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Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Urge US to Ensure Free, Fair and Inclusive Elections in Haiti as Condition for Funding

Wednesday, 10 November 2010 13:25 by: Anonymous

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Urge US to Ensure Free, Fair and Inclusive Elections in Haiti as Condition for Funding

The absence of democratically elected successors could potentially plunge the country into chaos, adding a political crisis to the death and destruction caused by the January 12 earthquake. - Sen. Richard Lugar's (R-Indiana) report, "Haiti: No Leadership - No Elections," to fellow members of Committee on Foreign Relations.

In the face of a cholera epidemic that has claimed the lives of over 500 people, infected many thousands and is feared to intensify due to widespread flooding in the wake of Hurricane Tomas, officials have stated that the elections scheduled for November 28 will go ahead as planned. While some candidates have questioned the wisdom of holding elections during such turmoil, a rising chorus of critics is disputing the elections' very legitimacy and is urging the US, a primary funder, to take responsibility in guaranteeing a truly democratic process.

In October, 120 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), who recently served in the Dominican Republic, argued for the need to ensure free, fair and inclusive elections in neighboring Haiti in a joint letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many of the petition's signers enjoyed close personal and working relationships with Haitians and Dominicans of Haitian descent during their service; some played an active role in coordinating medical attention and other relief services for Haitian survivors in the aftermath of January's earthquake.

The content of the petition, largely taken from an open letter sent to Clinton on behalf of over 20 NGOs in the US and Haiti in September, details the exclusionary nature of Haiti's upcoming elections and provides concrete recommendations for the US government, which has offered millions of dollars in funding and assistance for the Haitian elections. This letter was also signed by Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, which is the leading organization of RPCVs and represents a network of 30,000 individuals. Quigley supports the former volunteers' petition, which urges that the US condition funding for the Haitian elections on the full participation of currently banned political parties and active engagement to ensure that voters among the 1.5 million internally displaced Haitians are not disenfranchised. RPCV Neil Ross ('62-'64), founding president of the NGO Friends of the Dominican Republic, an NPCA affiliate for the Dominican Republic, also signed the petition.

Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (Conseil Electoral Provisoire, or CEP) is the governing body whose members are selected by President Rene Préval and is tasked with carrying out the elections. For the upcoming November elections, it has banned 14 political parties arbitrarily, including Fanmi Lavalas (or FL), the largest party in the country. Created by Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former president who was deposed in a coup d'etat in 2004, FL has been banned since the April 2009 elections. According to lawyer Ira Kurzban, one-time legal counsel to both Aristide and Préval, the current situation is akin to a hypothetical scenario under which the US Federal Election Commission "disqualified the Democratic and Republican parties from the 2012 presidential election and declared that only candidates of minor parties could run."

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The former volunteers' petition is the latest articulation of a growing wave of high-profile criticism over US funding for the compromised elections in Haiti. In a June report to the Committee on Foreign Relations, Senator Lugar urged that political parties like FL not be "excluded from the elections because of perceived technicalities." As was reported on October 8, 45 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary Clinton that was similar to the RPCV petition. It warned that "allowing flawed elections now will come back to haunt the international community later ... Haiti's next government will be called upon to make difficult decisions ... such as land reform and allocation of reconstruction projects ... Conferring these decisions on a government perceived as illegitimate is a recipe for disaster."

Their warning appears particularly prescient, as internally displaced persons living in tents faced a dearth of adequate shelter and a continuation of forced evictions in the days preceding Hurricane Tomas. The residents of the camps in Port-au-Prince, who have lived in tents for ten months, were spared the worst of the storm, but the flooding has provoked fears of the more insidious impacts of possible flash floods, mudslides and the propagation of waterborne diseases such as cholera. The members of Congress stress that "Haiti's next government will also have to ask its citizens to make sacrifices, such as losing land through eminent domain, or take risks, such as relocating to a new displacement camp. Citizens are unlikely to sacrifice for or trust a government that obtained power through dishonest means."

The CEP, the Exclusion of FL and the International Community 

The CEP has been mired in controversy and its very authority questioned. As the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH) explains, "President Préval's system [of hand-picking its members] ensures that he retain control over all 9 members of the Council." In addition, the CEP has no basis in the Haitian Constitution, which requires the existence of an independent Permanent Electoral Council.

Most damning, perhaps, have been its ongoing efforts to prevent the most popular political party in the country from participating - FL has won every election in which it has been allowed to contest. For the April 2009 elections, the CEP created a new requirement, demanding an original, nonfacsimiled signature from FL's leader Aristide, knowing this would be an impossible task. Aristide is currently exiled in South Africa under what Kurzban asserts to be "a tacit agreement between many governments [to keep] him there," while "the government of Haiti has refused to renew Aristide's passport to allow him to return to Haiti to register his party."

In response, the international community loudly denounced the summary exclusion of the 14 parties; the US embassy in Haiti voiced its view that "under the law, elections should involve all major parties and serve as a unifying force for democracy. An election based on the exclusion ... will inevitably question the credibility of elections in Haiti and among donors and friends of Haiti," and similar condemnations emanated from the OAS and Canada. However, when the CEP did not budge, the US along with other donor countries still went ahead and provided millions of dollars for the compromised elections, paying for 72 percent of the cost.

Following CEP's exclusion of the party for lack of Aristide's signature, FL initiated a boycott that contributed to an estimated voter turnout of between 3-10 percent in the April elections and again in the subsequent run-off round of June 2009. This consistently low turnout cast doubt on the legitimacy of the elections.

