For months, the United States has stressed the importance of Haiti scheduling elections, holding them and quickly inaugurating a democratically-elected government.
But as Haiti now prepares to complete the election cycle that began last year, the Obama administration has said it won’t finance the effort a second time. It won’t underwrite the Oct. 9 vote. It’s demanding the return of unspent elections dollars it granted. And it’s asking two U.S.-based elections organizations to stop supporting the process.
In Haiti, the combination of those moves is adding up widespread concern over one question: Is the U.S. undermining the election?
“We find it bizarre that they don’t want to support the democratic process,” said Léopold Berlanger, president of Haiti’s nine-member Provisional Electoral Council charged with organizing the vote for president, members of parliament and thousands of local seats. “I don’t see how their behavior is rational.”
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Berlanger believes that Haiti, as a sovereign nation, should finance its own elections, a position many Haitians supported even before the U.S. State Department publicly confirmed it would not offer electoral assistance for the re-run of the presidential election. But the administration’s additional decision to seek a refund on at least $1.9 million left in an elections trust fund “goes too far,” Berlanger said.
Officials of the U.S., which contributed $33.4 million of last year’s $100 million elections cost, insist that the financing decisions do not “signal a reduction of our support for the Haitian people,” and that the U.S. “is committed to Haiti’s long-term democratic development and will consider funding future elections.”
“We look forward to the prompt seating of a democratically elected president who can work with the United States and with other partners to address the many challenges facing Haiti,” a State Department official said.
However, the withdrawal of U.S. support, while uniting Haitians, is setting off alarm bells for some who wonder whether the ultimate result will be the U.S. denying recognition of the next government.
My biggest fear is that we find the money, we do the elections and they do not recognize the elected president.
Dr. Joseph Baptiste, chairman of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians
It’s unclear if the U.S., which provided $1 million to the Organization to American States to observe the elections last time, will do so again. Two members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently wrote to U.S. Secretary John Kerry saying they agree with the withdrawal of assistance but “strongly urge” the U.S. to fund observers.
“My biggest fear is that we find the money, we do the elections and they do not recognize the elected president,” said Dr. Joseph Baptiste, chairman of the National Organization for the Advancement of Haitians.
He was in Port-au-Prince last week to see how his social advocacy group can help a growing number of ex-pat Haitians who want to make contributions toward the elections’ $55 million price tag. “If they don’t [recognize the results of the Haitian election], then we are in bigger trouble than we are now.”
In 1999, disputed legislative elections led to Haiti being shut out of hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid. As a result, Haiti financed its own 2000 presidential vote.
But the political crisis over the disputed elections didn’t end there. It led to government paralysis, the return of United Nations peacekeepers and, ultimately, the departure of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide amid a bloody 2004 coup.
Back then, it was the State Department and the OAS accusing the Haitian government and elections authorities of failing to “use the proper method in determining winners in the Senate election.”
Three presidential elections later, Haitians are the ones challenging the vote. And they question why the U.S. seems willing to accept legislative and presidential results from the previous election that a special commission said were plagued with fraud and irregularities.
“It has been surprising over the past months that the U.S. is not offering more robust support to leaders in Haiti who appear to want to fix Haiti’s broken electoral machinery and conduct an electoral exercise that can offer the country’s citizens more transparency and confidence in the process,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at George Washington University.
The result of the U.S.’s withdrawal of support in Haiti raises the question of “what kind of elections the U.S. seeks in Haiti, suggesting a kind of ‘second class’ stance toward the policy and practice of democracy there,” he added.
Last month, the U.N., OAS and other donors to the struggling nation reluctantly gave the go ahead for the presidential re-run. Two days later, the State Department publicly criticized the re-do, as did the European Union, which announced a pullout of its elections donors.
Haiti can no longer afford to be the hostage of dilatory tactics and other ploys.
OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro
Even so, Haiti continues to display its internal disarray. Last week, parliamentarians blocked a vote — for the fourth time in a month — on the fate of interim President Jocelerme Privert’s expired 120-day term by failing to show up for a quorum. That led OAS Secretary-General Luis Almagro to declare that “Haiti can no longer afford to be the hostage of dilatory tactics and other ploys.”
The hemispheric organization is scheduled to receive a report from its Electoral Observation Missions this week on recommendations for improving the upcoming vote. The recommendations, however, will require foreign assistance for them to work.
Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, said the U.S. decision reflects both “frustrations and fatigue with Haitian authorities” by an increasingly impatient international community and U.S. policymakers’ refusal to tolerate “small countries like Haiti ignoring their advice.”
“Washington is basically engaged in an effort to discipline Port-au-Prince,” he said. “It remains to be seen if this will force Haiti to ultimately cry uncle, or instead fuel Haitian nationalism to happily ‘go it alone.’ ”
U.S. officials have repeatedly said that they found no evidence of massive fraud in last year’s first round presidential vote that pitted former President Michel Martelly’s choice, Jovenel Moïse, against opposition contender Jude Célestin, and don’t understand Haiti’s decision to “start from scratch the presidential election.”
“We’ve made no bones about the fact that we had concerns about the way the process was unfolding,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing on July 7 in Washington, D.C. He said the U.S. “did not plan for funding for two more electoral rounds.”
A State Department spokesperson confirmed to the Miami Herald that on the same day Haiti’s interim government was notified about the funding suspension, the U.S. Agency for International Development also notified the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) in Haiti and the U.N. Office for Project Services (UNOPS) that each “is required to return unexpended grant funds.”
Sources say the amount is at least $1.9 million.
Six weeks ago, the U.S. disbursed money to two more organizations to help strengthen Haiti’s election system: $4.5 million to the National Democratic Institute and International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
“Both organizations have been instructed to minimize direct support for the execution of elections by Government of Haiti entities,” the State Department spokesperson said.
The U.S. has also decided not to pay for elections for one-third of the Senate, and local balloting. The local elections, scheduled for Jan. 8, during the second round, are supposed to be held every four years but haven’t been held since 2006. They were postponed last year at the request of the U.S. and OAS, which feared a repeat of the chaos that tainted the Oct. 25 presidential vote and the violence that marred Aug. 9 legislative balloting.
Without senatorial elections, parliament will be nonfunctional for the second time in less than two years. The last time Haiti faced this quandary, the country’s U.S. ambassador personally showed up in the chambers hoping her presence would lead to a resolution.
Berlanger, the Haitian elections chief, said it appears as if Haiti’s biggest donor wants to “impede” the process.
Fatton fears even worse: “The cuts can also be interpreted as a warning, a way of saying to Haiti’s rulers that the U.S. may not accept the legitimacy of the forthcoming electoral process with all the consequences that this may entail.”
Meanwhile on Friday, the UNDP issued an invitation to bid on election ballots.
Since 2010’s controversial presidential elections, Haitians have been speaking out against what they describe as too much donor influence and involvement in their election outcome. And as they are confronted with an election they will have to pay for themselves, they are finding that the change is uniting them.
Financing elections is an act of national sovereignty.
Jocelerme Privert, interim Haiti President
Last week, well-known opposition leader André Michel called on the government to open an account to collect contributions. Twelve senators also offered to donate two months’ worth of their salaries.
“We know that it’s not much, but it’s a symbolic gesture,” said Sen. Nenel Cassy, who hopes the gesture will encourage others to follow suit.
Privert, who remains as acting head of the country despite no vote to keep him in power now that his 120-day stint has run out, said if international support isn’t available, “then it’s up to us to do all that is possible to respond to our responsibilities as a people as a nation.”
Privert will preside over a cabinet meeting Tuesday to discuss several financing options to bolster $12.4 million Haiti already had set aside. Supporters have been calling on Privert to issue an executive order, as early as this week, to officially call Haiti’s 5.8 million registered voters to the Oct. 9 polls.
“Financing elections,” he said, “is an act of national sovereignty.”
Elections in Haiti
Haiti’s 2015 disputed legislative and presidential elections cost about $100 million. Here is where $33.4 million in U.S. taxpayers’ dollars went:
Elections Donor Trust Fund 2014-2015
United Nations Development Program (UNDP)
Support for the electoral process in Haiti
National Democratic Institute and International Foundation for Electoral Systems
Haiti election violence assessment
Creative Associates International Inc.
Transport operations for ballots and other voting materials
United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS)
Election Observation Mission (EOM/OAS)
Organization of American States (OAS)
Haitian National Police equipment
Total from the U.S. 2015 Haiti elections: $33,443,070
Source: U.S. State Department