The Polls of Bel Air

The post-coup Haitian presidential election, currently planned for November 20, has a list of 54 candidates. The Canadian Prime Minister's 'special advisor on Haiti', Denis Coderre, suggested yesterday that this sprawling list of candidates was a good thing, a sign that 'democracy is like a flower that needs to be constantly tended'.

But that long list of candidates has a notable absence. His name is Father Gerard Jean Juste and the reason he is absent is that he is in jail (discussion of why he is in jail will have to be deferred, but he is a political prisoner facing accusations that would not hold up to standards of evidence). Because he is in jail, he was unable to present his registration in person, which is what Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council requires of presidential candidates. According to the Haitian Constitution (I was told today) individuals can register as presidential candidates even if they are unable to do so in person so long as their candidacy is presented by two lawyers and a justice of the peace. This, we were told, is what Jean Juste's people tried to do, and in this they were rebuffed.

I didn't meet Father Jean Juste today, but I did see his face on a T-shirt in the huge, popular neighbourhood of Bel Air this morning. A Lavalas militant named Samba Boukman met us in a small yard. As he approached, he pointed to the T-shirt, a picture of Jean Juste, and said: "This is the president of the people."

Just outside the yard where we were talking to Boukman and a few other young people, was the UN headquarters. Brazilian troops were there, in jeeps, armored cars, and on foot. They had fortified control points on the street corners. MINUSTAH, the UN 'Stabilization Mission', was here in force.

MINUSTAH was here doing what is called 'DDR': Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration. From what we heard, though, a more appropriate label might be 'DAM': Disarmament, Arrest, and Misery. The idea of the program is that MINUSTAH collects the weapons from impoverished young people and helps them 'reintegrate' into society. But the process seems to break down after the 'disarmament' part. There is no point denying it: there are poor youths here who are in conditions that mean they have to steal to survive and who feel only more helpless and vulnerable to be preyed upon if they lack a weapon. What they need -- what organizations like Samba Boukman's 'Zakat' youth programs are trying to provide -- are basic necessities, as well as political and social infrastructure. 'Zakat', for example, runs a breakfast program for young people, but this morning they were out of rice, so the kids went hungry.

MINUSTAH is not in the business of giving out rice. It is in the business of taking away guns. It is also in the business of arresting kids and handing them over to the Haitian National Police (Police National Haitien, PNH). And the PNH, in turn, is still very much in the business of repression and abuse, we were told today. We had the dynamic explained to us through some anecdotes: 18 young people who handed in their weapons last week and were arrested shortly afterwards; a young man who gave in his weapon, was arrested by MINUSTAH, and was later seen in the street with his face badly smashed by the PNH.

"The elections are our last chance to solve the problems of this country," Boukman told us. And unfortunately there are all too many who want that chance to be missed. Bel Air is a huge neighbourhood with some 34 districts. During the 2000 election, each of the national state schools had a polling station -- at least one for each district. Today there is one for all of Bel Air -- the St. Martin electoral registry. Was the Lavalas base in Bel Air registering to vote? They had been, until September 13, when Jean Juste was barred from candidacy. Since then, they've stopped.

The scene at St. Martin confirmed Boukman's story. There were one or two people registering and five or six people working. The coordinator of the polling station explained to us that at this same, currently empty station, they had registered 3,000 people in a single week (the last week of August), and that people had been coming in droves until around September 15, but that after that no one came. Her explanation, different from Boukman's: the registration deadline keeps on being delayed, so people stopped feeling the immediate pressure to register.

The registration cards are not designed to please civil libertarians. Haitians registering to vote give fingerprint, signature, and photo information which will eventually be collected in a single database. They will get a single identification card that will be good for 10 years. They may not get breakfast, but they can get some high-tech identification. And they will need it -- from social services to the tax office, no Haitian will be able to do without the new identification card. Or so it is planned.

Meanwhile, the Haitian police, when they are doing SWAT operations, wear masks.