As campaigning for Haiti’s on-again, off-again presidential vote begins for the fifth time Thursday, questions continue about whether the storm-ravaged country can hold fair and effective elections so soon after Hurricane Matthew hammered its southern region.
“I can’t see the election going forward,” a doubtful Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, said after visiting Haiti’s hard-hit Grand’ Anse Department last weekend with Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and North Miami Mayor Smith Joseph. “I don’t see how.”
A month after Matthew‘s Category 4 winds and rains left at least 546 dead and upended the lives of some 2.1 million Haitians, huge challenges remain as relief efforts sparked at least two more deaths and aid groups struggle to reach victims in remote, mountain communities. The election is set for Nov. 20.
On Tuesday, relief workers resorted to using two helicopters with slings — one from Colombia and another from the World Food Program — to drop food rations into communities still unreachable because of impassable roads.
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The same day, a 14-year-old was shot and killed and three others were badly injured in the city of Les Cayes during a disturbance when a Puerto Rican boat was unloading humanitarian aid, Les Cayes Mayor Jean Gabriel Fortune confirmed. Protesters, accusing a special unit of the Haitian National Police of firing the fatal shot, took to the streets. They blocked roads, threw rocks, burned vehicles and erected fiery barricades. Protesters also looted five businesses and an aid warehouse, Fortune said.
“They weren’t prepared for this disaster,” Fortune, who accompanied protesters with the boy’s dead body through the city’s streets, said of the central government. “All of the population has been affected. The people are dispirited.”
On Wednesday, protests erupted again in the city.
The Les Cayes incident was the latest demonstration and death related to the distribution of humanitarian aid in recent days. On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince warned U.S. citizens to steer clear of Route National 2 near Torbeck, west of Les Cayes, because of roadblocks and demonstrations. Last week, a young woman was killed in Dame Marie in the Grand’ Anse after shots were fired during a chaotic aid distribution.
Meanwhile, 141,493 people are still living in 204 temporary shelters, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. And Haiti’s Office of Civil Protection said 774 schools were destroyed or severely damaged.
Despite this, the pressure on Haiti to hold elections remain. The election has been delayed more than a year because of widespread allegations of massive fraud in last October’s first round voting that led to violent protests and a decision to redo the presidential race.
“Elections are of a paramount importance to the United States, to the people of Haiti, to the international community,” said Ros-Lehtinen, former chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. “Even though it’s the most difficult of circumstances right now, Haiti just can’t keep going without a legitimate election.”
She said anyone who lost their voter documents must get them replaced. “Elections are of utmost important. They rank right up there with relief efforts.”
Fritz Jean, an economist, said he doesn’t understand how anyone could be thinking of elections yet.
“Even though I believe some people are rightfully tired of a never-ending election process,” he said, “we cannot treat the stricken disaster areas and the people as outcasts.”
Members of Congress with Haitian-American constituents have been concerned about the humanitarian response following reports that it has been sluggish and isn’t reaching those in need. On Wednesday, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-New York, held a teleconference with representatives of the U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department to get an update.
“We cannot let this crisis fade away from the headlines and we have to be vigilant. Lives are at risk,” said Clarke. “It’s going to require vigilance on our part to make sure that the people of Haiti are made whole once again. We can help them return to a life of normalcy as quickly as possible.”
As of Wednesday, however, a $120 million United Nations appeal had only received $39.3 million or 33 percent funding.
During their Haiti visit, Lehtinen and Wilson traveled to Jérémie, the capital of the Grand’ Anse with the U.S. Ambassador, Peter Mulrean.
“It was like somebody had set off a bomb,” Wilson said of the devastation.
During a tour of the city, the group saw U.N. stations for dispensing water, and distribution of gray tarps to put over what was left of their home.
“It was just devastating to see how a natural disaster could come through one night and turn an whole town upside down,” Wilson said . “It was absolutely devastating.”
During the visit, both congresswomen met with Haitian Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles, who reiterated that the elections would take place on Nov. 20.
Jean-Charles, Wilson said, assured them that Haitian National Police would be able to guarantee the security of voters despite a recent prison break involving 173 violent and convicted criminals, most of whom remain at large, and reports of increased arms coming into the country as part of a plan to disrupt the vote.
He also downplayed concerns about missing voter identification cards, saying not that many people were affected and that Haiti has a system to replace them. Similar assurances of the vote were provided to the group by members of the elections body, the Provisional Electoral Council.
“We are going to do everything on our end to make sure that Nov. 20, which is non-negotiable, is respected,” Uder Antoine, the executive director of the nine-member body told the Miami Herald.
Antoine said the council has given interim President Jocelerme Privert a list of requirements for the vote to take place on time. Privert has set a deadline of Nov. 12 for the rehabilitation of destroyed voting centers and roads and clearing of shelters used as polling places.
“What we are talking about are minor renovations. We are not asking for the schools to be put back to how they were but for a minimum to be put in place to facilitate the electoral process,” Antoine said.
Of the 1,534 voting centers around the country, 45 were completely destroyed and 43 are being used as shelters, he said. He also added that 53 voting centers remain inaccessible, down from 175 immediately after the storm.
“A lot of progress has been made,” he said.
Late Monday, the U.S. Embassy announced that that it would provide financial support to United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to rehabilitate voting centers and roads in support of “a timely and transparent election process.” The State Department had previously said it would not assist Haiti with the elections’ $55 million price tag because it disagreed with the decision to rerun the presidential vote.