Haitians went to the polls on 8 February, for the first vote since the populist President Jean Bertrand Aristide was overthrown in a US-backed coup, two years ago.
Reportedly three people died and scores were injured in crushes at polling stations or in clashes with the police in the elections for a new parliament and president. Polls indicate Rene Preval, a former ally of Aristide, will become president, with Charles Henry Baker, a wealthy garment factory owner, coming second. The International Herald Tribune (9 February 2006) reported “hordes from the slums…where Aristide was adored” voted heavily for Preval.
The Organisation of American States, the UN, the EU and the US administration declared the elections passed off “satisfactorily”. But many impoverished supporters of Preval point to early closure of polling stations and the authorities’ denial of voting rights in the pro-Preval slum area of Cite Soleil, in Port-au-Prince, as signs that the ruling elite and US will try to stop a Preval victory or lessen his margin. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two will face a run-off on 19 March.
Thousands of armed UN soldiers have been unable to ‘restore order’ since Aristide’s removal in February 2004. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with a life expectancy of only 51 years. 65% of the population living below the poverty line and adult literacy rates are at a mere 52%. For decades, the country has been plagued by poverty, joblessness and military dictatorships.
The notorious regime of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, continued by his son, Baby Doc, from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s, was finished off by a mass struggle of workers and students. A series of highly unstable and short-lived regimes followed.
Unfortunately, these years of radical urban movements did not have a revolutionary socialist leadership that could take power, sweep away capitalism and realise the demands of working people.
The political void was partially filled by Jean Bertrand Aristide, a popular priest working in the slum areas of Port-au-Prince, who won the 1990 presidential elections by promising to tackle poverty and to bring social justice.
Aristide was overthrown by General Cedras, in 1991, but returned to power, in 1994, on the back of 20,000 US troops after the Clinton administration eventually lost patience with the previous volatile and defiant Haitian regime. In the elections that followed, Aristide was barred from standing, but Rene Preval, his close ally, took nearly 90% of the vote. In 2000, Aristide was again elected president with over 90% support.
Aristide’s support lessened as he failed to make any real change to poverty conditions and as allegations of corruption and vote rigging increased. Aristide’s populist gestures, such as building a new presidential house where he met slum representatives and allowed poor children to use the swimming pool, meant little while conditions in shantytowns worsened. But still the ruling elite could not stomach Aristide’s popular support. The reactionary opposition mounted an uprising in 2004, with the Bush administration’s support, and Aristide was bundled out of Haiti by US troops. Pro-US lawyer, Boniface Alexandre, was appointed ‘interim president’ and UN forces brought into Haiti.
Since then, conditions have only worsened. Lawlessness and kidnappings are rife and factories have shut down due to a lack of foreign investment. 80% of the population officially lives below the poverty line. And poverty conditions led to the loss of 2,000 lives during heavy rains in May 2004. The huge social gap between the poor Creole-speaking black majority, that make up 95% of the population, and the French-speaking mulattos, 1% of whom own nearly half the country’s wealth, remains unaddressed. For several years, Haiti has been wracked by violence and gang rule in slums. Anti-US and anti-UN sentiments are strong amongst the poor, who are still angry at the overthrow of Aristide, and they have held demonstrations.
Preval has the backing of many slum dwellers but his presidency will not bring the social justice that the poor desperately yearn. Even before taking office, Preval put distance between Aristide and himself. He recently told the BBC that if elected he would allow Aristide to return from exile in South Africa, but that he “will not tolerate the violent groups that pledge him allegiance”.
Although the White House administration has claimed it will accept the results of the elections, it will regard a one-time Aristide ally becoming president as a setback to US imperialist interests in the region. The wealthy Haitian elite fear Preval’s victory even more. If they decide that Preval in office is beyond their control and too pro-poor, the reactionary opposition will to try to destabilise and overthrow his government, replacing it with another brutal, pro-elite and pro-US regime. At the same time, Preval will not satisfy the needs of the poor and working class with mere populism and can lose crucial support, just as Aristide did.
Proud revolutionary history
Only the masses of Haiti, with the working class playing the leading role, can find a way out of the endless poverty, joblessness, violence, coups and dictatorships. Haiti has a proud, revolutionary history. Just over 200 years ago, the black masses abolished slavery and won national independence for Haiti. Their deeds were an inspiration to the masses of the Caribbean and the working people of Europe.
The imperialist powers were vengefully determined that the black republic would be seen to fail. The first ever US sanctions were levelled against Haiti. In 1915, the US went a step further, and occupied the country. With lessons for the US presence in Iraq today, the occupiers in Haiti soon faced a guerrilla struggle. After twenty years of national resistance the US power left the island.
The 1930s and 1940s saw social and class turmoil in Haiti, including student and workers’ protests. In these decades, the small working class created trade unions. Several communist parties were also established but faced severe repression. In the absence of powerful working class organisations, reaction was able to triumph with the coming to power of the Duvalier dictatorships.
Today, more than ever, a mass socialist alternative has to be constructed in opposition to the tiny rich elite that live in mansions on the top of the hill in Port-au-Prince, while the majority – impoverished, jobless, illiterate and hungry - lives in shantytowns at the bottom or in the countryside, without electricity. A socialist alternative would fight for real fundamental change, making an appeal to the working class and poor across the Caribbean and the whole Americas.