If there is a silver lining in the catastrophic earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, it is that the country is once again a focus of international attention and concern. There are now many more journalists based there full-time than before the earthquake, with many more occasionally flying in. Some of them have produced detailed, thoughtful, and probing journalism on an array of important issues facing Haitians—most notably the failed relief and reconstruction efforts.1 But the coverage of Haiti’s recent elections shows that there are still important and contentious topics that the press has not investigated deeply, leaving out much crucial historical background.
Most English-language news media reported on the serious problems that plagued Haiti’s November 28 presidential and legislative elections—long lines, incomplete voter registries, record low voter turnout, violence, and chaos. But they barely mentioned the election’s biggest flaw: the arbitrary banning of more than a dozen political parties from the ballot—most notably Fanmi Lavalas, the country’s most popular party, which has won every election in which it has been allowed to participate.2
Fanmi Lavalas emerged in 1996 from the Lavalas social movement, founded by ousted former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which pushed out the dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. Excluding this party was equivalent to barring the Democratic or Republican party in a U.S. election, as one commentator noted.3 Meanwhile, U.S. government funding of the elections went ahead—with $14 million committed—with almost no notice from the U.S. press.4 A Nexis search turned up just four unique news articles in 2010 before election day describing the amount of U.S. funding for the elections. Of these, just one mentioned the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas.5
Despite having reported extensively on the inherent problems in Haiti’s November 28 vote, the news media treated the election’s official outcome, a runoff election between the top two candidates, as if it were legitimate. In doing so, the media again largely ignored crucial information—this time, that the vote counting was so riddled with irregularities that the election results ought to have been simply thrown out and a new election scheduled. Instead, the media uncritically reported the recommendations of a report released by an Organization of American States mission to Haiti; the report was deeply flawed in its methodology and statistical analysis, yet its conclusions in favor of a runoff were endorsed by the U.S. State Department and most U.S.-based commentators.
The officially approved runoff election culminated with the second round in April, when the Haitian electoral authority announced the victory of a right-wing candidate, Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly, a popular kompa singer with ties to the old Duvalier regime.6 The U.S. press once again offered little in the way of critical coverage of this important development.
The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), Haiti’s electoral authority, first banned Fanmi Lavalas and other parties in February 2009, ahead of legislative elections the following April.7 The decision was arbitrary, and in the case of Fanmi Lavalas, the CEP resorted to a technicality. It claimed it could not adequately verify Aristide’s signature, sent while he was still in forced exile in South Africa, as head of the party—a problem that the authority seemed reluctant to solve.
Although the party exclusions were a long-standing and contentious issue well ahead of the November elections, the subject received little attention. A Nexis search of U.S. newspapers and newswires found only six unique news articles that even mentioned the party exclusions in election day coverage (two each from the Associated Press and The Miami Herald, and one each from The Christian Science Monitor and Agence France-Presse); in none of these articles did the exclusions figure as a lead story, usually appearing in the 14th paragraph or later. Press coverage of the issue was also scarce in the run-up to the elections; just 26 news articles (out of almost 200) mentioned the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas in 2010 coverage before the elections. Of these, the party exclusions were a central point in only three articles; in most, they were buried several paragraphs into the story.
Tellingly, the focus of six of these 26 articles was the possible candidacy of celebrity musician Wyclef Jean, which the CEP ultimately rejected. “Haiti’s presidential election revolves around personalities rather than parties or issues,” The Washington Post’s William Booth stated in one article.8 The same could be said of U.S. news coverage of the elections—the Post all but completely ignored the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas and the other parties. (Other articles mentioned “accusations”—dubious at the time, and since debunked—that Aristide’s party “rigged legislative elections” when it was in power, while ignoring the rigging of the 2010 elections that was already under way.9)
Some news coverage and commentary conspicuously left out any mention of the party exclusions, even when reporting on Fanmi Lavalas itself. “Their Unity and Lavalas parties are divided, which means that for the first time there is no clear front-runner,” a Los Angeles Times editorial stated, in reference to presidents René Préval and Aristide, respectively.10 A Washington Post article by Edward Cody similarly mentioned “divisions” within the Lavalas political movement, but neglected to tell readers that the Fanmi Lavalas party was actually excluded from the ballot.11 The day after the elections, the Los Angeles Times’ Joe Mozingo insinuated that the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas diversified the playing field for new political hopefuls:
One remarkable aspect of this election was that people in neighborhoods long prone—and sometimes pressured—to vote for one candidate now were pondering many. The populist former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa, dominated politics for the last two decades, with Preval elected largely on the perception he was Aristide’s protege.
