Transcript

Haitian Elections Take Place Amidst Continued Instability

Pam Constable
Washington Post Deputy Foreign Editor
Wednesday, February 8, 2006; 11:00 AM

Washington Post deputy foreign editor Pam Constable , who also reported extensively on Haiti as a foreign correspondent for the Boston Globe and during her time at The Post, was online Wednesday, Feb. 8, at noon ET to discuss Haiti's elections and its continued poverty and political instability.

One of the world's poorest nations, Haiti has been plagued by violence and political upheaval for much of its recent history. The overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February of 2004 by armed rebels led to the presence of over 7,000 U.N. troops. Rampant crime has overtaken much of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and rebels still effectively control many parts of the nation. Elections were first scheduled for November but have since been postponed to February. One of the leading candidates is Rene Preval , who led the country before Aristide's second term and oversaw a period of relative calm. Many hope that the elections will put Haiti on the path toward greater stability and peace, despite persistent turbulence in this small Caribbean nation.

The transcript follows.

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Washington, D.C.: Rene Preval is known as the twin brother of Aristide for whom he organized the "fake" elections in 2000 to return to Aristide the presidential seat he was "holding" for him. Does the international community believe that Preval could put this country on the path of development? If yes, what have they witnessed the Lavalas party has done for this country for the fifteen years they have been in power? Lavalas has been ruling the country since 1991.

Pam Constable: There are significant hopes among foreign observers that if Preval wins, he will steer Haiti on a moderate and modernizing course. He appears to be a serious professional man and he has spoken of reaching out to all sectors of society. He is well aware that the country needs economic investment to develop. He is not running on the lavalas ticket.

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Arlington, Va.: If the election goes to a second round, do you expect to see the same level of voter turnout?

Pam Constable: It seems likely that there would be high turnout for a second round, given the very high turnout on Tuesday and the efforts people made to vote despite long lines, confusion, and polling places that did not open. it appears that the will and desire of the Haitian public to elect a leader is very strong.

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Port au Prince, Haiti: Only 40 of the 800 ballots have been counted and USAID people in Haiti consider that Rene Preval has 60% of the votes without realizing the negative impact of such "victory" on U.S. National Security.

I think that this is not serious from these people earning U.S. tax payer money...

Pam Constable: Preval has been viewed as the front runner for some time, but I am not aware of any US or foreign officials declaring him a winner. there are about 30 candidates in this race and at least two others with substantial support. there may well be a second round in this election.

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Arlington, Va.: "The overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February of 2004 by armed rebels led to the presence of over 7,000 U.N. troops"

Aristide wasn't "overthrown" by armed rebels, he was kidnapped by U.S. troops... try to get your facts straight... geez you are spinning the facts in the intro even.

Pam Constable: The events leading to the departure of president Aristide in Feb 2004 were complicated and involved many actors, including groups that opposed him in Haiti, the Dominican republic and the united states. there is no doubt that he was forcibly removed with strong U.S. influence, but the events leading up to that involved serious violence by his armed opponents in Haiti.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Haiti seems to be stuck in first gear. Someone is always unhappy with the outcome of every election and the president is over thrown. The removal of Aristide was and is a big mistake because it did not do away with the issues he was accused of (insecurity, crimes, etc..). The U.S. policy is inconsistent in that it allows a democratically elected president to be removed from power via a coup if he doesn't meet their demands. I think it's a disservice to the idea of democracy when the U.S. promotes democracy and allows a democratically elected official to be removed by any means other than thru a democratic political process. I think it's better if the US didn't get involved if we're only going to do a half... job. What's different with this election?

Pam Constable: You're right; Haiti has had a terrible history of leaders being deposed, politics being manipulated by outsiders, changes of government taking place through violence, and efforts at democracy sabotaged by both anti-democratic forces and self-destructive problems within governments. elections are important milestones, but they neither guarantee nor substitute for truer tests of democracy, such as the willingness of all actors to resolve disputes within the law and respect the system. in Haiti, unfortunately, those tests have rarely been met. however, there is still hope among Haitians that a popularly elected leader can emerge who will govern with fairness and try to act as a bridge among the country's deeply divided sectors. As for U.S. intervention, the record has been mixed, with moments of genuine and strong support for democracy and others of murkier action and contradictory signals. in the end, the most successful U.S. policies tend to be those that consistently support democratic institutions rather than focus, for good or ill, on individual leaders.

