Socialist Worker weekly, 25 February 2006 - Andy Taylor
The announcement late last week that blank ballots cast in Haiti's presidential election were to be discounted, effectively acknowledging René Préval's victory without recourse to a run-off, sparked massive celebrations in the poorest districts of this devastated country.
The 'international community' and observers have hailed the decision as a victory for 'common sense' and stability. The victory, however, is entirely that of Haiti's poor majority. The clear, democratic choice they made was never in doubt. The election result, however, was.
It is a huge victory on two counts. Firstly, despite two years of occupation, intimidation and a massively skewed playing field, they got out to vote for their candidate. Second and more importantly, they mobilised to overcome the massive electoral fraud that wa
s being committed to rob them of their victory.
After reports that Préval's share of the vote was mysteriously shrinking from 61% of the total to just under the 50% required to avoid a run off as the protracted counting process went on, tens of thousands took to the streets to demand justice. This correspondent's favourite images of these protests came when hundreds of Haiti's poorest peacefully invaded and occupied the five-star Montana hotel, home to the Provisional Electoral Council (PEC) and the cream of the international community as well as a favourite haunt of Haiti's wealthy 'elite'. While guests were evacuated from the roof by helicopter, Vietnam-style, the new occupants briefly availed themselves of facilities it would cost them a year's income to spend a night in.
It was the protests and not any 'common sense' or 'fair play' on the part of the PEC or the UN that forced acceptance of Préval's victory. Now, predictably, Préval's opponents are crying foul, despite not po
lling more than 12.5% of the vote. Loudest is the voice of Charles Baker, a rich industrialist (read sweatshop owner), one of whose main commitments was the re-establishment of Haiti's notorious army (SW 4/2/06).
Baker (8.3% of the vote) demonstrated his deep understanding of Haiti's mood by declaring before the poll: "Let me be honest and say that Préval has as much chance as a snowball in hell of winning any elections here, that I am certain of." Baker has also demonstrated his commitment to democracy by stating: "If he (Préval) becomes president, chaos will break out. We will defend ourselves."
While we should all celebrate the clear victory Préval's election signifies, the challenge to improve the desperate conditions of Haiti's majority remains daunting. Firstly, as illustrated by Baker's quotes above and by recent history, the Haitian elite have nothing but the deepest contempt for the poor majority and will stop at nothing to defend their enormous wealth and p
rivileges. With this reality in mind, it is at best naive of Préval to present the only hope for the country as him acting as a 'bridge' between rich and poor.
Secondly, the negotiations carried out behind closed doors between Préval and other players addressed the result and not the causes of electoral fraud. By opting for a technical solution, Préval has let the culprits off the hook. He has also left the door open to accusations of illegitimacy, mostly by the very perpetrators of the original fraud.
It must also be assumed that he will have been leaned on to make concessions to those opposed even to his modest programme of reforms. The US have demanded he give guarantees, for instance, that he would not bring back his erstwhile ally, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, currently in exile after a coup in 2004 and still the first choice of many of Haiti's poor. Préval has also stated that the UN occupation forces should stay for as long as necessary, despite the fact that their main role until now h
as been to persecute his followers at his opponents' behest.
Finally, Préval has form. He was president of Haiti from 1996-2000. His main claim to fame is to be the only president in Haiti's history to serve a full term and hand power over. His first presidency was widely seen as a 'caretaker' administration, keeping the seat warm for Aristide's inevitable return. During his time in office he fell out with Aristide, leading to a paralysed parliament and rule by decree. It was the Préval government that privatised the state flour mill and cement works, two of the largest concerns in public hands, as part of compliance with the World Bank's Structural Adjustment Programme - SAP (the Death Plan, in Creole). Compliance with the SAP is what has brought Haiti to its knees. The hillsides are barren. Agriculture has been decimated. The only growth is that of the shantytowns.
While Préval is personally seen as 'clean' and not tainted by the accusations of corruption and thuggery levelled at A
ristide, he is committing the same fundamental mistake that led from Aristide's return in 1994 to the current nightmare. The concessions he makes to gain power on behalf of the poor, weaken both his ability to do anything for them and their ability to defend themselves. This can only lead to powerlessness and corruption.
It was the resilience of Haiti's workers, peasants and urban poor that preserved democracy. It is their continued activity that represents the best hope to preserve it and build a better future for themselves, regardless of who holds office. We owe them our solidarity.
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