The Bush administration is ignoring serious structural defects that threaten to turn Haiti’s upcoming elections into a farce, critics charge.

Haiti’s interim government, headed by U.S.-installed Prime Minister Gerard Latortue, is planning to hold local, legislative and presidential elections Nov. 20 with a potential runoff Jan. 3. The U.S. is a major financial and political backer of the upcoming elections.

The Latortue government has prevented the country’s largest party, Fanmi Lavalas, from participating in the elections by imprisoning or exiling most of its leadership, activists and potential candidates, and by repressing its supporters, often violently.

In addition, to date only 2.9 million out of 4.5 million eligible voters have been registered to vote, and voter registration facilities in poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas remain virtually nonexistent. The election plan calls for only 600 voting centers nationwide, down from 12,000 in the 2000 elections. And several critics charge the computerized voting system to be used will be open to fraud.

During a visit to Haiti Sept. 27, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledged some of these concerns. Reacting to her comments, Brian D. Concannon Jr., director of the Oregon-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told the World that Rice “did raise some legitimate issues, including the lack of voter registration for the poor, political prisoners, etc.”

However, Concannon said, “as far as I know, Rice’s visit and [her] words have not led to the liberation of a single political prisoner. I believe there has been no proposal for a large increase in voting centers, and I have not heard any announcement that the U.S. will slow down the pipeline of guns to the Haitian police, despite a series of massacres.”

As an example he cited a massacre on Aug. 20 where Haitian National Police and machete-wielding paramilitary forces killed and wounded dozens of people at a soccer tournament in Grand Ravine.

Concannon, who observed the 1995 elections for the Organization of American States and lived in Haiti from 1995-2000, said there are stark differences between today’s elections and those held in 1995 and 2000, not the least of which is the 20-fold drop in voting centers and a projected voter turnout.

He said the Lavalas government in 1995 and 2000 organized fair and open elections. “In each case there were high rates of citizen participation, and the electorate’s choice was clearly made and respected,” commented Concannon. By contrast, “In 2005, the Haitian government, with the support of the international community, is trying to impose serious obstacles to both high participation and a clear choice by the electorate.”

Concannon added, “The U.S. must condition its support for the Haitian regime on its immediate freeing of political prisoners, providing adequate registration centers and stopping police massacres.”

Marguerite Laurence, a spokesperson for the New York-based Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network, charged that the Bush administration is knowingly supporting “rigged elections” in Haiti to keep Lavalas, the party of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, from coming to power again.

And Alana Gutierrez of the Washington-based Council of Hemispheric Affairs said, “Clearly, the Bush administration has not been promoting ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ in Haiti.” Rather, she said, the administration has been deafeningly silent “as the disreputable Latortue regime has turned in a condemnable performance, featuring violent rule, the toleration of corruption and its sanctioning of the hunting down of those considered to be its foes.”

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