While the presidential candidacy of rapper/entertainer Wyclef Jean in Haiti’s upcoming presidential and legislative elections has garnered much international attention, underneath the glare of this hype are the continued assaults on the country’s democratic process. Much is at stake in this key election, scheduled for November 28. The winner will be responsible for the colossal task of rebuilding the nation’s shattered infrastructure and psyche after the January 12 earthquake. Jean’s glitz and glamour have stolen international headlines (despite Haiti’s August 20 ruling denying him the candidacy), however, the real story is that the country’s strongest and most popular political force will again be excluded from these elections.
The United States and the principal international power brokers have stated over and over again that the promotion of a stable and democratic political process is a primary goal in Haiti. However, international elites continue to support and fund an election that openly excludes the political party Famni Lavalas, the party founded by former Haitian president Jean Bertrand Aristide. Not only has Lavalas been excluded from Haiti’s political process by the country’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), its supporters are continually intimidated and violently suppressed by a United Nations army that continues to be in Haiti six years after the 2004 coup that ousted Aristide from the presidency. The CEP and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) continue to work in coordination with each other to make sure only the Haitian and international economic elite have their say in the country.
Though its stated mission is peacekeeping, MINUSTAH has also taken a political stance in the country. Since the UN army has been in Haiti it has worked with international elites to actively oppose the kinds of policies that Lavalas was promoting before its violent ouster. Lavalas, for example, attempted to halt the privatization of public utilities, raise the country’s abysmally low minimum wage, and pursue demands that France begin to pay the historic $21 billion debt owed to its former colony.
Since the coup, MINUSTAH and Haitian police have continually referred to Lavalas supporters as “bandits," which they have used to justify illegal arrests and extrajudicial killings. MINUSTAH has killed civilians in Port-Au-Prince’s slums, specifically in the Lavalas strongholds of Bel Air and Cité Soleil, silencing the demands of self determination and socio-economic justice of the people in these neighborhoods. MINUSTAH’s shoot-first tactics have been well documented, and Haiti scholar Peter Hallward has compiled a lengthy list of human rights abuses and outright massacres by MINUSTAH in his book Damming the Flood (pp. 275-310). The terror and intimidation of Lavalas supporters has continued throughout President René Préval’s term in office, especially during the six months following the earthquake.
Though Préval, an Aristide protégé, originally ran on a progressive ticket, he has since refused to support a bill that would have increased Haiti’s paltry minimum wage and has not allowed Aristide to come out of exile. Now his administration faces social unrest due to the slow progress of post-earthquake recovery. The unrest, in large part, has taken the form of public demonstrations organized by supporters of Lavalas, still considered to be the main political vehicle for Haiti’s poor, who make up 90% of the population. MINUSTAH has responded to these popular demonstrations with repression, and has upheld Haiti’s internal process that has excluded Lavalas from the elections.
As the principal official electoral institution in the country, the CEP has banned the participation of Lavalas and 14 other political parties in the upcoming November elections. While under Haitian law the Préval-picked CEP does not have the legal authority to exclude any legally recognized political party, it has continued to ignore both internal and international pressure to reverse its decision. Indeed, it seems to have made a habit of undermining Lavalas’s efforts to take part in the democratic process.
In the run-up to the 2006 elections, for example, the Haitian government imprisoned a popular Lavalas presidential candidate, Father Gerard Jean Juste, on a bogus murder charge in an effort to block him from taking part in the election. While in prison Jean Juste was unable to fulfill the CEP’s demand of registering in person, and was banned from participating in the election.
This was just the beginning. In the 2009 Senate elections, in which 12 seats were contested, every Lavalas candidate was banned by the CEP on procedural grounds. Despite Lavalas’s punctual submission of a list of its candidates, the final list was rejected by the CEP because it did not have the original signature of Aristide, who was the leader of the party despite his forced exile in South Africa. The spontaneous creation of this new requirement seemed to be a blatant effort to block Lavalas’s participation and led the party to call for a boycott of the election. The voter turnout for the election was a measly 3-5% of the population – a clear signal that Haitians rejected the election, and another indication of Lavalas’s immense popular support.
In November 2009, after the CEP announced the dates for the 2010 elections, Famni Lavalas complied with all of the known legal requirements and preparations to participate. Aristide sent the CEP the necessary documents with his original signature and an accompanying certificate from a Haitian notary, which authorized Lavalas representative Dr. Maryse Narcisse to formally register the party for the elections. Aristide appeared on the local radio station Radio Solidarity to confirm that the party had followed all necessary requirements. Once again the CEP disqualified Lavalas due to its failure to submit the proper documents for the 2009 Senate elections, not the 2010 election. Street marches and spontaneous protests ensued.
On August 20, the CEP ruled against the candidacy of Wyclef Jean, as he did not meet the residency requirements to participate in the election. Jean previously viewed himself as Haiti’s Bob Marley, but in a recent interview with Time magazine, he likened himself to another entertainer-turned statesman, Ronald Reagan, a frightening comparison for Haitians, given Reagan’s fervent support for the Duvalier dictatorship in the 1980s and the advent of economic neoliberalism during his term in office — with his enthusiastic support. In one of Jean’s songs he sings “If I was president… instead of spending billions on the war, we can use some of that money, in the ghetto.” But given Jean’s stated dedication to neoliberal policies, “if he was president,” he would be much more likely to carry out the wishes of the domestic and international business community, than those of the desperately poor majority that he claims to represent. With all the media coverage on Haiti’s election fading away with Jean’s departure, it is unclear which remaining candidate he will endorse, but the candidate certainly won't be from Lavalas.
Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA Research Associate
- ‘We Bend, but We Don’t Break’: Fighting for a Just Reconstruction in Haiti
- Fault Lines: Perspectives on Haiti’s Earthquake
- Disaster Capitalism to the Rescue: The International Community and Haiti After the Earthquake