But on Sunday, voters spoke openly about an array of candidates.12
This reporting paints an incomplete—and distorted—picture of Haitian politics. Mozingo neglected to mention that the reason Aristide no longer “dominated politics,” and perhaps even the reason voters were speaking “openly about an array of candidates,” was that Aristide’s party was not allowed to compete. (The use of words like “pressured,” “dominated,” and “openly” also suggests a new supposed opening of democracy in Haiti, following an Aristide-“dominated” period of political “pressure.” In reality, the opposite has happened, with the democratically elected Aristide forced into exile in 2004 and thousands of his supporters hunted down by an unelected and unconstitutional government in the two years that followed.)
In one case, a reporter may have left the impression that Fanmi Lavalas was not in fact excluded. In an October 15 article, The Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles wrote that there were “at least six Lavalas candidates” running in the presidential race, “including former Aristide Prime Minister Yvon Neptune and Minister of Haitians Living Abroad Leslie Voltaire, and Yves Cristallin, Fanmi Lavalas co-founder.”13 When prompted for a correction, she replied in an e-mail that she stood by her article and that she never stated that any candidates were running as candidates of the Fanmi Lavalas party, and that Lavalas was a movement long before the party was founded.
As I noted in a blog post at the time, this is true and an important clarification to make, since the Herald should not presume that most of its readers know this history and will differentiate between “Lavalas candidates” as candidates at one time associated with the Lavalas social movement and candidates affiliated with the Fanmi Lavalas party.14 The Herald issued no such clarification.
The U.S. news media’s mishandling of the Haitian election was for many observers of Haitian politics not surprising. After all, the media all but ignored a campaign of repression and persecution of Fanmi Lavalas supporters in the two years after the 2004 coup d’état that ousted Aristide. Although Aristide’s removal from office—and the months of terrorist violence leading up to it—received a good deal of media attention (much of it highly misleading or inaccurate), the wave of murders, kidnappings, and false imprisonments that followed did not.15
Few U.S. media outlets kept regular correspondents in Haiti in the years 2004–6, when the country was ruled by a U.S.-backed dictatorship.16 In August 2006, a report in The Lancet medical journal confirmed the disturbing pattern that had been hinted at in the occasional brave reports that did emerge from Haiti—of reconstituted death squads, extra-judicial killings (sometimes by the police and UN troops), rapes, and other atrocities. The Lancet study found that some 4,000 people may have been killed for political reasons, out of a total of about 8,000 killed during this brief period.17The Lancet report went unnoticed by the media, as author Peter Hallward has noted.18
The efforts of Fanmi Lavalas to contest this persecution and political exclusion have similarly received little mention in the U.S. press. The party, despite being purged of many of its leaders, showed its strength by calling a boycott of the 2009 legislative elections when the CEP banned it from the ballot; the ban that would later simply be extended into 2010. The boycott appears to have been highly successful—either that or voters, finding little reason to go to the polls, merely chose to stay away. In any case, there was less than 5% voter participation in the 2009 election, according to reliable estimates.19 (Media reports, when they did mention turnout, reported the official number of 11%.) But Fanmi Lavalas’s boycott was mentioned in just a handful of U.S. news articles.
