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Tending the Flower or Cutting the Stem?

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Issue: 31 Section: Accounts Haiti Topics: elections, UN

September 23, 2005

Tending the Flower or Cutting the Stem?

Canadian-sponsored democracy in Haiti

by Justin Podur

UN forces patrolling in the Port-au-Prince neighbourhood of Bel Air. photo: Haiti Information Project
The post-coup, Haitian presidential election, currently planned for November 20, has a list of 54 candidates. The Canadian Prime Minister's "special advisor on Haiti," Denis Coderre, suggested yesterday that this lengthy list of candidates was a good thing, a sign that "democracy is like a flower that needs to be constantly tended."

But that long list of candidates has a notable absence. His name is Father Gerard Jean-Juste, and he is absent because he is in jail (discussion of why he is in jail will have to be deferred, but he is a political prisoner facing accusations that would not hold up to standards of evidence). Because he is in jail, he was unable to present his registration in person, which is what Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council requires of presidential candidates. According to the Haitian Constitution (I was told today), someone can register as a presidential candidate even if he is unable to do so in person, as long as two lawyers and a justice of the peace present his candidacy. This, we were told, is what Jean-Juste's people tried to do but were rebuffed.

I didn't meet Father Jean-Juste today, but I did see his face on a T-shirt in the huge working-class neighbourhood of Bel Air this morning. A Lavalas militant named Samba Boukman met us in a small yard. As he approached, he pointed to the picture of Jean-Juste on his T-shirt and said, "This is the president of the people."

The UN headquarters is just outside the yard where we were talking to Boukman and a few other young people. Brazilian troops were there, in jeeps, armoured cars, and on foot. They had fortified control points on the street corners. MINUSTAH, the UN "Stabilization Mission," was there in force.

MINUSTAH was doing what is called "DDR" (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration). From what we heard, though, a more appropriate label might be "DAM" (Disarmament, Arrest and Misery). The idea of the program is that MINUSTAH collects the weapons from youths and helps them "reintegrate" into society. But the process seems to break down after the "disarmament" part. There is no point denying it: there are poor youths here who live in conditions that mean they have to steal to survive and who would feel only more helpless, and vulnerable to those who would prey upon them, if they lacked weapons. What they need—what organizations like Samba Boukman's Zakat youth programs are trying to provide—are basic necessities, as well as political and social infrastructure. Zakat, for example, runs a breakfast program for young people, but this morning they were out of rice, so the kids went hungry.

MINUSTAH is not in the business of giving out rice. It is in the business of taking away guns. It is also in the business of arresting kids and handing them over to the Haitian National Police (Police Nationale Haïtienne, PNH). The PNH, in turn, is still very much in the business of repression and abuse, we were told today. We had the dynamic explained to us through some anecdotes: 18 young people who handed in their weapons last week were arrested shortly afterwards. A young man who gave up his weapon was arrested by MINUSTAH and was later seen in the street with his face badly smashed by the PNH.

"The elections are our last chance to solve the problems of this country," Boukman told us. Unfortunately there are all too many who want that chance to be missed. Bel Air is a huge neighbourhood with 34 districts. During the 2000 election, each of the national state schools had a polling station—at least one for each district. Today there is one for all of Bel Air, the St. Martin electoral registry. Was the Lavalas base in Bel Air registering to vote? They had been, until September 13, when Jean-Juste was barred from candidacy. Since then, they've stopped.

The scene at St. Martin confirmed Boukman's story. There were one or two people registering and five or six people working. The coordinator of the polling station explained to us that at this currently empty station, they had registered 3,000 people in a single week (the last week of August). People had been coming in droves until around September 15, but after that no one had come in. Her explanation, different from Boukman's: the registration deadline keeps on being delayed, so people stopped feeling the immediate pressure to register.

The registration cards are not designed to please civil libertarians. Haitians registering to vote give fingerprint, signature, and photo information, which will eventually be collected in a single database. They will get a single identification card that will be good for 10 years. They may not get breakfast, but they can get some high-tech identification. They will certainly need it—from social services to the tax office, no Haitian will be able to do without the new identification card, or so goes the plan.

Meanwhile, the Haitian police, when they are doing SWAT operations, wear masks.

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