Haiti Faces Future with Mixture of Hope and Fear

By Judith Scherr
Friday April 21, 2006

It’s a remarkable moment in Haiti’s 200-year history, one where both optimism and fear coexist. 

There’s the hope that Rene Préval, the popular president-elect, can take the country’s reins and provide the fundamental freedoms and neces sities of life, for which the people elected him. 

“After two years of an unelected U.S.-imposed regime, an elected president is scheduled to be inaugurated on May 14,” attorney Brian Concannon, director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said Wednesday in a telephone interview from his home in northeastern Oregon.  

Concannon was referring to the ouster of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in February 2004 and his replacement by an interim U.S.-backed government.  

The elected go vernment will “provide opportunities and dangers for Haiti,” he said. 

Concannon and Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, Haitian human rights activist and coordinator of the September 30th Foundation, will be in Berkeley at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant tonight (F riday) speaking about “Haiti at the Crossroads.” 

The danger Concannon cites is the possibility that the United States and European allies will undermine Haitian democracy as they have before, through an economic embargo or political destabilization. 

Whe n Préval served his first term as president, 1996-2001, the United States enforced an embargo when he refused to institute many of the monetary policies demanded of him, such as privatization of all state-owned companies and lowering of tariffs, Concannon said.  

The political destabilization was more subtle. 

“What was happening was that the United States was propping up political parties that had absolutely no electoral legitimacy—they never got more than 10 percent of the vote,” Concannon said. 

Préval’s Feb. 7 victory was the continuation of a break with the past that began with Aristide’s first election in 1990, when Haiti’s poor majority understood that they could choose candidates who would speak for them, rather than the wealthy elite, Concannon said. 

The population appreciates “even very obvious things like candidates speaking Creole, which most Haitians speak, instead of French, which most Haitians don’t speak,” Concannon said. “The main thing the voters were looking for are progressive social and economic policies.”  

Much of the work of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti is aimed at educating people in the United States about Haiti. If people understand the role of the United States in Haiti, they will put pressure on the U.S. government, Concannon said.  

He said that the average person lacks awareness of events in Haiti due largely to the media, which generally ignores or distorts what is happening there. 

“The media keeps repeating things until it’s believed,” Concannon said, pointing specifically to the notion, advanced in the press, that Préval was Aristide’s puppet when he governed. 

Préval brought in a whole new leadership team when he took over the presidency, Concannon said. And the emphasis of the two presidents was di fferent, although both concentrated on improving the lives of Haiti’s poor. While Aristide focused more on the urban poor, Préval, an agronomist, looked more toward the peasantry and land reform and developing agricultural production, he said. 

Préval’s r ule will surely be complicated by the situation in Parliament, he said. Runoff elections are scheduled for today (Friday) and will probably result in a legislature fragmented by multiple parties, he said. 

The most influential political movement since 199 0 has been Aristide’s party, Lavalas. Because the unelected government was ruling the country and the U.N. military was occupying it, Lavalas leadership decided to boycott the elections. 

The man who would have been the Lavalas candidate for president—put forward by grassroots Lavalas leaders—Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, was thrown in jail.  

Préval created a new political party—the party of Hope. It will not have a majority in the legislature. 

“No party will have a near majority,” Concannon predicted. Préval will have to patch together a coalition. “It’s going to be a difficult collaboration,” he said. 

But the bigger danger is that foreign powers won’t allow Haiti to develop in the direction it chooses. 

“Préval has a chance to build the economy, but only if the United States lets it,” Concannon said, putting the burden on progressives in the United States. “Unless activists in the United States force our government to allow Haiti develop, it’s not going to develop. To me, that’s the key. It matters some wha t Préval does on the ground, but in the end, as long as the international community does not let Haiti develop along the lines it wants to develop, then it won’t do so.”› 

Brian Concannon, director of the Insitute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, and Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, Haitian human rights activist and coordinator of the September 30th Foundation, will be in Berkeley at the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant at 362 Bancroft Way tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. speaking about “Haiti at the Crossroads.” For more information, see the IJDH website is www.ijdh.org.