News from Haiti

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Haiti’s temporary peace

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, February 11, 2006. Nation’s poorest storm presidential palace, livid results of election their candidate is said to have won have not be finalized.

A delicate peace that has blanketed this volatile country since Tuesday's landmark presidential elections threatened to fray yesterday as thousands of slum dwellers -- some spurred by gang leaders -- marched to Haiti's presidential palace to demand their candidate be declared the winner.

With 72 percent of votes counted, the latest official results showed frontrunner René Préval, a former president and champion of the poor, slipping to 49.6 percent. He would need 50 percent plus one additional vote to avoid a runoff.

But international electoral observers told Newsday that an analysis of the vote showed Préval had won about 54.5 percent, enough to win on the first round. The sample of 12 percent of votes was conducted by a Haitian electoral observation group and monitored by the National Democratic Institute, an arm of the U.S. State Department, the sources said.

"Give us results!" and "Préval forever!" protesters shouted as they waved Préval flags. Two demonstrators scaled a lamppost outside the palace gates and ripped down a poster of a rival candidate, Evans Paul.

The protests coincided with the start of a four-day visit to Haiti by Former South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace laureate who hopes to foster reconciliation between a tiny elite and a desperately poor majority in this former slave colony.

Marchers streamed through this capital city from slums including Cité Soleil, a shantytown so dangerous that 9,000 United Nations peacekeepers deployed in Haiti can't quash the armed gangs that rule there. In Cité Soleil, gang leaders helped start the march by zooming around on motorscooters, shouting through loudspeakers: "Mobilize!"

"The government is trying to steal the election from the poor," yelled protester Marie Therese Pierre, 63, a tiny grandmother. "It is hiding the results because it knows Préval won."

Haitian riot police and UN troops in tanks stood guard at the palace, but no incidents were reported.

Voters are electing a successor to President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a firebrand slum priest who fled amid an armed uprising two years ago, plunging this already troubled country into near-chaos.

Last night's partial count showed Préval to be well ahead in the 33-way race. His closest challengers were former President Leslie Manigat, with 11.6 percent, and factory owner Charles Henri Baker, with 8.1 percent.

Préval, 63, a former bakery owner, served as president from 1996 to 2001 and was Aristide's protege. But he's since distanced himself from Aristide, who was forced out amid allegations he was a despot propped up by armed thugs.

Political violence and kidnapping, much of it the work of gangs and rogue police, has soared since Aristide fled. However, in recent days, the country has been almost eerily calm. Only four kidnappings were reported over the past week, down from nearly 10 a day in December. During the same period, Jordanian peacekeepers who trade gunfire with gangs in Cité Soleil were shot at 17 times -- a record low -- and fired only 700 rounds back, compared with 4,000 rounds the previous week, a UN spokesman said.

Some Cité Soleil gang members said crime was down because they wanted to ensure peaceful voting for Préval, who adamantly denies links to armed groups. Gang leader Nicolas Augudson, a.k.a. General Toutou, even said gangs will turn in their weapons if Préval wins.

"Préval will bring schools and roads and jobs. He'll make sure the bourgeoisie disarms, too," said Toutou, 24, who calls himself a community activist, during an interview in an alleyway plastered with Aristide graffiti and Préval posters.

Commissioner R. Graham Muir, a Canadian who heads the UN mission's 1,700-member international police force in Haiti, said the calm shows "there is some tacit agreement for the gang leaders to support the vote for Préval." Asked if there's a quid pro quo from Préval's camp, Muir replied, "I don't know."