- 1997. The United States did not get involved when fraud and the counting of blank votes was charged. The prime minister resigned in protest. No new elections were held and parliament expired in 1999.
- 2000. The United States did protest vigorously when votes for opposition senatorial candidates were simply discarded. The OAS electoral mission was pulled out. U.S. and international aid to the government was cut off formally until 2002, and actually until 2004. The United States also provided safe passage for the electoral commission president after he was threatened for trying to correct the fraud. Despite U.S. actions, the fraud was never corrected.
- 2005. The transitional government and the electoral commission were dragging their feet in an effort to prolong their tenure. In October 2005 the United States pressed hard for the appointment of a capable manager to get elections underway. Jacques Bernard, a Haitian businessman, was named administrator. In 2006 he ran the three freest and fairest elections Haiti has ever had.
- 2006. Despite the overall high quality of the elections, a serious lapse occurred when the front-running presidential candidate, René Préval, cried massive fraud when he saw he would fall just short of winning on the first round. His supporters paralyzed the streets of Port-au-Prince. The troop-contributing countries of the United Nations mission in Haiti decided to back Préval, and the blank votes were apportioned among candidates to put Préval over the top. U.S. officials were not enthusiastic about this illegal procedure but went along . Préval pocketed the lesson for future use.
- 2008. The United States protested the exclusion of the Lavalas Party from the ballot. It did not want to see a former majority party completely excluded. But the electoral commission that time had strong technical grounds for the exclusion, since the party could not even agree on who represented it. The U.S. protest was ignored.
- 2010. In the presidential election President Préval pressured the electoral commission to count quarantined votes for his favored candidate. They had been quarantined for suspected fraud. The United States protested again, and this time moved effectively. It promoted a Verification Commission which called for the suspect votes to be re-quarantined, which was accomplished after considerable diplomatic pressure. That let Michel Martelly advance to the second round, where he swamped his opponent.
Typically for a Haitian ruler, President Martelly returned the favor by holding no elections at all during his first four years in office. It was difficult to tell whether his stubbornness or that of the opposition was more to blame. Three electoral commissions were formed; none held an election. Some in Washington suspected that Martelly wanted to run out the clock on his five years and with no new president elected simply stay in power. Some in the opposition demanded his resignation. In late 2014, with U.S. elections looming, the United States lost its patience with the ongoing game of musical chairs.
- 2014. U.S. diplomats helped forge an arrangement to finally hold elections. By this arrangement, not Martelly but his prime minister was sacrificed in return for the opposition’s agreement to go to elections. Having achieved this, U.S. diplomats seemed to relax prematurely.
- 2015. U.S. diplomats muffed a clear chance to strengthen the commission by an outstanding appointment
- 2015. They watched passively as the commission broke the rules to exclude peaceful qualified candidates and took bribes to include others, including violent criminals.
The damage was done. Public confidence in the electoral authority, always low, sank further as one arbitrary exclusion followed another. This was confidence that the commission could ill-afford to lose.
For when the losing candidates and allied civil-society organization raised the cry of “massive and premeditated fraud” in an election that had only yesterday been judged good, it seemed there was no one in Haiti who rose to defend the commission. For the first few months, about the only voices one heard to that effect were those of the European Union’s excellent electoral mission and the U.S. ambassador. Having midwifed this election the United States seemed to let go of it, in a fractured country where the electoral commission needed close support to survive.
As in the Harlan County incident* and the year-2006 blank votes, the hesitation to do the easier thing has now led to worse choices down the road. It would have been easier to build up the electoral commission to withstand the assault than to let it go under and have an unelected Lavalas-style president seek to abort the whole election. Now the cry of massive fraud is being used not just to change a few blank votes but to annul an entire election because the wrong candidate won. That would make a mockery of Haitian elections and undermine a U.S. strategy of election support pursued since 1995.
Nevertheless, U.S. diplomats are rising to the challenge.
- February 2016. U.S. and international aid suspended until there is an elected government
- April 2016. Privert given the cold shoulder on his trip to the United Nations in New York
- April 2016. Three Republican senators have suggested the freezing of high Haitian officials’ visas
It is unclear at this writing whether such measures will suffice.
*In 1993, Haiti’s military government, President Aristide, and the United Nations agreed on a plan for Aristide’s return that included U.S. and Canadian trainers for the Haitian army. They sailed into Port-au-Prince harbor on the U.S. troopship Harlan County. Armed demonstrators protested on the docks. President Clinton ordered the ship to leave. This encouraged such intransigence in the military government that when Clinton finally decided that the situation had become intolerable, he had no choice but to send in a large U.S. invasion force.