The media ignored the party exclusions of 2010 despite the number of high-ranking U.S. officials who raised their voices in protest. For example, a group of 45 House Democrats condemned the exclusions, as did Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), the most influential congressional Republican on foreign relations. Moreover, numerous NGOs and advocacy groups expressed their outrage, and there were several protests and threats of election boycotts in Haiti from across the political spectrum.20
The scant media coverage was partially offset by op-eds denouncing the exclusions. Most of these, however, were written by people who might be considered “usual suspects” in the eyes of many journalists and foreign policy elites: NGO members and other Haiti advocates, including Marleine Bastien of Haitian Women of Miami, former U.S. presidential candidate and previous executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights Ron Daniels, writer Amy Wilentz, Nicole Phillips of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Mark Weisbrot, among others.21 (I also had an op-ed on this topic published in the Los Angeles Times.)22Newsday was notable and isolated in decrying the party exclusions in an editorial, as well as an op-ed by editorial board member Bob Keeler.23 On the other end of the spectrum, some commentaries—most notably a column by the Heritage Foundation’s Ray Walser, published in several U.S. newspapers—openly celebrated the anti-democratic exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas.24
Voter turnout in the November 28 elections reached a record low for a presidential election—less than 23%—not just in Haiti but in the Western Hemisphere, going back over 60 years.25 Foreign journalists reported ballot stuffing and other fraud.26 At least two people were killed in election-related violence, and, by the end of the day, some of the polling stations had been trashed, ballots scattered about in a symbolic image of the chaos that surrounded the electoral process from start to finish.27
Midway through the November 28 election, 12 of the 19 presidential candidates held a news conference to denounce the electoral process and demand that the election be annulled and a new one held. Among these candidates were Mirlande Manigat, a conservative former first lady, and Michel Martelly, the eventual winner. Both would later change their minds when it was announced that they had finished first and third (getting 6.4% and 4.6% of the electorate’s vote, respectively) in the preliminary count. The second-place finisher, Jude Célestin, Préval’s handpicked candidate, was calculated as having beaten Martelly by just 6,800 votes. Under Haiti’s constitution, the top two finishers proceed to a second round. Martelly supporters began violent protests to demand his inclusion in the runoff; at least five people were reported killed in the ensuing violence over the following weeks.
In mid-December, the Haitian government announced that a mission from the Organization of American States would review the election results.28 Before the OAS mission released its report—or any details thereof—the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) conducted its own study of all 11,181 tally sheets from the election (12 times as many tally sheets as the OAS mission would end up counting) and announced that the number of votes either “not counted or counted wrong” was “much larger” than reported by either the OAS or the CEP.29 Because of this, CEPR noted, it was impossible to determine who should advance to a second round. “If there is a second round,” a CEPR press release announced, “it will be based on arbitrary assumptions and/or exclusions.”30 None of the U.S. and international media outlets, with their considerable budgets, conducted their own counts and analyses.
The CEPR study received some coverage—in Agence France-Presse, the Canadian Globe and Mail, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company, for example. While it ultimately had a significant impact, being cited by influential voices, including Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Haiti’s former ambassador the United States, Raymond Joseph, for example, many news media paid no heed to questions about the Haitian election until January 10, when the Associated Press leaked details of the OAS mission’s draft report.31
Rather than suggest that the election results be thrown out and a new election held, as the great majority of presidential candidates continued to urge, the OAS mission report concluded that the election should proceed to a second round and that Martelly—not Célestin—should advance as the second-place winner.32 The next day, CEPR announced that it too had obtained a copy of the OAS mission report (from a different source) and had posted it online, along with a preliminary analysis of it finding it to be “methodologically and statistically flawed” and that “the small margin of difference between Martelly and Célestin in the OAS’s recount—0.3%—was too small to statistically distinguish between the two, given the sample size and variance.”33 CEPR’s was the first and only statistical analysis of the OAS mission report, its methodology, and its conclusions.34
The timing was important: The OAS had not yet officially presented the report to the Haitian government, which it was expected to do after the anniversary of Haiti’s earthquake. There was still time, in other words, for the OAS to correct is methodology and its findings. But this would probably come about only if there were ample media coverage. Several outlets, most notably the AP, CNN, and Inter Press Service, did report news of the leak, including CEPR’s analysis. Others, however, ignored the analysis and the questions it raised. Editorials in The Washington Post and The Globe and Mail quickly urged the Haitian authorities to accept the OAS’s recommendations, apparently without having examined the report.35 The Post, for example, noted that the OAS mission report had been described by diplomats and international aid officials “as a careful work,” leaving it at that, and went on to urge Préval to “embrace it clearly, audibly and publicly.”36
Several days later, CEPR released a more detailed analysis of the OAS mission report, which found that the OAS had come to its conclusions by eliminating 234 vote tally sheets from areas where Célestin had a disproportionately high number of votes.37 CEPR also noted that the OAS mission ignored hundreds of other tally sheets—not counted or originally disqualified—that might have affirmed Célestin’s second-place finish, had the OAS team given them the same sort of review it accorded the 234 eliminated tally sheets. In short, the OAS appeared to be cherry-picking which ballots to toss.