Then, according to the IJDH, on November 26, 2009, "the CEP announced that 14 political parties, including FL, would be excluded from elections scheduled for February," despite the feverish efforts of FL leadership to comply with election requirements. For example, Aristide authorized FL representative Dr. Maryse Narcisse to take charge of all issues of electoral registration in an original, notarized and signed letter sent to the CEP, but such measures were met with no success.

The February parliamentary elections were postponed until this November due to the earthquake and the CEP has simply extended the arbitrary ban on the 14 parties to the upcoming elections. The CEP also excluded FL from the presidential elections, also scheduled for November, based on a new requirement that the head of each party must now register presidential candidates in person. Again, as the CEP well knows, President Aristide has been kept out of Haiti since 2004 and cannot personally deliver the candidate list. It appears that crucial US and international promises to fund the elections have yet to be reconsidered or modified.

Worries of Excluding Voters

The RPCV petition also expresses concern over "the lack of effective measures underway to guarantee that the hundreds of thousands of eligible voters among the over 1.5 million people displaced by the earthquake are assured the identification cards (Cartes d'identité nationale - CINs) required for voting as well as reliable and uncomplicated access to the polls on election day." The letter argues for mobile teams to be dispatched to camps of the internally displaced and to remote rural areas to distribute the cards before the November elections, and the need for polling centers near camps and transportation for those who cannot easily access the centers.

Solutions, Democracy Promotion and Activism 

The RPCVs ended their petition with a short list of recommendations for the US: (1) withholding financial support for elections "until the CEP is replaced by a new Council chosen through a process that ensures neutrality, competence and credibility with Haiti's voters"; (2) the adoption of a "clear, firm position on the need for the upcoming elections to be free, fair and open to all of Haiti's political parties"; and (3) "adequate funding and technical assistance for a fairly-chosen CEP to prepare elections." This would include production and distribution of lost or destroyed CINs, the updating of the electoral list and ensuring that polling stations are accessible to internally displaced, poor and disabled Haitians. Extensive voter education was also suggested.

David Garfunkel, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years ('07-'10), is one of the coordinators of this petition. Affected like many other volunteers by the devastation of the earthquake, he organized the collection and shipment of humanitarian supplies like food, water and tents from Santo Domingo. Now working for a microfinance NGO as a small loans coordinator for poor, rural women in Haiti, he reflects back on the effect the earthquake had on his subsequent decision to live and work on the other side of Hispaniola after Peace Corps and his current political activism: "I hated the helpless feeling I had. Day after day, just across the border, I sat and watched the terrible stories unfold on the news. Then, just as quickly as the stories arrived, Haiti completely disappeared from the mainstream media. I decided that I would try to do my part not to forget." He added that although he is still unsure about what kind of impact he is making while working in Port-au-Prince, he does believe that the influence he has as a US citizen is important. "After all of the harm that US policies have done to Haiti - supporting the Duvalier dictatorships, funding death squad leaders, destroying agricultural self-sufficiency and advancing the 2004 coup d'etat, to name a few - the least we can do is come together to support its sovereignty and democracy. I talk to Haitians every day about the elections. They know that they are a sham and they'll show the world that when they don't show up to the polls in November."

He added that while concerns over democracy in China and Iran are pervasive among leaders in Washington, DC, at present, he believed that the US should focus its efforts on promoting human rights and democracy in places like Haiti, Honduras and Colombia, where the US wields enormous leverage. RPCV and signatory Neal Riemer ('06-'10) agrees. "Aside from the theater of shrill posturing, talk about Iran's democratic deficit doesn't accomplish much. In fact, American reprimands of such countries are sometimes accompanied by bellicose threats. When taking into account the use of blunt tools like economic sanctions and the unpredictable reactions from those governments, there can be unintended negative impacts for the citizens of those countries." Riemer called for a simpler and more principled stance: "If we care about promoting democracy, it's just much easier and more practical to not financially and logistically support fraudulent elections with our tax dollars," and "demand real democratic features in exchange for funding." This, in and of itself, would help "empower democratic governance in Haiti and set a precedent internationally," according to Riemer. Remarking on the fact that as UN Special Envoy, former President Bill Clinton plays a key role in formulating policy in Haiti, Riemer asserted, "we are especially obligated to promote American values like free elections in countries squarely within our sphere of influence."

RPCV Joanna Carman ('07-'09), one of the signers of the petition, noted that as a current student in New York, she had had the opportunity to attend a UN Security Council meeting on Haiti. "Throughout the proceedings there was a prevailing sentiment: the need for free, fair and inclusive elections," she said. "The necessity of re-registering over a million people was also mentioned frequently. The whole time, I kept thinking about the email I had received just the day before and what the petition is working towards - promoting meaningful democracy in Haiti - and I'm proud to be one of the signers of this document."

The 120 RPCVs from the Dominican Republic are hosting a modified version of the letter that anyone can sign online, with the aim of urging more members of Congress to endorse the Congressional letter to Clinton. In particular, they hope to encourage participation from RPCVs who have served throughout the world.

For concerned citizens seeking another outlet, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy provides one in a recent opinion piece  in The Huffington Post. He asks, "Shouldn't it be a no-brainer to say that the US shouldn't pay for elections in Haiti from which the largest political party is excluded? If you agree, ask your Representative to sign the Waters letter for fair elections in Haiti. You can reach the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121; ask to be transferred to your Representative's office."

Keane Bhatt is a contributor to ¡Reclama! and one of the signers of the RPCV petition.

 

Last modified on Friday, 12 November 2010 11:29