Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 7 1997

The Way I See It:
Traps And Trappings
Of Haitian Democracy

Michel-Rolph Trouillot
Special to The Gazette
The possibility of an upsurge of political violence in Haiti is growing every day without attracting much attention outside that Caribbean country. To be sure, the presence of soldiers from the U.N. Support Mission (MANUH) creates a coup-proof situation. It guarantees the permanence of President Ren, Pr,val as Haiti's chief of state and makes it unlikely that political factions will engage each other in open combat. But the presence of foreign soldiers does not ease the rising tension. On Wednesday, protesters set up barricades on a main national road, asking for the withdrawal of the U.N. forces.

The immediate issue is a fight to control two sites of power in the midst of an institutional vacuum. Prime Minister Rosny Smarth resigned on June 9, in part to protest the results of the first round of legislative elections of April 6 and to prevent the scheduling of a second round by an electoral council accused to favor candidates allied to former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Indeed, the electoral council postponed indefinitely the second round, which was to decide the fate of seven Senate seats and, ultimately, control of the Haitian Parliament. President Pr‚val, in turn, has yet to name a new chief of government and officially side with any faction within his crumbling alliance.

Behind the controversies about the elections is the breakdown of the Lavalas coalition, which secured Aristide's and Pr‚val's presidential victories. In January, Aristide created his own party, the Lavalas Family, since then bitterly opposed by the OPL (Lavalas Political Organization), of which Smarth is a member. The OPL supports an economic package recommended by international lending organizations, including the World Bank and the IMF.

That package calls for austerity measures, government layoffs, the privatization of state enterprises and the removal of most tariffs. Since leaving power, Aristide has distanced himself from Washington and attacked that package for "programming hunger and a high cost of living."

U.S. officials have painted the situation as one created mainly by Aristide and his thirst for personal power. But Aristide's personal ambition, however real, is not the fundamental issue. To start with, Aristide is not the only voice in Haiti to criticize the austerity program: most Haitian leaders have expressed reservations. Indeed, soon after the roadblocks started last Wednesday, President Pr‚val himself suggested that a new prime minister would not be able "to pursue the same program while the Haitian people go hungry and manifest their discontent."

At the heart of the matter is the emphasis by U.S. and Haitian policy-makers on the trappings of democracy rather than on its substance. Rituals, notably elections deemed free and fair by international observers, have become more important than the political participation of which they are a moment, albeit crucial. Aristide, who massively won the 1990 presidential elections only to be toppled by a military coup after seven months in office, was returned to power by U.S. military intervention in September 1994. In return, U.S. policy-makers expected the full backing by the Lavalas coalition of the economic package favored by the United States. Aristide was not elected on such a platform, designed in Washington and in Paris while Aristide was in exile. Nor did Aristide or any faction of the Lavalas coalition try to sell or even explain that platform to the Haitian people. In fact, no Haitian candidate ever campaigned on that platform.

Meanwhile however, U.S. officials kept insisting on Haiti's progress toward democracy. Their supporting evidence was the relentless series of elections that occurred since Aristide's return. Yet there was much in these elections to raise serious concerns. Three trends have marked these elections: decreasing interest on the part of the electorate, decreasing representation by political parties and increasing allegations of vote-rigging.

More than 80 percent of the electorate went to the polls when Aristide won his 1990 presidential landslide. The elections were deemed the fairest of Haitian history. By the summer of 1995, less than 30 percent of the electorate took part in the legislative elections that consolidated Aristide's power. Many Haitian politicians then criticized both the electoral council's screening of parties and candidates and its handling of the ballots. Some journalists reported serious irregularities. Yet the State Department and most U.S. officials backed the results, espousing the Lavalas rhetoric that these results would not have been different if the elections had been handled more rigorously. Haitian politicians, including potential members of a constantly changing electoral council, assumed then that the rituals of elections were at least as important to Washington as democratic practice.

In December 1995, the presidential campaign to succeed Aristide started late and never provoked any enthusiasm. Bypassing the total absence of a debate on Haiti's future, and the 29 percent official turnout (local observers claim a lower number), U.S. officials insisted on "the first transfer of power from an elected president to another in Haitian history."

Similarly, the first round of legislative elections, last April, was first accepted by the State Department as "an important step in the process of consolidating democracy in Haiti." In a briefing the day after the elections, spokesman Nicholas Burns noted: "Available reports to us, including from our embassy, indicate the elections were free and fair." Prompted by a journalist who suggested that the low turnout was "not a ringing endorsement of democracy," Burns replied: "That sometimes happens in the United States as well for local elections." Successive official assessments did not accord any significance to the 5 percent turnout.

Reactions came later, when it became clear that the results of this dismal first round clearly favored Aristide's newly formed Lavalas Family, and that a second round would give the family veto power in the Senate. Such veto, in turn, would place Aristide in an ideal position to govern behind the scenes, to prepare a probable bid for the next presidential campaign and to interrupt implementation of the economic package backed by the Smarth government. All three prospects may provoke panic among Haiti policy-makers in Washington and may explain the untypical outcry about alleged fraud. The U.S. ambassador to Haiti has reportedly threatened to withdraw material support unless the current electoral council is dismissed.

Yet it is not clear that the irregularities that marked these latest elections, obvious as they were, affected the results more markedly than in recent cases on which Haiti handlers in Washington kept silent. Having insisted on democratic rituals rather than democratic debates on policy, Washington's Haiti handlers now see these rituals used to subvert their most favored policies. One suspects that if they finally make room for serious debate to take place, Haitians will go again to the polls and will themselves watch the vote riggers.

More than a week ago, leaders of some minor parties wrote an open letter to President Clinton, insisting that elections are not enough to make a democracy and urging him to design a policy that allows Haitians to debate openly their future. Their motives notwithstanding, they do have a point.

Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a Haitian, is professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins and the author of Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History.

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