While CEPR’s release of this second analysis did garner more media coverage—with some outlets starting to describe the OAS mission report as “controversial”—many outlets continued to ignore the scrutiny of the OAS’s findings.38 Coverage of the CEPR paper was important, since it was the only independent statistical analysis of the OAS mission report to emerge and to have an influence on the debate.
Ignoring the CEPR analysis, as some media outlets did, made it appear that there was either no controversy regarding the OAS’s recommendations or that challenges to its findings came only from vested parties—Célestin or the Haitian president, for example. Worse still was journalists’ failure to question the OAS mission about its methodology—accepting it, as Weisbrot put it, without asking “the most obvious questions.”39
The result of this under-reported tale was a runoff between two right-leaning candidates on March 20. On April 4, the CEP announced that Martelly had won. His victory was due in part to his campaign spending of Haiti’s equivalent of $15 billion in the United States (by comparison, the Obama campaign is hoping to spend about $1 billion in the U.S. on the reelection campaign).
Voter turnout in the runoff election was similarly low, as in the first round—about 23%—yet Martelly’s campaign claimed a landslide victory and a strong mandate. The Martelly camp was aided by a few journalists, like AOL News’s Emily Troutman, who wrote, “Martelly’s 67 percent of the vote in a free election is nearly unprecedented in Haiti, similar to Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s margin in 1990, and a clear mandate for his leadership.”40
But Martelly received support from just 16.7% of the electorate, leading other outlets, such as The New York Times and The Economist, to note that his mandate was not very significant. “Just 23% of registered voters cast valid votes in the run-off election,” The Economist noted, “recalling the title of one of Mr Martelly’s mid-1990s hit albums: ‘I Don’t Care.’ ”41 Aristide, by contrast, was elected in 1990 with 67% of the vote, but with turnout around 75%—and in the first round.42 In 1995, Préval was elected with more than 87% of the vote.43
In the end, readers of U.S. newspapers and magazines may understandably be confused as to why Haiti has now elected an apparently right-wing candidate who has proposed reconstituting the widely disliked Haitian army.44 Meanwhile, the left-leaning Aristide—who was greeted by tens of thousands of supporters upon his return to Haiti on March 18—remains the country’s most popular political figure.45
Dan Beeton is International Communications Coordinator at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (cepr.net).
1. See Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch, “Relief and Reconstruction: The Year in Review, Part I,” and “Relief and Reconstruction: The Year in Review, Part II,” Center for Economic and Policy Research blog, at cepr.net.
2. Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, “The International Community Should Pressure the Haitian Government for Prompt and Fair Elections,” June 30, 2010, ijdh.org/archives/13138.
3. Ira J. Kurzban, “Unfair and Undemocratic,” The Miami Herald, September 8, 2010.
4. U.S. Agency for International Development, “USAID Elections Suport [sic]: What Is USAID Doing to Support Elections in Haiti,” usaid.gov/helphaiti/elections.html.
