The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Haiti:
Elections under American Tutelage

Jul 21, 1995

Although the first round of the Haitian general elections took place on June 25th – at the same time as local elections – the first official results were not announced until July 12th. These results gave an overwhelming victory to the "Lavalas Popular Organization" (OPL), the party which supports President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In the first round, the OPL won 16 of the 83 deputies' seats outright; it is expected to win most of the other seats in the second round. It also won all five senate seats decided in the first round, as well as many town councils.

The U.S. Makes Aristide Their Own

These were the first elections for the Haitian Chamber of Deputies, Senate and local areas since the military dictatorship fell and elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was returned to Haiti in the fall of 1994. Aristide, himself, had been elected in December 1990, with a genuine groundswell of support from the poorest layers of Haitian society. A former priest who had opposed first Duvalier's dictatorship and then that of the successive generals who took power after Duvalier fled the country, Aristide addressed the poor in populist terms. In a country whose politicians had long been particularly contemptuous of the poor population, this reinforced the credit he had already gained.

The U.S. was not particularly happy about Aristide's victory, especially given the hopes it raised in the poor layers of Haitian society. Thus, when the generals overthrew Aristide nine months later and drove him into exile, the U.S. may have uttered some hypocritical phrases, but it did nothing to oppose the military coup; it certainly did not object to the killings in the poor neighborhoods in the aftermath of the coup. But the Haitian army was so corrupt and so torn by rival interests, its leaders so closely linked to all kinds of trafficking, including drug trafficking to the U.S., that the military regime ended up sinking into anarchy, damaging to America's own interests.

Eventually, after several false starts, American troops landed; Carter arrived and began amiable negotiations with the Haitian military; and Clinton announced that democracy would be restored to Haiti through the diplomatic, financial and military efforts of the United States. Aristide was allowed back in, but only after he gave sufficient understandings to the U.S. that he would not oppose American interests in Haiti.

Once Aristide returned, the American occupation troops made a few public relations gestures to give the impression that they were going to disarm the far right paramilitary groups and the private militias of the rich, but they never even started to do it. On the other hand, the U.S. quickly forced Aristide to accept a policy of "national reconciliation"; that is, presidential pardons for former Macoutes and far right political groups and individuals, the very same forces which had carried out the coup against Aristide and attacked the population in the aftermath of the coup. A motley collection of U.N. troops was supposed to help prepare for democratic elections under U.S. tutelage.

"National reconciliation" did not, of course, inhibit the FRAPH, the civilian branch of the army which had carried out terror in the poor neighborhoods during the military dictatorship. It continued to distribute leaflets announcing its intention to violently disrupt the elections – a credible threat, given that the FRAPH's predecessors had done just that during the first scheduled elections after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship.

Surrounding Aristide with advisers, the U.S. made him their own man. With Aristide bending sufficiently to American wishes, his prestige among the poor masses no longer appeared like a threat to American interests, but as a guarantee of social stability.

The eight months that Aristide has spent as head of state in Haiti since his return have admittedly diminished his credit. While he speaks of his gratitude to the United States and of the need for national reconciliation with the Macoute far right, his regime has done nothing to address the lot of the poor masses, who live in dire poverty (Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas).

The high rate of abstention in these elections, particularly in the poor areas of certain towns, was probably a reflection of Aristide's diminished credit.

Nonetheless, his prestige is still very high among the poor population, particularly in the countryside. The results of the elections demonstrated this. When Aristide called on people to vote for the OPL, the population voted overwhelmingly for most of the Lavalassian candidates, whether or not they knew the candidates.

The Ways and Means of Manufacturing Elections

The very day after the elections, long before the official results were announced, representatives of the major powers (and the U.S. in particular) rushed to announce that the elections had been perfectly free and democratic.

But this expression of U.S. satisfaction was not echoed by any of the Haitian parties other than the OPL. All the others condemned the numerous irregularities before or during the elections and during the vote count. Of course, not all the many technical problems – ballots which did not arrive in certain places; polling stations which were open only for an hour or two; lost ballot boxes, etc – were deliberate. And while there were violent incidents – one candidate was killed and another seriously injured, polling stations were burnt down – the most violent incidents were attributable not to the OPL, but to former supporters of the military dictatorship who had opposed the very idea of elections.

Nonetheless, there was cheating in these elections, and most of it benefitted the OPL. Several weeks before the elections, voters who went to the polling station to collect their voter's cards were told that there were no cards left. It turned out that they had been stolen and given to those with money or influence with the Electoral Council, which was controlled by the OPL. Even according to the chairman of the Electoral Council responsible for organizing the election, a million voter registration cards (out of a potential electorate of four to five million) were stolen before the elections.

