Haiti's Election Campaign and Aristide's Expected Return

Haiti's Election Campaign and Aristide's Expected Return

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About a month before millions of Haitian voters trek to the polls in the second round in Haiti’s disputed presidential election, a cloud of political uncertainty has descended over the country.

The questions mark can be traced to the planned return of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide and its potential impact on the outcome of the election.

At the same time, though, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, is convinced the March 20 election will produce a winner. He made a special one-day trip to the Caribbean country last week and he held talks with the presidential candidates, Michel “Sweet Mickey” Martelly and Dr. Mirlande Manigat and discussed the future reconstruction of the earthquake ravaged country.

In addition, the Organization of American States to which Haiti and its Caricom neighbors belong is putting the final pieces in place to send its joint OAS- Caricom Electoral Observation Mission back to the country to monitor the voting under the leadership of Colin Grandison, a senior Caricom official.

“We hope that the irregularities and logistical problems we experienced in the first round on November 28th last year will be mitigated in the elections of March 20th,” said Albert Ramdin, OAS Assistant Secretary-General and Chairman of the Organization’s Group of Friends of Haiti. “That will depend on the resources available to the Provisional Electoral Council, CEP, to conduct the election. We need to have good, well-organized elections.”

But, as the steps are being taken to ensure an acceptable outcome, the key unknown factor in the political equation is Aristide’s impact, should he return home before the election.

Having been granted a diplomatic passport by the Haitian government despite the stated objections of the Obama Administration, Aristide hasn’t indicated when he would he set foot in the country and if he would campaign for any one of the candidates. What’s also unclear is how such a dramatic step would affect the election.

Ira Kurzban, the ousted president’s attorney in Florida, said a few days ago that he was still trying to figure out a way to give his client the Haitian passport. For his part, Aristide has seemingly left his options open.

“As I have not ceased to say since 24th February 2004, from exile in Central Africa, Jamaica, and now South Africa, I will return to the field I know best and love: education,” was the way Aristide put it in a recent article in London’s Guardian newspaper.

The prospects for his return have dominated conversations in and out of Haiti, especially in the Diaspora, on radio stations, the Internet and in Haitian gatherings in New York and Miami. And, like his two terms in office, both of which were prematurely terminated, discussion concerning Aristide’s future divides Haitians.

“Although Aristide must be allowed to return to his country, it would be unwise for him to go back now because of the upcoming election and the confusion it can cause,” said Michel Louis, a Brooklyn resident. “If Jean Claude Baby Doc” Duvalier can go back to Haiti without being arrested for all the trouble and the pain he caused when he was president, then Aristide can also return. But, the timing isn’t right.”

That’s the view of Charles Henri Baker, who contested the November presidential election but failed to get into the run-off.

“The timing is not right for this controversial figure,” said Baker, who opposed Aristide when he was in the presidential palace and might have played a role in his ouster seven year ago. “Anything that has the possibility of disrupting peace should be avoided.”

Jean-Pierre Baptiste, who lives and works in Miami, disagrees. “I take Aristide at his word that he simply wants to go back home,” Baptiste said. “Even if he wants to campaign for someone, that should be his right. At this stage, I don’t believe he can cause any more trouble than currently exists in Haiti.”

Tony Jeanthenor, a Haitian activist in Miami who also supports the ousted President, contends the move to keep Aristide out of Haiti is blatant discrimination.

“Duvalier can go to Leogane. He talks on the radio. He can go wherever he wants,” Jeanthenor said. “It is more than a double standard. It’s discrimination against political beliefs.”

What worries Haitian and American officials is the prospect of Aristide’s supporters taking to the streets to demand that he be allowed to serve out his second term, which was abruptly ended when a militia took up arms against him and Washington used it as a pretext to fly him out of Haiti and into exile.

“I think we would be concerned that, if former President Aristide returns to Haiti before the election, it would prove to be a distraction…an unfortunate detraction,” said P.J. Crowley, U.S. State Department spokesman. “The people of Haiti should be evaluating the two candidates that will participate in the run-off, and I think that should be their focus.”