Haiti’s Presidential Candidates’ Quest for Unity. For now. Photo: © Phillip Wearne/HSG
The Miami Herald, BY JACQUELINE CHARLES, Sep. 08, 2010
As presidential hopeful Jude Célestin registered his candidacy inside the quake-battered headquarters of the electoral commission last month, the group of supporters crowding him reflected Haiti’s turbulent political past.
Behind him was a militant of ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Lavalas party. Steps away, a member of Haiti’s elite. All around, backers of President René Préval. And leaning over his shoulder, his uncle, a hard-liner of the 29-year Duvalier dynasty.
“For the last 20 years, we’ve been discriminatory,” said Gregory Brandt, a member of Haiti’s traditional elite and president of the Haitian-French Chamber of Commerce, referring to how Haitians have dealt with power. “We’ve been Duvalierists, Putschists, Lavalas, Lavalas Revisionist/Prevalians. Now, it’s about time we talk about being Haitians.”
Political tides may be changing in an earthquake-shattered Haiti. In a country where brutal politics have led to exiles, ousted presidents and repressed opponents, candidates for the presidency are focusing less on ideology and more on how to unify this battered nation.
But the changes are creating conflicting emotions, especially among old-guard pro-democracy militants who fought past dictatorships. While some welcome the blurring of political boundaries, others doubt the respite from politics-as-usual will survive past the Nov. 28 election date.
“It’s mental disorder, a carnival,” Jean-Claude Bajeux, a longtime human rights activist and democratic reformer, said in a dismissive tone.
Still, several of the 19 candidates are jockeying to define themselves as the rassembleur or unifier in a country with class, race and political divisions. “We don’t just need to reconstruct a country, but we need to reconstruct the people’s mentality,” Célestin, the former head of Haiti’s state-owned road-building outfit, told The Miami Herald. “We need a different way to think socially and politically.”
One of the first things he did after being chosen over Alexis to lead Préval’s INITE (UNITY) platform, was calling opposition party members, Célestin said.
“I said `Let’s form another generation of politicians with another vision. It doesn’t make any sense to fight. Now is the moment to sit down and see what we can do for the country.’ ”
Candidates say the Haitian people — even more desperate and deprived following the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that left an estimated 300,000 dead — are increasingly looking past ideology.
“They are looking for jobs, life, schooling for their children. Not ideologies,” said Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady and the lone candidate from the traditional opposition.
Manigat, a university scholar who spent years in political exile, said she hopes “the elections under these trying circumstances, mark a turning point” in the political life of Haiti.
“I don’t know if we Haitians understand the gravity of Jan. 12 in our consciousness. The problems existed before Jan. 12 — hunger, unemployment, insecurity, corruption, high cost of living, health, education,” she said. “The earthquake was a revealer. Only now are a lot of Haitians discovering the gravity of the situation.”
Former two-time Prime Minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis said Haiti, known for its exclusionary politics, can no longer afford to “practice politics in the same-old-trickery fashion.”
Alexis, a candidate for the presidency, showed up to register at the elections office with a member of Haiti’s Arab community who has opposed every government he has led.
`The ideological values that allowed us to determine if someone is to the left, center or the right, we don’t see them anymore,” he said. “But given the quantity of social and economic injustice we have in Haiti, it demands that whichever group comes to power arrives at a national consensus to govern the country.”
But even Alexis, who strongly advocates the need for Haiti’s political structure to be more formalized and professional, demonstrated how fluid the boundaries are. Hours after fellow members of Préval’s party rejected his candidacy, Alexis joined a very unlikely new party to register for the presidency. That party, Movement for the Progress of Haiti (MPH), is headed by Samir Mourra, a Haitian American who was banned from the 2006 presidential race because of his U.S. passport.
Manigat, wife of former President Leslie Manigat, said she’s always had reservations about using the labels “left or right to sum up someone’s political leanings.”
But she understands the dilemma of people who are in search of candidates’ overarching vision, but feel lost.
“This is not good for Haitian politics. But it wouldn’t be good either to have completely rigid ideological lines,” Manigat said. “Ultimately, this is a stew. You can’t tell which ingredient is which.”
Critics say the political stability is welcome. But they worry that the laissez-faire manner in which politics are practiced and alliances created are more about political expediency and convenience, than vision.
“If you want to be elected in the current climate you want to pretend you can bridge whatever divisions there was between elite, the average population and political clout,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political scientist at University of Virginia. “Once you get it, you have to decide who is going to be riding with you, and that is going to lead to some political divisions again.”
Others argue that the lack of vision they are seeing in the campaign does little to address the deep social issues affecting Haiti’s poverty-stricken masses. Also, the absence of debate on ideas and issues leaves Haitians without a hint about how public policies will be shaped.
“None so far has produced any sort of platform that one could scrutinize,” Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born sociologist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said about the candidates. “I don’t see any candidate one could get excited about and think he or she could make a significant difference in changing the status quo if elected.”
For now, the candidates are more interested in selling their character in a country where exclusionary slogans — Makout Pa Ladann, used after the collapse of the dictatorship to deny government access to anyone with ties to the Duvalier regime — once heralded change.
“As long as you want to bring this country forward, we don’t care where you come from,” said Charles Henri Baker, a candidate who lost to Préval in 2006.
Jean-Henry Céant, a lawyer and notary who is reportedly backed both by Aristide supporters and some who forced his ouster, said for him rassembleur is more than just a word.
“When I say it, I stand behind it. All the others who are saying it, it’s just words from their lips because they all are practicing exclusion,” he said.