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MONTREAL—Once again, the people of Haiti are being denied the government of their choosing. While mainstream media has focused public attention on ineligible candidates such as hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, the most popular political party in Haiti, Fanmi Lavalas, has been banned from the November 28, 2010, Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas, or FL) grew out of the Lavalas movement that brought down the US-backed Duvalier dictatorship and ushered Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in 1991. In 2000, during the last democratic election the party was permitted to participate in, it won 90 per cent of Haitians' votes, the equivalent of Canada’s Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green parties combined; or the equivalent of the US's combined electoral support for Republicans and Democrats.
Lavalas' progressive democratic program and Aristide’s goal of lifting Haiti from “misery to poverty with dignity” has always been an unsavoury proposal for Haiti’s narrow elite and their supporters abroad. Two bloody coups d’etat have unseated Aristide: the first in 1991, backed by the US, and the second in 2004, supported also by Canada and France. In each case, thousands of FL activists and supporters were murdered and imprisoned, and Aristide was sent to exile in February 2004. Since the 2004 coup, FL has been banned from participating in Haitian politics.
Support for the party remains strong, though it currently faces significant challenges beyond its exclusion from the elections. The government of Rene Preval, on the other hand, is widely unpopular, especially in the aftermath of the catastrophic January, 2010 earthquake. An estimated 1.7 million survivors now live in unsafe, unsanitary makeshift camps for the internally displaced, facing food insecurity and forced evictions. It is in this climate that the November 2010 elections will be held.
To discuss the crisis of democracy, The Dominion spoke with some key political figures on the ground in Haiti and abroad. Brian Concannon is a founder and director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), a US-based grassroots organization that does human rights advocacy and pursues legal cases in Haitian, US and international courts. Kim Ives is a member of the editorial board of Haiti Liberte, a progressive Haitian newspaper. Roger Annis is one of Canada’s foremost Haiti solidarity activists and a member of Canada Haiti Action Network. Akinyele Umoja is an Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Georgia State University and founding member of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. He recently returned from meetings with popular organizations in Haiti. Nora Rasman is the Interim Director of Latin America and Caribbean Policy at TransAfrica Forum. She specializes in UN interventions in Haiti and has extensive post-earthquake experience on the ground in Haiti.
Darren Ell: Is there any way of knowing if Fanmi Lavalas is as popular today as it was prior to the earthquake?
Brian Concannon: The best way of measuring its popular support would be through a fair election, but the Haitian government is not allowing that to happen. Other indicators of its popularity, which have correlated to electoral landslides in the past, point to continuing support for Lavalas. These measures include my own surveys of people I meet in Haiti, attendance at demonstrations, statements from grassroots leaders and perhaps most indicative, the efforts that Lavalas opponents at home and abroad are making to prevent the Haitian people from freely choosing their leaders.
Kim Ives: Anybody doing a cursory sidewalk poll can establish FL’s support in a few hours. In March 2010, I asked dozens of people: “In the quake’s aftermath, would you like to see the return of President Aristide?” The responses came back 90 per cent in favor, 10 per cent against. Another key indicator of that support was the success of the April and June 2009 nationwide boycotts of the partial Senate elections, where less than five per cent of the population participated because FL was excluded.
What is the reason for Fanmi Lavalas’ popularity?
Brian Concannon: When I have asked this question, Haitian voters—many of them critical of some FL policies or leaders—usually say, “Because Lavalas (or President Aristide) has not betrayed the Haitian people.” Voters believe that FL at least tries to implement progressive policies designed to promote social equality in Haiti and improve the lives of the majority of Haitians who are poor, and resists pressure from Haitian elites and the international community to increase social inequality.
Akinyele Umoja: Lavalas has won every election they’ve run in, but the US, French and Canadian Governments all have interests in Haiti and don’t want to see the Lavalas agenda put forward. FL invests in people, emphasizing infrastructure investment in schools, roads and hospitals. That is not the priority of foreign interest or the Haitian elite. It’s quite shocking that despite the repression people have endured for voting for Lavalas in the past they still remain loyal to the party.
Kim Ives: Besides their investment in the poor majority, FL really is the people. There are dozens of different bases (“baz”), often with rivalries and political differences. The national leadership is weak and not really respected, but the idea and symbol of popular power still remains with FL and Aristide.
What is the current state of Fanmi Lavalas? How organized is it and how did the earthquake affect it? Are there splits in the party?
Akinyele Umoja: As someone who has worked in the civil rights movement in the US where repression was long and intense, I know that repression has a negative effect on any such movement. Party representatives I met in Haiti suggested that this has occurred in Haiti and that the movement is not consolidated. Yet it seems to have widespread support. On the celebration of Aristide’s birthday on July 15, 12,000 people marched. If they can do that, they can mobilize people politically now.
Kim Ives: FL is rent by splits, has weak national leadership, and has a very ambiguous official program, all of which is complained about by its entire membership base. It is organized around small groups called Ti Fanmi which often have disputes with each other. Aristide designates its leaders but they are unpopular with or unknown to the base. While the base might remain strongly attached to Aristide, it often resents and rejects his appointees. This is currently the situation with, for example, Dr. Maryse Narcisse.
