Duvalier's return adds to turmoil in Haiti

January 18, 2011

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - The political paralysis created by the bungled and inconclusive presidential election here has virtually halted business investment and reconstruction aid from rich countries, as ordinary Haitians seethe and international diplomats fear Haiti might spin into another round of chaos and violence.

Haitian leaders and U.S. diplomats were stunned to learn of the return Sunday night of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who landed at the Port-au-Prince airport on a flight from his exile in France, where he lived after being ousted in a popular uprising in 1986.

Loyal supporters greeted him at the airport, where a shuffling and apparently weak Duvalier told local reporters, "I came to help my country."

Duvalier had threatened to return to Haiti in the past and had expressed his desire to run for president. Four years ago, Haitian President Rene Preval said Duvalier would face charges and trial if he came back.

Duvalier's return further roils a tense situation in Haiti. The tallies in the November election, supported with $15 million in U.S. government aid, appear to be worse than thought, with more than 50,000 votes tainted. The runoff vote has been delayed, the candidates are uncertain and the unpopular Preval, widely criticized for his post-quake performance, is insisting that he remain in power after his constitutional term ends Feb. 7. Parliament last year approved an extension of his term until May.

"The economy is being held hostage by political crisis," said Pierre Marie Boisson, chief economist at Haiti's Sogebank. "Everyone is waiting to see what happens with the election, and this is a bad time for waiting. We need to keep up the momentum. We need a fast, transparent, peaceful transfer of power or the world is going to abandon us."

The current quagmire comes just as the country and its ruling class need more than ever to showcase political stability to bring home the $10 billion in aid pledges from donor nations and, more important, to entice investors to create jobs.

When the Korean apparel giant Sae-A Trading announced plans last week to bring 20,000 jobs to Haiti, its chairman, Woong-Ki Kim, highlighted the need for a peaceful transition of power.

"Everybody is in a wait-and-see mode, nothing is clear, and this is very frustrating, especially for the people living in the tents," said Preval's former prime minister, Michele Pierre Louis.

Statisticians from the Organization of American States on Thursday delivered their assessment of the vote. It is no wonder that Preval reportedly refused to accept the report for several days.

The OAS expert mission found egregious irregularities and widespread fraud. Its members discovered that the results from 1,045 of the 11,181 polling stations - about 9 percent - simply disappeared. Although only 23 percent of the electorate voted, 334 polling stations reported soaring participation, often with more than 100 percent of the registered voters casting ballots.

After discounting suspect votes, the OAS recommended that the preliminary results announced by the Provisional Electoral Council in December be changed, that the top two vote-getters should now be longtime opposition candidate, law professor and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, followed by Michel Martelly, the popular carnival singer turned businessman known to everyone as "Sweet Micky," who has transformed himself from a bawdy stage persona to credible candidate.

According to the OAS, the third-place finisher is now Jude Celestin, a virtual unknown from the government road-building department, who is Preval's handpicked successor. If the OAS recommendations are accepted, Celestin will be out of the running - and Preval's party suddenly out of power - as only the top two candidates will compete in a runoff.

Preval has said nothing in public about the OAS report, though diplomatic and government sources say he was angered when an earlier version was leaked and he has given confused signals about his plans. He has suggested he would like the report "modified."

The U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, said in an interview that the U.S. government supports the OAS report and its conclusions. "The international community is entirely unified on this point. There is nothing to negotiate in the report," Merten said. He said he hoped that the Preval government and the electoral council would accept this "and move forward with second-round elections."

OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza was scheduled to travel to Port-au-Prince on Monday to meet with Preval.

"I think the Haitian people have been very patient, but my feeling, from the vibe on the street if you will, is that they are not going to wait indefinitely," said a diplomat representing a donor nation. An official from the European Union said any attempt by Preval to push Celestin into power would be "disastrous" for reconstruction.

On Friday, Celestin supporters briefly set fires and erected blockades.

Jean-Max Bellerive, Haiti's prime minister, said in an interview, "We are pretty sure we will comply with the recommendations of the OAS."

Bellerive said his greatest fear was a return of the kind of violence that followed the release of the preliminary results in December, when Martelly supporters and others took to the streets and shut down the capital for two days with roadblocks and burning tires.

"This is it for the regime. The people want change. They voted for change. It is time for Preval to go," Martelly said in an interview at his home last week.

Martelly called the November presidential election "a mess. There was well-organized disorganization, designed to ensure that Celestin wins the election. Of course, the numbers that we have seen are not the real numbers. Dead people voted. But we say let's just go forward. We will take any numbers that put us in the second round, where we know we are going to win."

It is now up to Preval and the pro-Preval electoral council to announce their plans. It is possible the government will annul the previous presidential election and call for a do-over, delaying for months the installation of a new president.

The Preval government could reject the OAS recommendations and insist that its candidate, Celestin, be in the second round. This would be rejected by the U.S. government and most of the donor nations. Manigat could refuse to run against Celestin, and if elections continued without her, Haiti's next president would probably be considered illegitimate by the international community, donor nations and many Haitians.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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