5. Ben Fox and Jonathan Katz, “Skirmishes Raise Specter of Violent Haiti Election,” Associated Press, November 26, 2010.
6. See, e.g., Elise Ackerman, “His Music Rules in Haiti,” Miami New Times, May 29 1997.
7. Jonathan Katz, “Aristide Allies, Ex-Rebel Barred From Haiti Vote,” Associated Press, February 6, 2009.
8. William Booth, “Election Keeps Tumult Coming in Haiti,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2010.
9. Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment (Verso, 2007), 112–13; James Anderson, “Haiti Quake New Blow for Country Mired in Misery,” Associated Press, January 13, 2010.
10. Los Angeles Times, “Wyclef Jean Has a Role in Haiti, but Not as President,” editorial, August 25, 2010.
11. Edward Cody, “In Haiti, Musician Jean Could Be Real Contender for Presidency,” The Washington Post, August 19, 2010.
12. Joe Mozingo, “Widespread Fraud Alleged in Haiti Vote,” Los Angeles Times, November 29, 2010.
13. Jacqueline Charles, “As Elections Loom, How Will Haiti React?” The Miami Herald, October 15, 2010.
14. Dan Beeton, “A Clarification (of Sorts) From The Miami Herald on Haiti’s Elections,” Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch blog, November 3, 2010.
15. Randall Robinson, An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, From Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President (Basic Civitas Books, 2007); Hallward, Damming the Flood.
16. Dan Beeton, “Bad News From Haiti: U.S. Press Misses the Story,” NACLA Report on the Americas 41, no. 5 (September/October 2008): 49–52.
17. Athena Kolbe and Royce Hutson, “Human Rights Abuse and Other Criminal Violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: A Random Survey of Households,” The Lancet 368, no. 9538 (September 2, 2006): 864–73.
18. Hallward, Damming the Flood, 161.
19. LAMP for Haiti Human Rights Program, “The Right to Vote: A Report Detailing the Haitian Elections for November 28, 2010 and March, 2011.”
20. Office of Representative Maxine Waters, “Congresswoman Waters & Colleagues Urge Secretary Clinton to Support Fair, Free, Inclusive Haitian Elections,” press release, October 7, 2010; Office of Senator Richard Lugar, “Haiti: No Leadership—No Elections: A Report to the Members of the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, One Hundred Eleventh Congress, Second Session,” June 10, 2010; Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti et al., “IJDH and Partner Organizations Urge Secretary Clinton to Support the Haitian Government in Ensuring That Elections Are ‘Free, Fair and Inclusive,’ ” open letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, September 13, 2010; Jonathan Katz, “Electoral Frustrations Threaten Haiti Vote,” Associated Press, December 10, 2009.
21. Marleine Bastien, “Haitian Independence Day,” South Florida Times, January 8, 2010; Ron Daniels, “Will Wyclef Be Another Aristide?” New York Amsterdam News, August 12–18, 2010; Amy Wilentz, “In Haiti, Waiting for the Grand Bayakou,” The New York Times, November 26, 2010; Nicole Phillips, “Members of Congress Are Right to Urge Changes to Haiti’s Flawed Electoral Process,” The Hill’s Congress Blog, October 11, 2011; Mark Weisbrot, “Washington and International Donors Have Failed Haiti,” The Sacramento Bee, August 13, 2010; Ezili Danto, “Haiti Should Delay Election and Focus on Rebuilding,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City), August 27, 2010; William A. Collins, “Two Cents: Earthquakes and Neo-Colonialism,” The Deming Headlight (Deming, New Mexico), January 25, 2010; Maulana Karenga, “Standing in Solidarity With Haiti: Beyond Natural and Unnatural Disasters,” Los Angeles Sentinel, January 21–27, 2010.