Despite this leadership void at the top, the mid-level Lavalas leaders are very strong and dynamic. Many of them are leaders in coalitions like PLONBAVIL and Tet Kole Oganizasyon Popile. They generally are more radical than the official party line, calling for things like an end to the foreign military occupation of Haiti (a call Narcisse has never made), the overhaul of the Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire, or CEP) that approves candidates, Preval’s resignation and the formation of a provisional government to hold elections. Much of this Lavalas base has also been involved in the defence of women subject to rape in the IDP camps, and the defence of the IDP camp residents from eviction by landowners.
How does Fanmi Lavalas’ platform differ from that of other candidates?
Kim Ives: Generally, candidates in Haiti have very conventional and harmless platforms, calling futilely for things like jobs, education, health, roads and so on. FL’s last “program” was released 11 years ago and was called “Investir dans l’Humain” (Invest in People), but FL has always been defined, despite attempts to dilute its message and ranks, by the program put forward by the Lavalas movement leaders, headed by Aristide in 1990, who called for Haiti’s “second independence,” meaning a break with the US, France and Canada, taxation of Haiti’s rich to benefit the poor, and the political marginalization of anti-democratic forces like the Duvalierists and neo-Duvalierists. But officially in 2010, FL is not proposing anything radically different from any of the other candidates.
Why have so many observers stated that the CEP,the organization that approves the official list of candidates, is not credible?
Brian Concannon: The CEP was chosen in 2009 through an unconstitutional process that gave the president undue influence over the choice of councillors. Over the past year, the Council has confirmed the fears of observers across the political spectrum that it would advance the interests of the president’s party over the interests of the constitution and Haiti’s voters. The Council’s most egregious act has been the unjustified disqualification of 14 political parties from across the spectrum, including FL, from the legislative elections. A detailed analysis of the problematic nature of the CEP is available on the IJDH website.
Why has the CEP banned Fanmi Lavalas from the electoral process?
Brian Concannon: The CEP provided verbal justifications for FL’s banning from the upcoming 2010 legislative elections, none of which was formally stated in a legal document, and none of which is legally justified. The Council initially claimed that a mandate sent by President Aristide to allow another party leader to register FL candidates was not authentic, then that it was not appropriately notarized. When both those claims were disproven, the Council changed course and said that FL’s failure to file some documents before the April 2009 Senatorial elections (from which FL was also illegally excluded) prevented its participation in the elections.
FL was banned from the upcoming 2010 Presidential elections by a CEP decree that parties could not register unless the head of the party registered in person. Haitian law provides no basis for such a claim. In Haiti as in Canada or the US, people are freely allowed to delegate authority through authenticated written instruments. This action by the CEP was clearly aimed at FL, because it is the only party whose leader is in involuntary exile.
If Fanmi Lavalas cannot run candidates, what choices are left to Haitians?
Kim Ives: Many Haitians will seek to boycott the November elections if they go forward (and that is a big “if”) or to disrupt them in other ways. Some may support the candidacies of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates—those who are posturing to be seen as Aristide's heir: Jean Henry Ceant, Yvon Neptune, Leslie Voltaire, Yves Christallin or Dr. Gerard Blot.
The IJDH has detailed the challenges the earthquake created for elections: the loss of innumerable identification cards, identifying the deceased in the electoral lists, the destruction of polling stations and the displacement of the population. They have also stated that “if elections are not held, Haiti’s extraordinary difficulties will be compounded by the lack of a credible, democratic power in Haiti.” What could be the consequences for Haiti if credible elections are not held? How is this going to play out on the ground in Haiti given the post-earthquake reality?
Kim Ives: If credible elections are not held, which is likely, a large percentage of the population will boycott the polling. Alternatively, the population could, in an unofficial manner, vote in large numbers for one of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates, or possibly even for former Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis if he continues to make Aristide’s return one of his principle planks.
Under the first scenario, the “winner” of the election will be seen as illegitimate by the population, leaving a very fragile political situation. The slightest incident (historically, usually the shooting of children) could set off riots and calls for the president’s resignation. This is, of course, why the UN occupation troops remain deployed in Haiti: to repress precisely this type of popular uprising.
In the second scenario, if one of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates manages to get a popular following and “take” the vote in some way, then that candidate would come into office with a great deal of popular expectations riding on him. He will then either betray that popular trust put in him by toeing the line like Preval did, or try to challenge the restrictions placed on him by the UN forces, the Interim Commission to Reconstruct Haiti and the international financial institutions. If he does this, he will quickly be demonized and eliminated in one way or another. Betrayal however is the most likely outcome.
In either case, the constellation of progressive groups orbiting the offices of the Bureau des avocats internationaux (BAI) and Haiti Liberte will continue to gain strength and credibility, as their predictions of either bogus elections or a betraying leader are borne out. This embryonic resistance front, in turn, will eventually crystallize into a more organized and disciplined organization or a broad social movement under the leadership of a symbolic leader, similar to what is happening in Latin America.
How this later aftermath would play out depends on whether Aristide returns or not. If Aristide did return, it would only be if one of the “stealth” Lavalas candidates, or Alexis, wins. On his return, although he would devote himself to his university and foundation, Aristide would become a huge power broker. However, Washington will do everything in its considerable power to prevent Aristide’s return.
Originally from Saskatchewan, Darren Ell is a teacher, photographer and freelance journalist residing in Montreal. Between 2006 and 2008, he documented the legacy of the 2004 coup d’etat in online publication with the Citizenshift, The Dominion and Haiti Action. His photographic installation on this subject,Haiti Holdup, was exhibited at Concordia University in Montreal.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.