Haiti's Post-Election Unrest

Rioting, violence, and mistrust caused by widespread suspicions of fraud have consumed Haiti in the nearly two weeks since last Sunday's presidential election. The election, meant to replace the current president, René Préval, was held even with a cholera epidemic and many residents still living in tents after January's massive earthquake. Haiti was let down by international organizations and the United States government, both of which insisted on pushing for the scheduled vote despite failing to provide promised technical support and oversight to ensure the election's legitimacy.

The Prospect spoke with Robert Fatton, a professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, about what this might mean for the country's continued recovery, the role of aid organizations, and what options remain for political resolution.

With the cholera, rioting, and political uncertainty, how dire is Haiti's current situation, and what is the best hope for trying to stabilize the country quickly?

It's not clear what is going to happen, because Haiti has all kinds of protests, and some of them were quite violent. The headquarters of the party of President Préval and of the candidate [Jude] Celestin was burned down. A significant sector of the population does not accept the results as published by the electoral council, and there is the feeling that the vote was fraudulent and therefore, that the presence of Celestin in the second round is the result of fraud.

There was talk -- but that would violate the constitution actually -- of having the three candidates participate in the second round: [former First Lady Mirlande] Manigat, Celestin, and Sweet Mickey -- Michel Martelly -- who is a well-known Kompa singer. If you have the three, that might resolve the problem, but the difficulty obviously is that historically, any election in Haiti has been the source of serious problems. Those who lose the election claim that there's been fraud, and those who win the election claim there's been no fraud, and we can see that in that particular historical pattern in this election. On Sunday, literally all the candidates except Celestin said there was fraud and that they would not accept the elections, and yet 24 hours afterwards, both Manigat and Martelly reversed completely their earlier judgment and said the elections were fine, because they started believing they might in fact win the vote.

There needs to be a pact between the different candidates, and that will probably entail changing the electoral council, because the electoral council has been perceived by the vast majority of candidates as being on the side of the president and therefore on the side of Celestin.

What has the U.S.' involvement in Haiti been during this election?

On the one hand, clearly pushing for these elections, giving significant amount of money so the elections could take place. But at the same time, having a kind of ambiguous position as to the results because [it] claims that the results might be fraudulent. But on the other hand, they didn't go as far as to say that the elections should be annulled.

I think to some extent, this creates even more instability, because people don't really know exactly where the U.S. stands.

Is there an international consensus on the election results being unacceptable? What should international organizations like the United Nations and Organization of American States do now?

Well, I think they're really in a bind. As I just said, they say the elections were bad, but they were good enough. They have the violence now. And then you have the difference [in votes] between Celestin and between Martelly -- it really was insignificant. I think the international community miscalculated completely by accepting those elections. Either they were good enough and you accept them, or there was fraud and they should not be accepted. I think the idea that elections can be very bad but they are still valid is such a contradiction.

My preference from the very beginning -- and is something that was ultimately rejected by the powers that be -- was that immediately after the earthquake, there should have been some sort of national conference where all of the political parties or all of the grassroots organizations would have come to the table and would have essentially decided after a long period of discussions that there should have been a government -- an interim government of national unity -- and that once the trauma of the earthquake and now cholera was over, at that point there could have been elections. Because what has happened is the international community, which put a lot of its prestige and a lot of its money on those elections, has a very ugly face now.

What implications does this election have for international aid money?

Well, that's a big issue, because if there's no stability whatsoever, then it's unlikely you're going to get a lot of foreign assistance. If you have no stability, it's unlikely you're going to get any kind of foreign investments. And the head of the U.N. in Haiti and MINUSTAH, said if the elections were not good, they would cut foreign assistance. I doubt this is going to happen because the country is facing so many difficulties in terms of the cholera, et cetera. But this does mean that if you don't have political stability, then Haiti is going to remain utterly dependent on charity from the international community, and the investments that could have come to change the nature of the economy are certainly not going to materialize.

If the situation continues, how bad could it get? What are we likely to see next?

This is a tough one, because if you look at Haiti over the last 10 years or so, one would assume that we had reached bottom. The tragedy is that when you think that we've reached bottom, we suddenly find out that the bottom was not in fact the bottom, that there was something further down. That's the real tragedy.

The only thing one would maybe hope is that things are so potentially catastrophic -- I don't even know what term to use -- that that might bring some sort of shock to the system, as it were, and that people will start to act differently. It gets pretty bad -- even if you have a second round [of votes] and more violence (I don't think people are going to care about the second round, frankly, precisely because of the nature of the first round) so you have a parliament or a presidency, whoever, is going to lack legitimacy. It may be that the president will manage to create a government of national unity, [but] something else has to happen. And it's unclear this is going to happen.