22. Dan Beeton, “Haiti Doesn’t Deserve a Pass,” Los Angeles Times, November 23, 2010.
23. Newsday (New York), “Haiti Needs Fair Election; President Préval Should Lead the Effort,” editorial, August 30, 2010; Bob Keeler, “Suffering Haiti Limps Toward an Election; Ravaged by Disasters, the Caribbean Nation Is Also Wracked by Political Turmoil,” Newsday, November 18, 2010.
24. Ray Walser, “Aristide Could Pull Haiti to Chavez Orbit,” The Providence Journal, August 17, 2010.
25. Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnston, “Analysis of the OAS Mission’s Draft Report on Haiti’s Election,” CEPR, January 2011.
26. See, e.g., Silvia Ayuso, “Angry Voters Allege Fraud, Candidates Reject Election (Roundup),” Deutsche Presse-Agentur, November 29, 2010; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, The National, “Sunday’s Presidential Election in Haiti Was Rife With Problems and Wid . . . ,” November 28, 2010.
27. Haiti Relief and Reconstruction Watch (CEPR Blog), “Election Live-Blog,” November 28, 2010.
28. Trenton Daniel, “Review of Disputed Results Could Delay Vote,” The Miami Herald, December 19, 2010.
29. Mark Weisbrot and Jake Johnston, “Haiti’s Fatally Flawed Election,” CEPR, January 2011.
30. CEPR, “Haiti Election Recount Report Reveals Massive Irregularities Beyond Those Noticed by the OAS and CEP,” press release, January 9, 2011.
31. Representative Maxine Waters, “How to Help Haiti One Year After Earthquake (Rep. Maxine Waters),” The Hill’s Congress Blog, January 12, 2011; Raymond A. Joseph, “First an Earthquake, Then a Fraudulent Election,” The Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2011.
32. Jonathan M. Katz, “APNewsBreak: OAS Says Boot Haiti Gov’t Candidate,” Associated Press, January 10, 2011.
33. CEPR, “CEPR Examines OAS Report on Haiti’s Election, Finds It ‘Inconclusive, Statistically Flawed, and Indefensible,’ ” press release, January 11, 2011.
35. The Globe and Mail (Toronto), “Let the Real Front-Runners Run in Haiti,” editorial, January 11, 2011 .
36. The Washington Post, “An OAS Report Offers a Way Past Haiti’s Political Paralysis,” editorial, January 11, 2011.
37. Weisbrot and Johnston, “Analysis of the OAS Mission’s Draft Report.”
38. See, e.g., Associated Press, “Haiti President Unhappily Receives Election Report,” January 14, 2011; Jacqueline Charles, Lesley Clark, and Trenton Daniel, “Charges Filed Against Ex-Dictator Jean-Claude ‘Baby Doc’ Duvalier,” The Miami Herald, January 18, 2011; William Booth, “ ‘A Day Nobody Can Forget,’ ” The Washington Post, January 13, 2011.
39. CEPR, “ ‘Sad Day for Haitian Democracy’ as U.S. Threatens to Cut Off Aid to Haiti in Order to Reverse Its Election Results, CEPR Co-Director Says,” press release, January 25, 2011.
40. Emily Troutman, “Musician Martelly Elected Haiti’s Next President; Now What?” AOL News, April 4, 2011.
41. Randal C. Archibold, “New Haitian Leader Pledges Reconciliation,” The New York Times, April 5, 2011; The Economist, “Tet Offensive: Popular Result, Murky Past,” April 7, 2011.
42. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 1990–1991: Haiti,” February 22, 1991.
43. Political Database of the Americas, “Haiti: 1995 Presidential Election Results/ Résultats de l’élection présidentielle de 1990,” Georgetown University and the Organization of American States, March 20, 2006.
44. For some of Martelly’s political positions, see, e.g., Trenton Daniel, “The Former Pop Singer Who Could Be Haiti’s President,” The Miami Herald, February 6, 2011; Ackerman, “His Music Rules in Haiti.”
45. See, e.g., Democracy Now!, “Live Blog: Democracy Now! Reports on Jean -Bertrand Aristide’s Historic Return to Haiti,” March 18, 2011.