By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 6 -- Bullet holes, wide and deep and ugly, scar countless cinder-block shacks in Cite Soleil, this city's staggering seaside slum.
The gashes left by automatic weapons embody the darkest possibilities if things go badly here Tuesday when Haiti, after months of postponements, holds a presidential election on the 20th anniversary of the flight to exile of the notorious dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. The relative calm over the past few days in Cite Soleil, scene of frequent heavy-weapons shootouts between gangs and U.N. peacekeepers, has done little to assuage fears.
Quiet makes people here almost as nervous as unrest.
"We are living in an outlaw country," said Paul Arthur Fleurival, a U.S.-educated former presidential candidate. "No one respects the law."
More than 30 candidates are vying to lead what Larry Birns of the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs calls a virtually "ungovernable" nation, ever at risk of turning into something resembling "Somalia under the warlords." The challenges awaiting the new president are breathtaking: More than 80 percent of Haitians live in poverty; kidnapping -- both of the wealthy and the lower classes -- is rampant; one in 20 people has HIV; violent gangs rule the Port-au-Prince slums and have rendered a major national highway inaccessible because of constant carjackings. Haiti is so poor -- the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere -- that its annual budget to sustain a population of more than 8 million is just one-fifth the size of Montgomery County's in Maryland.
Banners urging residents to " votez " -- vote -- now drape across Port-au-Prince's narrow, pocked streets, where the locals often can count the number of functioning stoplights on one hand. Political boosters -- urged on by more than 100 competing parties -- spray-paint their candidates' names on walls when they run out of fliers.
The leading candidate appears to be former president Rene Preval, who holds a rare distinction in a coup-prone nation: He is the only Haitian president to complete a full term in office, from 1996 to 2001. Preval is the favorite of Haiti's poor, benefiting from his legacy as a co-founder with Jean-Bertrand Aristide of the political party Lavalas, which means "cleansing flood" in Creole.
Preval served as prime minister to Aristide, a popular former Roman Catholic priest who became president in February 1991 and was overthrown after seven months; Preval followed him into exile. Aristide returned three years later, with U.S. military help, to finish his term. Aristide then succeeded Preval as president in 2001, but resigned and was flown into exile by the United States in 2004 after rebels seized control of Port-au-Prince.
Preval, a soft-spoken 63-year-old agronomist who is sometimes called "Aristide's twin," does not inspire the same passions in the streets as his former ally, nor does he share Aristide's gift for fiery political rhetoric. Still, young men walk through Cite Soleil wearing bright yellow do-rags bearing Preval's white-bearded image and talk of their hopes that Preval could bring Aristide back from exile in South Africa.
"They kidnapped Aristide," Ronald Mombrin, a 26-year-old who scrapes by on odd jobs, said during a political rally in Cite Soleil. "If they take Preval, we don't care if they come after us -- as we die, the country will be burned."
Preval, who associates say has not spoken with Aristide in years, recently formed his own political party, Lespwa, which means "hope" in Creole.
Ira Kurzban, a lawyer who has represented Aristide, says the former president has told him in phone conversations that it would be impossible to have a fair election in Haiti while the nation is holding what he estimates are more than 700 political prisoners and forcing others into exile. Kurzban said he suspects that the U.S. government would support another candidate if Preval fails to collect 50 percent of the vote Tuesday and is forced into a runoff on March 19.
Class issues may define the contest to wrest Preval from the top spot. Preval, who is credited with building schools in poor areas and improving social services while he was president, is getting his strongest challenge from Charles Henri Baker, a businessman favored by Haiti's entrenched elite. Baker, who has campaigned with pledges to take a tough stance on crime, has tried to connect with voters by using the nickname "Charlito."
A former president -- Leslie Manigat, who was deposed by a coup in 1988 after less than four months in office -- is also considered a leading candidate. Among the others capable of taking votes from the front-runners are candidates with florid résumés, such as Guy Philippe, the brash leader of the rebel forces who toppled Aristide.
Hoping to avert the fraud charges that plagued the 2000 election, thousands of poll watchers sponsored by international groups will spread among 800 polling places. Helicopters will transport ballots from rural areas, and laminated tally sheets will replace easily altered handwritten documents, though official results are not expected for two or three days.
"This election is a turning point for democracy in Haiti," said Felix Ulloa of the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which is monitoring the election. "In 2000, it was a mess."
Yet, there is still great discontent about the lack of absentee ballot provisions, effectively excluding half a million Haitians in the United States from voting unless they fly to Port-au-Prince. Because of security concerns, there will be less than half as many polling places as in 2000, and there have been reports that some rural voters will have to walk six hours to cast ballots. And there will be no polling places in Cite Soleil, a bedrock of Preval support.
"If I am not going to put my life in danger, I cannot ask a member of the [Haitian election commission] to do so," Jacques Bernard, the commission's director general, when asked about Cite Soleil at an election eve news conference.
But leaders in the slum -- including a charismatic, 24-year-old gang boss known as T. Blan, who carries journalists' business cards in a worn Bible -- have vowed to lead a mass exodus on foot on election day.
T. Blan may get wet. Rain is forecast, promising that election day in Haiti -- at the very least -- could be muddy.