Some candidates didn't bother with the voter's cards; they simply bought the voters themselves. This is an old tradition among Haitian politicians, which has been passed down from dictatorship to "democracy". These politicians, generally supported by the rich in their region, have the habit of handing out banknotes (only small denominations, of course), each of which is worth a vote. The only difference in the present elections is that those who have already been in the business for some time were joined by a number of middle class candidates (teachers, lawyers, traders, etc.) who have returned from the United States and wish to go into retirement by becoming a deputy in their home country. They have money to offer.

During the election itself, the OPL controlled most of the polling stations. Its members pressured voters all the way to the ballot box, telling them how to "vote for the right person", in many cases filling out the ballots for voters (most of whom cannot read or write).

In addition to this cheating carried out by the authorities, the population itself spontaneously cheated to reinforce its own choices, which by and large were the OPL candidates Aristide had asked them to vote for.

Effectively, most of this cheating reinforced the popular vote; that is, it gave the OPL an overwhelming victory. In fact, too overwhelming! The OPL ended up with scores much higher than anyone could have imagined.

The major parties of the right and the center rushed to take advantage of the fact that the cheating had been so obvious. They protested all the more vehemently because they themselves had been accustomed to "manufacturing" elections. They also knew that they could gain a sympathetic hearing from Aristide's American advisers, who wanted a pro-Aristide majority in parliament, but did not want there to be practically no anti-Aristide opposition. Faced with protests from these forces, and perhaps a little embarrassed by the results, the electoral authorities decided to delay the official publication of the results, clearly in order to "doctor" them, this time in favor of the right and center parties. The right-wing parties did not really want the election to be canceled, knowing that they have little support from the population. Their protest was aimed mainly at obtaining posts through secret negotiations. And, when the results finally were announced, that's what they had gotten.

"Democratic" and "Free" Elections in Haiti – under American Tutelage

Most of the electoral fraud carried out before the election was aimed at preventing the poor from participating in these elections.

The outgoing parliament proposed to amend the electoral law, adding various restrictive conditions on the right of someone to run for a seat in parliament, or even as a humble town magistrate. In Haiti, where nine-tenths of the population have never been to school and cannot read or write, these worthy gentlemen demanded that candidates in the general election not only should have passed their high school exams, but also have university credentials. Of course, given that they themselves did not necessarily meet these requirements, they added a postscript exempting outgoing deputies, and them alone, from the requirement of university credentials.

Even the main parties considered these conditions a little excessive. So the parliament backed down on this requirement.

It did not back down on the rest, however. It codified a series of laws, rules and conditions which had been used in different previous elections, increasing the obstacles confronting anyone who wants to run. Thus, the parliament turned the elections into a farce even before they began.

First of all, there were general political conditions, in the form of two different sets of largely contradictory laws.

One series of laws adopted after the fall of Duvalier prohibits anyone from running who held positions of responsibility under the Duvalier dictatorship. This is hypocritical, of course, since nearly all Haiti's politicians served under Duvalier (at least those who were already active in politics under the deposed dictator). The most "democratic" of them were clever enough to step down a year (or, in some cases, even just a month or two) before the Duvalier dictatorship fell.

Another set of conditions, however, excludes, de facto, many people who opposed the dictatorships of Duvalier or Cédras. For example, people with double nationality are banned from running, as are those who were not resident in their constituency for a certain period of time. Effectively these laws ban many of those who were forced to flee the Duvalier dictatorship or those who were forced to live in hiding under the subsequent military dictatorship.

This combination of contradictory requirements may be bizarre, but it's neither accidental, nor stupid. It gave the Electoral Council, which was controlled by the OPL, the means to accept or reject practically any candidate it wanted. In other words, the door was left wide open for secret dealings and arrangements between the leaders of the main parties and wide open for powerful lobbying and plain corruption.

Of course, there were other conditions for running in the elections. A prospective candidate had to pay a fee of 1000 gourdes. This is nothing for someone who has money (1000 gourdes is the equivalent of about seventy dollars). But for a workers from the industrial area of Port-au-Prince – whose pay averages about 15 gourdes a day – this represents almost 67 days of labor.

But that is not all. The same electoral law specifies that when the candidate "is sponsored by no recognized political party or group, he shall pay a deposit equal to the stipulated amount ... multiplied by twenty-five." (25,000 gourdes is around 1800 dollars.) Even at the wages paid in industrialized countries, that would eliminate most of those who live from their labor. But in Haiti this deposit was the equivalent of 1,667 days of labor for industrial workers. And industrial workers are not the worst paid workers in Haiti, by any means.

