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Haiti: Elections in a Time of Cholera
Diplomatic Pouch / January 5, 2011

By Larry Luxner

With the one-year anniversary of Haiti’s massive earthquake rapidly approaching, this ravaged Caribbean country remains mired in political violence as well as a vicious cholera epidemic that shows no sign of slowing down.

Both crises were discussed at a panel titled “Haiti: Elections in the Time of Cholera,” held Dec. 7 at Washington’s U.S. Institute of Peace and attended by more than 150 people.

“I suppose we owe an apology to Gabriel García Márquez,” quipped conference moderator Robert Maguire, chairman of the USIP Haiti Working Group. “We were going to call it ‘Elections and Love in the Time of Cholera,’ but there hasn’t been much love demonstrated in Haiti lately.”

There certainly hasn’t.

Two full days of unrest paralyzed Port-au-Prince and other Haitian cities after officials — citing preliminary results from the Nov. 28 presidential election — showed that a popular musician wouldn’t reach a runoff but that a government-backed candidate had made the cut.

According to those officials, former first lady Mirlande Manigat won 31.37 percent of the vote, followed by President Réne Préval’s hand-picked successor, Jude Célestin, with 22.48 percent. In third place was Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, with 21.84 percent of the vote.

At least five people died and dozens were injured after Martelly supporters and others — accusing Haitian electoral officials of fraud — ran through the streets, setting fire to cars and government buildings.

“As if Haiti did not have enough problems, now, once again, those in power are trying to subvert the will of the people,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), urging Washington to withhold funding to Haiti until the election impasse is resolved. “The United States must come down squarely in support of the Haitian people’s right to choose their leaders freely and fairly. By suspending direct aid to the central government and visas for top officials and their immediate family members, the United States would be sending that message.” A statement from the U.S. Embassy, urging all actors to remain calm, also expressed concern that the preliminary results were “inconsistent” with the findings of an independent Haitian election group.

For now, Manigat and Célestin are still scheduled to vie in a runoff scheduled for Jan. 16 — four days after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook Port-au-Prince and its environs, killing at least 230,000 people, leaving over 1.5 million homeless and destroying large sections of the capital city that have yet to be rebuilt.

Meanwhile, Haiti remains in the throes of a cholera epidemic that, as of press time, has already killed 2,120 people and hospitalized another 44,000, with over 100,000 total cases.

“The eradication of cholera in Haiti still seems distant, and experts predict this will not happen for many years,” warned Louis Harold Joseph, Haiti’s new ambassador to the United States.

On the other hand, Joseph said the death rate from this epidemic — believed to have been brought to Haiti by infected United Nations peacekeeping troops from Nepal — appears to be stabilizing.

“During the first week of the epidemic, 9 percent hospitalized patients died. That has dropped to 3.5 percent, so while the number of diagnosed cases has continued to increase, fewer deaths have been recorded. This reflects the positive impact of access to drugs, intravenous fluids and other emergency health measures taken by the authorities.”

Joseph, blaming Haiti’s current predicament on the long years of dictatorship under the Duvalier regime, praised the fact that his country is now a democracy, with political parties and complete freedom of the press.

“However, these achievements on the political front have had no impact on the economy,” he said. “Our best years economically were the early ’70s. Today’s unemployment rate exceeds 60 percent, and the majority of Haiti’s population continues to live in abject poverty.”

At the USIP event, Joseph urged the international community to “honor its commitments by making resources promised available.”

More than $10 billion has been pledged worldwide for Haiti earthquake relief, but nearly a year after the disaster, only a small fraction of it has actually been delivered.

“Priorities remain the collection of tons of debris generated by the earthquake; construction of homes to house the homeless; the fight against cholera, and food security. All these must be done against a background of decentralization and job creation to reduce the chronic unemployment which has been plaguing Haiti for decades,” said Joseph.

“During the course of the next five years, billions of dollars will be spent in Haiti. Thus, it is essential for the new government to have legitimacy, and the mandate of the Haitian people, to run the country. Political crisis is not an option.”

Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary-general of the Organization of American States, defended the decision to hold elections — even in the midst of the cholera epidemic and continuing post-earthquake cleanup efforts.

“The Haitian people face enormous challenges — something which no other country in the Western Hemisphere faces today,” he said. “No other country has all these problems simultaneously, and the only way to deal with it is if we have political stability. That’s why these elections are so critically important.”

The OAS played a key role in helping Haitian authorities re-issue national ID cards lost during the quake, issue cards to those who left Port-au-Prince to live elsewhere and delete dead people from the electoral rolls (although that process was also bedeviled with problems and accusations of fraud).

Meanwhile, as the political drama will undoubtedly continue to unfold over the next several weeks, the humanitarian drama is equally acute. Donna Barry, advocacy and policy director of Partners in Health, blamed the rapid spread of cholera throughout Haiti on “across-the-board poor water quality testing, a lack of trained human resources and incredibly poor rural water infrastructure.”

For example, she said, in St. Marc, the epidemic’s hardest-hit area, “one of the most important prevention measures was implemented after the epidemic broke out. “And in Port-de-Paix, a city wracked by cholera, this project is only projected to be finished next spring” — 13 years after $54 million worth of loans were approved.

“Obviously, many of the plans for post-earthquake reconstruction have been put on hold due to the cholera epidemic. In addition, less than 50 percent of the resources promised at the donor conference last March have actually been disbursed, so clearly, this is slowing progress.”

In a clear case of bureaucratic bungling, said Barry, “there are stockpiles of vaccines which could have been sent to Haiti at the beginning of the epidemic, but the exporter said it was too expensive and not feasible.”

In addition, she complained that not enough clean water has been provided to affected communities throughout Haiti — a clearly frustrating situation for NGOs and health workers.

“We find ourselves combating an entirely preventable outbreak,” she said. “The international community has come up with an inadequate response, and I sincerely hope we can do better in the coming weeks, months and years.”

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