An Election Without Lavalas Is Not an Election

Aristide: Evoking enmity and adoration 
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Aristide: Evoking enmity and adoration

Gerard Latortue, the interim prime minister of Haiti, has a well-known fondness for tackling a problem by creating a commission. This bureaucratic proclivity would be almost funny if the country he led weren’t flirting with civil war. With political violence spiraling out of control after former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster, Prime Minister Latortue responded by creating a commission for national reconciliation. The commission’s profile is so high that it took me almost two days of driving around Port-au-Prince until I could find anyone who had heard of it.

When I asked at the Presidential Palace if I could speak to Monsignor François Gaillot, the man who was supposed to be head of the commission, the woman at the main desk began to introduce me as François Gaillot to anyone she thought could help me. And when I finally found someone who knew Gaillot, I learned that he was on a one-month vacation and that the commission’s name was actually the Preparatory Commission for a National Dialogue. To which I would add the adjective “secret.” It’s a shame, because if there’s a place in need of reconciliation, dialogue, and healing, it’s Haiti.

The international community believes new elections are the first step to reconciling and rebuilding Haiti. Haitians aren’t so sure. Since 1990, Haiti has held three presidential elections. The first, in 1990, elected Aristide and ended in a coup within a year. The second, in 1995, elected a man, René Préval, who many considered a puppet of Aristide’s. The third election, in 2000, which the opposition boycotted, again ended in Aristide’s overthrow and then the current violence. In all cases, outside forces—particularly the United States—have played an outsized role. In sum, Haitians don’t trust that democracy is the panacea that the international community insists it is.

Aware of the suspicion, the United States, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council insist they’re doing everything they can to make registration, campaigning, and voting as open and fair as possible—thousands of observers will be flying into Haiti for the elections; the new registration cards are high-tech and difficult to falsify; the United Nations is even registering prisoners to vote, just in case they’re released without being charged with a crime (more on this in tomorrow’s dispatch). You hear the same word over and over from U.S. and U.N. officials in Haiti: “transparency.”

But the real key to making these elections legitimate might be summed up in another word: Lavalas. Fanmi Lavalas is the party of former President Aristide and the only political party with significant grassroots support. The party is threatening to boycott the elections, which they’ve most recently termed “a masquerade.” The truth is, the elections will be a masquerade if Lavalas doesn’t participate.

Although Aristide is reviled by many, he’s still the most popular politician in Haiti. The former priest remains the touchstone for all Haitian politics—political parties are divided into pro- and anti-Aristide camps. Instead of power being institutionalized, it’s personalized. And, in the way that it is always difficult to define a negative, it’s hard to see what unites the anti-Aristide camp besides their mutual hatred for the former president. Right now, if Lavalas were to run, the elections would shape up to be Lavalas versus about a few dozen other candidates.

There is a Haitian cliché—”Tout moun vlé prézidan“—every Haitian wants to be president. And for good reason. Haiti is what the political scientists call a “predatory” or a “gatekeeper” state, where the path to power is a zero-sum game. Either you’re inside the gate, and you’ve got everything, or you’re a predator, locked outside with nothing. Haiti’s leaders have never been good at sharing; Aristide was no different. When the opposition has little to lose (as is the case in impoverished Haiti), and the party in power has everything to lose, it’s no surprise that violence becomes an option.

The hope was that, with a U.N. mission in place and an interim government charged with reconciling Haiti’s warring factions and preparing it for new elections, a new mentality might develop. But there are few signs that the Latortue government has made the reconciliation of the Haitian people a priority.

Since the interim government took over, they’ve placed themselves squarely in the anti-Lavalas camp. Many Lavalas supporters are in prison, some have allegedly been murdered by police, and the party has no significant representation in the transitional government. To make matters worse, several powerful groups—including Haiti’s “Council of Sages,” a U.S.-backed advisory panel that appointed the interim government—have even recommended that Lavalas not be allowed to run in the elections at all. The international community (sagely) ignored that advice and continues to push for Lavalas participation.

It’s hard to fully appreciate how much Aristide’s enemies hate him. Aristide was often intransigent and uncompromising, and his gangs of armed thugs, the chimères, were often violent, repressive, and accused of trafficking drugs. Rather than the “cleansing flood” that Aristide’s Lavalas movement promised, the former priest offered more of the same: corruption, violence, and cronyism. His inability to work with the opposition or the international community (which, to be fair, is also greatly to blame for the stalemate) proved devastating to the very poor that formed the backbone of Lavalas. As criticism of his government increased, so did repression. Aristide was not kind to his enemies.

But looking back on the last 18 months of Haiti’s history, the international community might never forgive itself for not immediately moving to bring Lavalas back into the fold. The enmity of Aristide’s opponents is matched only by the adoration of Aristide by the poor. “Titid,” as he is fondly called, is the only one who speaks to them, the largest bloc of Haitian voters.

Under intense pressure from the international community, moderate Lavalas factions registered the party for the elections. The response from Lavalas hard-liners was fierce: “We forcefully denounce and condemn the behavior [of those moderate Lavalas members] who have neither the authority nor the mandate to make the decision to register the party for the elections,” several Lavalas leaders wrote.

For a time, it looked like Fanmi Lavalas might split into factions. But last week, former Lavalas Sen. Gerald Gilles, who was among the moderates who registered the party, announced that Lavalas will run under one condition: if Father Gérard Jean-Juste is the candidate. Jean-Juste is a priest in the mold of Aristide—beloved by the poor but considered a demagogue by the elite. It was a surprising announcement from the moderate Gilles, who allegedly has close ties to U.S. officials in Haiti. Since February of 2004, Jean-Juste’s main goal has been the return of Aristide.

If Jean-Juste runs, it will be clear that Fanmi Lavalas—hard-liners and moderates alike—do not have reconciliation on their minds. But neither does the interim government: For the last month, under dubious charges and without proof, Father Jean-Juste has been in prison.

Tomorrow: Haiti’s prisons.