In other words, this system is designed to eliminate candidates from the poorer layers of the population. It ensures a near monopoly for the main recognized parties, i.e. the very ones compromised under the Cédras dictatorship.

There were many other conditions which might seem harmless, but they all helped to reserve the elections for the rich, their direct lackeys or those sponsored by the major parties. For example, it is necessary for candidates to own a building in the place where they run. Magnanimously, the law stipulates that the relevant title deed can be replaced "by a document proving that they exercise a profession in the said place". In the last years of the dictatorship, however, during which most companies closed down, the only "profession" exercised by the vast majority of workers was ... unemployment.

Similarly, the range of administrative obstacles, which are nothing for the rich who have lawyers, are prohibitive for everyone else.

The final mean trick was played a few days before the first round. Each candidate is obliged to provide a logo. For a largely illiterate electorate, this is the only way to differentiate between candidates' names on the ballot. At the last minute, the Electoral Commission decided that only the candidates of the recognized parties had the right to use the logos they had chosen for themselves. Everyone else – the "independents" and "minor candidates" – were assigned a logo automatically, regardless of the fact they had already publicized their own logo during the campaign. What is more, the logo for all these "unofficial" candidates was the same! Even between different constituencies, this would obviously be a source of confusion, not to mention when there were two or more unofficial candidates in the same constituency. When candidates complained about the confusion, the authorities declared that voters could look at the candidates' photographs ... which, of course, were not on the ballot!

These were the "free" and "democratic" Haitian elections which the U.S. helped to prepare.

The OTR's Results

It was in this context that the Revolutionary Workers' Organization (OTR), an organization which stands for communism and Trotskyism, put up candidates in the elections. Its four candidates were all active or unemployed workers, which was something new in Haiti. But appearing in only four of the 83 constituencies, it could not present a genuine alternative to the straight choice "for or against Aristide" which marked these elections. What is more, an undemocratic electoral law barred the OTR, which is not an officially recognized organization, not only from running candidates under its own name but even from using a single symbol common to all four candidates. This did not prevent these candidates from stating their ideas and running in the elections in the name of the interests of workers, "jobbers" and the unemployed, in contrast to all the other candidates who represented the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Even in order to run, the OTR candidates had to overcome administrative, financial and material obstacles designed to ensure the continuing monopoly of official politics by a caste of politicians recognized and supported by the privileged class. And they faced special obstacles because of their politics. In several places in Port-au-Prince, their representatives were kept out of the polling stations, sometimes by force, because they "represented communists". Elsewhere in Port-au-Prince, witnesses reported several cases where the presiding officer in the polling station "corrected" the results, on such grounds as "there must be a mistake in the count, she can't have got 200 votes, it must be 20 – I'll correct that". The candidate in question was finally officially credited with 3.8% of the vote and came in seventh out of eighteen candidates. But in the few polling stations where her representatives were able to check up properly, her score was roughly twice this figure, and she finished third. The other candidate in Port-au-Prince was credited with a similar score.

In Cap Haitien, the country's second biggest town, where the OTR candidate ran in one of the poorest areas, the election ended up being a duel between him and the Lavalassian candidate, who had become the candidate of the local bourgeoisie. Fraud by the authorities took on particularly large dimensions. On the very morning of the elections, the poor neighborhood was patrolled by police claiming to be searching for weapons. Several of the area's polling stations were moved to the other end of town, several kilometers away, without any notice being given to the voters. Thus the neighborhood effectively was prevented from voting. These underhanded tricks played a large part in the fact that the Lavalassian candidate was officially elected with 60% of the vote. Nevertheless, the OTR candidate still came in second officially with 24% of the vote.

In the final constituency where the OTR presented a candidate, La Croix des Bouquets, a region near Port-au-Prince where landowners own large estates, the election was canceled. There were no more incidents there than anywhere else, or in any case far fewer than in the other places where the elections were canceled. But in the majority of the fifteen or so polling stations where the OTR's militants were able to check the results (out of around seventy in all) their candidate was ahead. The Lavalassian candidate backed up by the Macoute candidate immediately protested and this no doubt had something to do with the cancellation. The first round will therefore have to be re-arranged, and the authorities are sure to have a few tricks up their sleeves to prevent a revolutionary candidate from winning a seat in parliament.

Even though they are politically meaningless in terms of Haiti as a whole, the results obtained by our comrades in the OTR nevertheless indicate that, despite Aristide's influence, the poor masses are nevertheless responsive to the ideas of class struggle, to the ideas of revolutionaries. This offers promise for the future.