In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide wins the country’s first free election.
In 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide wins the country’s first free election.

By Garry Pierre-Pierre

PORT-AU-PRINCE – For the most part, people were euphoric during the Haitian presidential elections in December 1990. They were held a few years after Jean Claude Duvalier’s dictatorial regime had fled, and the interim junta in power had declared that the military and the people were involved in a “banboch democratic” or a democratic fete.

In addition, candidate Jean Bertrand Aristide’s immense popularity had galvanized millions of people who saw the former priest as a savior that would usher this new democratic experiment and improve the lot of the deeply impoverished masses.

Nearly 25 years  later, Aristide has joined the list of failed leaders and is now a shadow of his former self, having bandied his reputation and unable to govern. While some of his failures were not of his own undoing, he did plenty to derail his aspirations. At one point during his second tenure Haiti was considered a narco-state.

It was a long and tragic fall for a president who offered so much hope and promises to a nation that has been mismanaged for most of its 211 years of independence. Although Aristide broke a long silence, his recent missives about these elections have been dismissed by most political analysts and largely ignored by some of the populace who once adored him.

In his first public address since returning to Haiti four years ago, former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide denounced Haiti’s Aug. 9 ‘electoral coup’ and called on Haitians to vote for Lavalas Family presidential candidate Maryse Narcisse (right). Photo: Jeanty Junior Augustin

Politics is not for the faint of heart and I was never convinced that Aristide would be able to deliver on his promises. Aristide promised to improved the lot of the desperately poor Haitians who struggle daily to eek out a living. For one thing, the former president underestimated his enemies and thought wrongly that his popularity was enough to help him govern a deeply poor country with little resources. The civil servant class and the elite were disdainful of Aristide and put a monkey wrench in his plans, such as they were.

I was skeptical of Aristide’s promises and that put me against the progressive’s conventional wisdom of the time. Questioning Aristide was akin to cursing in a church. It was nothing personal against Aristide. My views were rooted in Latin American history. I believed then that Haiti was destined to follow other Latin American countries that have elected progressives to the presidency only to be blocked by the elite institutions. In the end, the reactionaries or conservatives made triumphant returns to power.

What I never imagined was the people’s apathy to democracy. I was in Port-au-Prince in August covering the parliamentarian elections and was shocked with the low turnout. People who had died for Haitians to have the right to vote must be turning in their graves. A series of events have rendered the people apathetic. For once, their presidential choices have not been respected. The voting process seems like theater to some people in Haiti. They go to the polls and the winner is negotiated. In the case of Aristide, he was overthrown twice.

Former President René Préval

In 2008, they elected Rene Preval with the hope that he would return Aristide – who was exiled in South Africa – back to Haiti. Preval, who served as Aristide’s Prime Minister and later elected president in 2000, had no such intentions. Aristide did return to Haiti a few weeks after Duvalier returned from his exile in France.

It’s not only the voters that have become cynical. Candidates don’t want to spend millions on an election whose eventual winner will be negotiated into power.

On Sunday, Haitians will go back to the polls again and the turnout is expected to be equally low. At stake is the entire parliament and hundreds of local posts. Fresh in people’s mind is the last time they voted for a president in 2011. It was the election or selection of Michel Martelly. Martelly, a popular musician, emerged as the front runner from a crowded field and appeared to have coasted to the highest office in the country. However, we learned a couple of years ago from the election organizers that Martelly was not the top vote getter. Officials from the Electoral Council or CEP in its French acronym said that Martelly’s ascension was negotiated by Cheryl Mills, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s chief of staff. I thought this was outrageous and scandalous but everyone yawned. Jude Celestin, who is now the frontrunner, was said to have won but he raised no stink and went back to his routines and waited his turn.  He is now leading in most polls.

Such is the state of democracy in Haiti today.  American policy makers can feel good that Haiti remains in the ranks of democratic state by holding elections, never mind that they are not free nor fair. After all, they are Haitians and we can’t hold them to the same standards.

Meanwhile, the people have opted to remain on the sidelines instead of being a pawn on this democratic game.

Things were oh so rosy when this party began a quarter of century ago.

Garry Pierre-Pierre

Garry Pierre-Pierre is a Pulitzer-prize winning, multimedia and entrepreneurial journalist. In 1999, he left the New York Times to launch the Haitian Times, a New York-based English-language publication serving the Haitian Diaspora. He is also the co-founder of the City University Graduate School of Journalism‘s Center for Community and Ethnic Media and a senior producer at CUNY TV.

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