Haiti. As elections derail: US and UN at odds with the “indispensable Preval”*
By Kim Ives
“Managing [President René] Préval will remain challenging during the remainder of his term yet doing so is key to our success and that of Haiti,” wrote then U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Janet Sanderson in a Jun. 16, 2009 confidential cable made public by Wikileaks last week.
That assessment proved prophetic this week as the train-wreck that was Haiti’s Nov. 28 general elections continued to pile up, creating a rift between Préval and the U.S. and UN authorities who are sponsors and overseers of the dramatically flawed polling. The U.S. provided about $15 million of the election’s $29 million budget, and 13,000 occupation troops of the United Nations Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) are the election’s ultimate enforcers.
Influence of the International Community
“The international community will pull out of Haiti and the country will not benefit from international support and resources if the popular will is not respected,” threatened MINUSTAH chief Edmond Mulet on Dec. 2, as thousands called for the election’s annulment and skirmished with UN soldiers and Haitian National Police (PNH) riot cops along the Delmas road. (“Mr. Mulet is not the Security Council,” responded political commentator Mozart De Ronneth. “He’s merely a UN employee.”)
Mulet’s provocative remarks only poured gasoline on the flames of anti-occupation anger racing through the population since it has become clear that the cholera pandemic – which has now claimed over 2,000 lives and infected over 90,000 – was introduced into Haiti by UN Nepalese troops based near the Central Plateau town of Mirebalais. This deep and widespread suspicion was finally confirmed this week in a report submitted to France’s Foreign Ministry by a respected French epidemiologist, Professor Renaud Piarroux from the University of the Mediterranean in Marseille, AFP reported. (A UN spokesman disputed Piarroux’s report, insisting that there is still no “conclusive proof” that the cholera outbreak began with the Nepalese soldiers, echoing Mulet’s insistence last month that “there is no scientific evidence that the camp at Mirebalais is the source of this epidemic.”)
Despite the growing cholera disaster, heated and contradictory speculation about the results of the Nov. 28 vote dominated the headlines this week. Three Haitian observer groups – the National Election Observation Council (CNO), the Civil Society Initiative (ISC) and the National Council of Non-State Actors (COHANE) – said most Haitians (58%) did not vote, according to their combined 5,525 observers reviewing 1,400 of Haiti’s 1,535 voting centers. Of the 42% that did, the observers claimed that 29.9% voted for former Senator Mirlande Manigat of the Assembly of National Progressive Democrats (RDNP), 25% for former compas musician Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly of the Peasants’ Response party, 21% for former state heavy-equipment-authority head Jude Célestin of Unity (Préval’s party), and 8.2% for Jean-Henri Céant of the Love Haiti party. The latter sought to woo partisans of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas Family party, which was barred from running.
Other polls put Martelly ahead of the pack and one U.S. media outlet said that Célestin would win a first-round victory with 52.4% of the vote, according to the Haitian Press Agency.
A Dec. 3 “reconciliation” meeting with Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) director general Pierre Louis Opont attracted only three of the 18 presidential candidates (Célestin, former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune, and former Senator Jean Hector Anacasis) and the representatives of only four others (Manigat, Martelly, Céant and former 2004 coup deputy-leader and assembly industry magnate Charles-Henri Baker). No agreements were arrived at, only declarations, reaffirming positions, made.
The rumors that the final Jan. 16 presidential contest might be between Manigat and Martelly prompted Préval to ruminate that there should be a three-way run-off, according to a reliable source working in the Haitian government and in contact with the UN. Over the weekend, the source said, director general Opont told UN officials that the CEP was considering a three-way second round. UN officials reportedly vigorously opposed the proposal and met with Préval to impress on him that they would not agree to that. According to the source, a high-stakes game of chicken then ensued, with Préval responding that, if there could be no three-way run-off, then perhaps the election should be annulled. (As we go to press, the AP reports that OAS/Caricom Mission head Colin Granderson said a three-way run-off may be adopted.)