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Alexandria, Va.: How long do you expect the U.N. troops to remain in Haiti? Are there U.S. troops there now? How much of a positive effects have the foreign troops had on restoring order to Haiti?

Pam Constable: There are U.N. troops from a number of countries in Haiti, I believe including U.S. troops. they have had a positive effect in many circumstances, also they have also become a lightning rod for public anger and been victims of criminal violence as well. over the long run, the presence of peacekeeping forces has been an extremely beneficial for the country.

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Arlington, Va.: The reason why Aristide had so many opposing him during his final days everyone was starting to realize he didn't want to help Haiti he just wanted to help his fat pockets get even fatter with the aid money sent over to help the people of Haiti. Come to find out he wasn't going to be the "great savior of Haiti and it's people" despite what the U.S. wanted to believe.

Pam Constable: Yes, there were many reports of Aristide's administration behaving in autocratic and corrupt ways. however, the remedy for such behavior should always be the ability to replace leadership through elections. the problem occurs when leaders cling to power, as Haiti's Duvalier family did for so many years. the willingness of a leader to leave office peacefully -- and the willingness of the leader's opponents to wait for that to happen, are the most important measures of a democracy. in Haiti, for many reasons, that has rarely happened.

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Port au Prince, Haiti: The eventual "victory" of Preval will represent a devastating development for U.S. national security.

He is connected with al Qaeda, he is against privatization of public enterprises, he is against market capitalism...He is fundamentally anti-American !

Pam Constable: I am not aware of any connection between Rene Preval, an agronomist and former Haitian president who entered and left office peacefully, and al Qaeda. his views on the economy may be to the left of the prevailing US views, but I do not think that necessarily equates with anti-Americanism.

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Washington, D.C.: Though the impact of Liberia's recent elections remains unclear, I understand that the country is still politically divided, the North supporting President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and the South still supporting defeated George "Oppong" Weah. This split as it has been explained leaves room for Liberia to potentially fall back into its previous state of conflict and civil war.

Will the recent elections in Haiti, whatever the outcome, leave room for a politically divided country to, despite having a great turnout and fair elections, fall back into a state of chaos?

Or will this election prove to be successful no matter who the winner is?

Pam Constable: There is always a possibility for any country with a history of poverty and conflict to fall back into civil war. whether that happens depends to a large extent on the actions of leaders. so far, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has spoken repeatedly of reaching out to Weah's supporters, to former militia leaders and to other sectors of society. this seems like a good start. if the incoming Haitian president attempts to do the same, that would also be a good start. but there are still forces at work that can sabotage a conciliatory outcome in both countries.

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Alexandria, Va.: If you ask any Haitian still living in Haiti who lived during the days of Papa and Baby Doc rule they will tell you that there was more security and order in Haiti then there has been since the U.S. decided they wanted to establish a democratically elected government in Haiti. I'm not saying it was the answer because a lot of people died during those years but at least they weren't dealing with the random kidnappings and such that are taking place currently. Haiti was a lot safer.

Pam Constable: There was security and order under the Taliban in Afghanistan, under stalin in the soviet union, under Pinochet in Chile. countries in transition from dictatorship are often plagued by violence and excesses of various kinds, especially if they are poor and have weak or undeveloped civilian institutions. Haiti is no exception, and it is further plagued by a long history of vengeful and poisonous politics. it will take many more years to mature and settle down as a modern state. However, in the long run, it is still true that the best cure for democracy is more democracy.

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Washington, D.C.: Preval never really made any real positive changes while he was President of Haiti. What makes one believe that he will run the country the way it needs to be run this time and look out for all classes of Haitian society? Is it even possible given the amount of corruption at the national level in Haiti?

Pam Constable: That is a very good question and it is hard to predict. one always hopes that people will learn from experience and rise to the occasion. preval seems to be a thoughtful man and he is clearly a popular one. perhaps a second presidency would be a wiser and broader-reaching one. as for corruption, it is an endemic and deeply debilitating problem for governance in dozens of countries, including Haiti.

