BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
GONAIVES, Haiti — Some 207 years after their enslaved ancestors broke the shackles of slavery, Haitians commemorated their country’s birth as the world’s first black republic amid crisis and uncertainty. Still struggling to recover from the hemisphere’s worst natural disaster a year ago Jan. 12 — a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that left a government-estimated 300,000 dead — Haitians say they are content to cast off one of the worst years of their lives. Nevertheless, they ushered in a new one Saturday, facing some of their greatest challenges yet: a cholera epidemic that has left thousands dead, and a political crisis triggered by the disputed Nov. 28 presidential and legislative elections that threatens to unravel the country’s fragile stability. Haitian President René Préval’s INITE coalition is being accused of trying to rig the vote in favor of Préval’s presidential pick, former government road-building agency head, Jude Célestin. This past week, a nine-person expert verification mission arrived in Port-au-Prince. The team includes experts in electoral law, and was organized by the Organization of American States at the request of Préval to help verify the results. The team has been given broad access by the Haitian government to the tabulation center in hopes of settling who among the three presumed front-runners should advance into a presidential runoff. Preliminary results tabulated by Haiti’s elections council have Célestin headed into a runoff against former first lady Mirlande Manigat. But some, including foreign diplomats, believe that singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly beat out Célestin for the second spot. All three candidates, and others in the field of 17, are believed to have lost votes to fraud.
The crisis comes as Préval prepares to end his presidential mandate, and it is threatening to not just overshadow his presidency but erase the few gains Haiti has made. In an Independence Day sermon, Roman Catholic Bishop Yves-Marie Pean called on Haitians to stop the accusations and find a consensus. “Haiti’s problems are profound,” he said, adding, that solving them “is not easy. But it’s not impossible.” The first of January, he said, is a “a day of profound reflection,” where each Haitian has to ask him or herself, “How did we arrive at this situation?” “We each have to take our responsibility,” he said as Préval and government ministers and lawmakers listened. As Pean spoke, miles south in the quake-ravaged capital of Port-au-Prince about 100 protesters burned tires, threw rocks and demanded Préval’s arrest. In Gonaives, a few dozen protesters also attempted to overshadow Préval’s visit as competing pro- and anti-Préval groups infiltrated the crowd of thousands shouting back and forth “Down with Préval!” and “Long Live Préval!” With dozens of Haitian National police officers standing nearby, Préval told Haitians the country’s current political crisis will not be resolved through violence or destruction but via the constitution and electoral law.
“My Haitian people, 2010 is gone. But it has left us with a lot of suffering,” he said, noting the political crisis and the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters. “We are at dangerous crossroads today. The reconstruction of the country, the battle against cholera, the battle for education, the battle to reinforce health. . . . All require that there be stability in the political life of the country.’
Demonstrators opposing Haitian President Rene Preval shout during his speech commemorating the country’s Independence Day January 1, 2011 in Gonaives, Haiti.
Demonstrators opposing Haitian President Rene Preval shout during his speech commemorating the country’s Independence Day January 1, 2011 in Gonaives, Haiti. But in recent weeks, that stability has come under threat as Haitians and the international community try to figure out how to help Haiti emerge from the crisis. Some fear the crisis may be wearing on Préval, who appeared tired during the Gonaives visit. Still, while his entourage was worried about the crowd’s reaction, he greeted citizens, wishing them a happy new year. Later, during his 12-minute speech, he told Haitians that better days are possible. “We should not be discouraged. Let’s take the example of Gonaives following four hurricanes,” Preval said. “When we look at Gonaives today, we can say that it’s on its way to a comeback. We are not saying that everything is perfect.” Following four back-to-back storms in 2008, Gonaives was buried under 2.5 million cubic meters of mud, and water. Today, the muddy streets have been replaced by dust, and the city is less prone to flooding, Préval said. Neither that accomplishment, nor Préval’s words of encouragement, were enough to convince some residents who say they are ready for change. “We are done with René Préval,” said Ora Jean-Bertrand, 20. “He has had a lot of crises, but . . . what has he done? I wanted to hear him say what he intends to do to make sure that we don’t have another electoral crisis.”
But while some are calling on Préval to step down before the end of his mandate, Roberson Alcius, 20, said he wants him to finish — on Feb. 7. Earlier, Haitian senators voted to provide for a three-month extension on the date should a new president not be elected by Feb. 7. Some are saying that extension should not stand. “We are poised to go into a runoff, but we are first waiting on the real results,” said Sen. Youri Latortue, who represents the Artibonite region and is a supporter of Manigat. “But it has to be done before Feb. 7. After the 7th of February, President Préval’s mandate is finished and he has to go.” In an interview with The Miami Herald days ago, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said: “We cannot afford with the earthquake, we cannot afford with the consequences of cholera, we cannot afford with 1.5 million people waiting for a solution to start again at zero.” He added: “We have to find a way to have a common ground and build on that. And I hope that people in the national and international community will understand that. We have 10 million people looking at us saying, `Yeah, you are fighting to be in the palace. You are fighting to be prime minister or you are fighting to stay prime minister or president. I don’t’ care. But what is going to happen to me next month?’“And nobody is giving any answers to that.”