In the hours before the CEP’s Dec. 7 announcement of “preliminary results” that placed Manigat first with Célestin and Martelly running a very close second and third, there was a long meeting at the National Palace between Préval, the CEP, the UN, and the U.S. Ambassador. The meeting may well have been acrimonious, because the CEP’s proclamation was delayed until about 9 p.m., three hours after the designated announcement time of 6 p.m..
Shortly after the announcement, as protests began to sweep the capital and town’s across Haiti, Washington’s Embassy issued a disapproving statement that it was “ready to support efforts to thoroughly review irregularities in support of electoral results that are consistent with the will of the Haitian people.” The U.S. “is concerned by the Provisional Electoral Council’s announcement of preliminary results from the Nov. 28 national elections that are inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council (CNO), which had more than 5,500 observers and observed the vote count in 1,600 (sic) voting centers nationwide, election-day observations by official U.S. observers accredited by the CEP, and vote counts observed around the country by numerous domestic and international observers.”
Fortuitously, the just-leaked Jun. 2009 confidential cable, and another Mar. 2007 one, offer a peak into the “interesting, if not always harmonious relationship” between Préval and Washington.
Ambassador Sanderson calls Préval “Haiti’s indispensable man” despite his “often indecisive and uncommunicative leadership style” and “chameleon-like character.”
She “would most accurately describe him as a neo-liberal, particularly in that he has embraced free markets and foreign investment” while seeming “profoundly uninfluenced and uninterested in ideology at this stage in his life.”
But, Sanderson puzzles that: “Despite his involvement in radical/communist circles as a student in Belgium and his entrance into Haitian politics through a populist movement deeply influenced by liberation theology, Préval’s public and private discourse is practically devoid of any notions reflecting that background.”
Nonetheless, later in the cable, she issues a warning that U.S. Embassy officials are surely re-reading today: “Préval’s old friends suggest that in many ways he remains the radical student who broke with his conservative father and spent his university days in the political maelstrom of 1960s Europe. While this may overstate the case, Préval remains essentially a nationalist politician in the Haitian sense of the word – suspicious of outsiders intentions and convinced that no one understands Haiti like he does. He often takes actions, such as publicly dismissing the results of the Washington Donors Conference or stalling elections, which could be construed as working at cross purposes with the U.S. Préval clearly believes that he can walk a fine line without losing U.S. or international community support. Here, however, he runs a risk. Although he briefly lived in the U.S., Préval does not truly understand Americans or the Washington policy environment – and he often ignores advisors who do.”
Finally, Sanderson reports that Préval “angrily denied charges that he manipulated the electoral process through the CEP and its decision to exclude Lavalas” in the 2009 partial Senate elections. However, she later cites “close friends” who say that “his overriding goal is to orchestrate the 2011 presidential transition in such a way as to ensure that whoever is elected will allow him to go home unimpeded. Based on our conversations, this is indeed a matter that looms large for Préval. He has said to me on various occasions that he is worried about his life after the presidency, that he would not survive in exile.”
These 2009 assessments surely capture and inform the wrangling that today is going on behind the scenes between Préval and current U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten. Undoubtedly Merten and now (thanks to WikiLeaks) Préval have read Sanderson’s conclusion entitled “What It Means for Us.”
“Préval has yet to truly provide the strong, consistent leadership that Haiti’s current circumstances demand,” she writes. “In other places, we could find ways to circumvent or overcome these weaknesses. Not so in Haiti…. I believe that Préval – and only Préval – will continue to set the rhythm and scope of change in Haiti. And while we may argue with him about pace and priorities, we will have to adapt to his rhythm. Dealing with Préval has never been easy. Yet he remains Haiti’s indispensable man and he must succeed in passing this country to a new leadership in 2011.”
Will Washington and its agents in the UN continue a game of brinkmanship with Préval, or will they cast him aside, like a malfunctioning puppet, now that his popularity has hit new lows following the Jan. 12 earthquake, in order to advance their step-by-step recolonization of Haiti? Will Préval resist, “convinced that no one understands Haiti like he does,” or will he succumb to the pressures now sandwiching him from above and the streets below? These are the questions that will become clear in the days immediately ahead.