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Washington, D.C.: If Preval wins this election outright in the first round, what are the chances that the Bush administration would cut off aid AGAIN to Haiti, a country not a threat to the U.S. and its interest (much like HAMAS and Palestine) that is already on its knees and crawling from previous economic embargoes, because the outcome is not necessarily what the elite wanted?

Pam Constable: The Bush administration is publicly committed to supporting the current democratic election in Haiti and accepting the winner of an election, especially one being monitored and secured by U.N.missions. even if some sectors in the us government or private elites in Haiti and abroad proved unhappy with the outcome, it would be extremely unlikely that aid would be cut off.

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Washington, D.C.: Can you give us your explanation as to why the elections yesterday started off very rocky, to say the least. Why did polls open late or some not even at all? It makes no sense given all the time and preparation and postponements of the election date. Why weren't the U.N. and poll workers better prepared? Given the anticipation and growing interest in the elections those in charge could not have been surprised by the massive turnout of voters, that's just an excuse.

Pam Constable: My understanding is that by the end of the day most of the problems had been straightened out, and there was remarkably little violence. it is unfortunate but not surprising that there was poor preparation for the polls, and it has been much worse in the past. I do think it is more important, and hopeful, that people really wanted to vote and had the patience to get through it all. in spite of everything, the poison and the cruelty and the never-ending poverty, Haitians are still trying to believe in something.

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Laurel, Md.: I don't think the removal of a democratically elected president is a complicated issue. We should never allow or facilitate those kind of events to go unchallenged. It will always come back to us when we try to be the champions of democracy elsewhere in the world. If there's anything about Haiti, it's that it has always managed to make the US look bad with our double standard policies. My question for you, is what is the true policy in the region?

Pam Constable: I agree that forcibly removing leaders always comes back to haunt us, and that there have been egregious double standards in us policy in many times and places. in the case of haiti, it has been recently reported that while U.S. official policy was to try and help heal political divisions in the country, there were also U..S-affiliated groups that were working against it. if this is true, it is extremely unfortunate and can only undermine confidence in US credibility abroad. in this case as in others, it is important to point out and press our elected officials to follow the stated policy of supporting democracy and accepting fair election results.

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Washington, D.C.: Let's not sugar coat things here....let's be honest about the situation. If the U.S. government is not happy with the leader Haiti elects they will not think twice of cutting off aid to the country or even putting in place an embargo on the country. It's been done time and time again. History has a way of repeating itself.

Pam Constable: let's see what happens. history does repeat itself, but it also teaches.

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Vienna, Va.: Before you restore democracy there first has to be an initial presence of democracy in the country. When the U.S. invaded in 94, yes it was an invasion, though the US called it an occupation....I was at the docks downtown Port-au-Prince when the U.S. army ships and helicopters landed. I saw the force that rolled off the ships in the form of Hummers and tanks, soldiers with firearms at the ready...all of this for the poor little country of Haiti. We didn't know if were being attacked or what, but come to find out the U.S. was coming to restore a democracy that never even existed. Several days later, Aristide was brought back to power thru the support of the US all in the name of democracy. We all know how that presidency term ended. So I don't think the answer is more democracy, what works for one doesn't necessarily work for the next.

Pam Constable: Yes, this is a story full of many ironies. a popular leader removed by the gun, brought back by the gun and then removed again by the gun. is it better to leave things alone? some people make that case, though I think we have a responsibility to get involved on the side of forces for good, not only forces for our self-interest. sometimes it's hard to know what's right, however. one man's occupation is another man's liberation, one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. it is very hard to find and stay in the middle.

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Washington, D.C.: There is no question Aristide didn't govern the country correctly, but given the situation now on the ground with the country now passing Colombia as the kidnapping capital of the Americas, do you think that perhaps if the situation had been resolved with him a la Charles Taylor of Liberia who was allowed to leave months after the U.N. moved in so he could calm his followers and save face, the transition could have been smoother? Especially in terms of the reconciliation and disarmament program that is long overdue in Haiti which now seems to have been success in Liberia, a country that went through a far worse civil war than Haiti. Subsequently, doesn't the U.S. and those directly involved in pushing Aristide out in the manner they did, deserve some blame for the hell that is on the ground now in Haiti?

Pam Constable: Unfortunately I have run out of time.

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