A new dispute is growing in Haiti, as former President Jean Bertrand Aristide has been ordered under house arrest, while legislative elections scheduled for October 26 are in doubt.
Aristide, who was overthrown in 2004 in an armed coup backed by the United States, Canada and France, returned to Haiti from exile in South Africa in March of 2011 after the United States had tried in vain to convince South African President Jacob Zuma not to permit Aristide to leave. Since then, he has dedicated his time to his educational foundation rather than participating actively in politics.
One of the protagonists of the coup, former musician Michel “Mickey” Martelly, was elected president in the elections of 2010-2011. Aristide was still in South Africa at that time, but tried to run for president also. Even though his party, Lavalas, is the largest in Haiti, Aristide was blocked from running for president under a technicality and Lavalas was excluded entirely. The U.S. State Department, at that time under Hillary Clinton, was heavily involved in the election at the runoff stage.
Well-off Haitians fear Aristide because by inspiring and mobilizing the poor, he represents a threat to their power and interests. The United States is afraid that if Aristide or someone else from Lavalas were to become president, it would mean that Haiti could move in the direction of other Latin American states that have, through the Bolivarian movement, been promoting horizontal economic and political integration among themselves and therefore threatening U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and its troubles have been intensified by a massive earthquake in January 2010 that killed up to 200,000 people and destroyed much infrastructure, plus a cholera epidemic which was set off by the careless handling of human waste by a United Nations peacekeeping unit.
Since becoming president, Martelly has delayed holding legislative elections for three years. Meanwhile he appears to be more and more connected to the circles of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier. Duvalier, also known as “Baby Doc” in reference to his infamous father, President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier. Baby Doc has also returned to Haiti and has not been prosecuted for the many crimes he has been accused of, and he and President Martelly are seen together at social events.
So when the government announced legislative elections for October 26, to cover two thirds of the Senate, the whole of the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house of the legislature) and local legislatures and municipal governments, there was a great degree of suspiciousness about how these elections would be carried out. Specifically, opposition politicians feared that there would not be sufficient guarantees that Martelly’s government would not try to rig the elections or manipulate the results.
The fears came, specifically, from doubts about the “El Rancho Accord”, in which legislation establishing the mechanism for the elections was approved by the government but not by all opposition forces. Six senators, backed by major political parties and civil society organizations, have blocked a vote on legislation permitting the election from going forward until greater guarantees of electoral fairness can be agreed on. The Election Commission now says that elections on October 26 are not possible due to the dispute. But the term of the current legislature is up in January 2015, and if there is not an election by then, its legitimacy and that of any laws it passes is shaky at best.
As has happened several times before, a judge closely connected to the Martelly government, Lamarre Belizaire, summoned Aristide to appear before him about “ongoing investigations” of corruption during his last term as president. Aristide’s lawyer challenged the subpoena as improperly served, and the judge himself did not show up at the initial hearing. Then, alleging contempt of court, Belizaire ordered Aristide to stay under house arrest. Shortly thereafter, the government withdrew the security guard detail that has been protecting Aristide.
The six senators who have blocked the election law have since visited Aristide in his home as a gesture of solidarity. In the United States also, there is a strong group of Aristide supporters, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters and actor Danny Glover, who see the actions of Judge Belizaire as sinister and dangerous; they are asking people in the United States to protest it.
However, some people in the U.S. Congress, both Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Democrats, are demanding that the elections go forth as planned.
On Thursday September 14, the U.N. Security Council discussed the situation of Haiti. U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power criticized the Haitian senators who have balked on the elections, and called for them to go forward.
Photo: Supporters of Haiti’s former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide hold an image of him in front of his gate during a protest to support him in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Aug. 14. Dieu Nalio Chery/AP