Haiti voters throw spanner in Washington's works

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The Independent Online
WHEN the American firm printing the 10 million ballot papers for Haiti's recent elections left off his guitar symbol, the singer Manno Charlemagne thought it might lose him the post of mayor of this teeming and poverty-stricken capital. But despite the organisational fiasco - typical of the elections across Haiti - Manno appears to have won by a landslide and overturned at a stroke the carefully laid American plans for a peaceful transition to democracy in Haiti.

For the man he has beaten is the canny outgoing mayor, Evans Paul, who had been earmarked by the US embassy to take over the country when President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's term ends next February.

That transition would have been difficult enough as it was, with seven million Haitians still regarding the charismatic President Aristide as a saviour. Wall posters in this ramshackle capital call for "Aristide for 1000 years". Now there seems scant hope for political peace.

Manno and his girlfriends live at the rambling old "gingerbread style" Hotel Oloffson, where he describes himself as a communist and says the city's staggering problems can easily be solved with foreign money and through his moral leadership.

Down at the town hall, as hundreds of the poor throng around his door looking for favours and handouts, Evans Paul denounces Mr Aristide's party as "a bunch of visionless opportunists". But all the same, he says, Mr Aristide should stay in power another three years, claiming back the time he spent in exile from the generals who overthrew him. With 90 per cent of jobs in Haiti dependent not on what you can do but on who you know, the country cannot afford another administrative upheaval, he said.

Violence after the election - including the murder of a Haitian working for an American charity and the lynching of presumed thieves - have made American officials nervous. Summary justice has become popular because courts do not function, and the timorous members of the the new UN-trained police force in their baseball caps inspire no respect and look more like janitors than policemen.

The US, whch insists that it was only bungling, not fraud, that marred the election, is urging Mr Aristide not to cancel the elections, as the opposition is demanding. Mr Aristide seems likely to take the American line, and in the first on-line session with a head of state on Internet a few days ago, told questioners that "despite everything, Haiti is moving towards democracy".

But three more years in power for the President would be hard to sell to a suspicious US Congress, where the powerful right-wing Senator, Jesse Helms, who has called Mr Aristide a "psychopath", has announced hearings on the election chaos.

The lot of Haitians, Latin America's poorest people, has changed little since 21,000 US troops returned Mr Aristide to power last year. Rows of computers have been installed in the ministries and a few roads are being patched up, but prices are still high and tales of corruption and incompetence inside the government abound. "There's a creeping paralysis," said one foreign adviser to the president. "The system is defeating the good intentions."

The election turmoil also risks killing off the pledges of more than $1bn in foreign aid to build a democratic Haiti.

The Prime Minster, Smarck Michel, blames the wealthy light-skinned elite, who have monopolised power for 200 years, for Haiti's plight. "They still don't understand that seven million Haitians want to become citizens of their own country," he said. Mr Aristide's policy of national reconciliation was "unfortunately not being taken up" by the elite.

With the left and others howling against an "American plan" to privatise the corruption-riddled telephone and electricity companies, Mr Michel said the government had no means of cleaning them up, so they would have to be sold off.

The top priorities were cutting the 75 per cent illiteracy rate and building a police force "which can't be recaptured as an instrument of repression", he said.

The appetite of many Haitians for an instant solution has meanwhile been whetted by the granting of a licence to a Canadian firm to prospect for gold. According to the Minister of Mines, Rockefeller Guerre, $25bn worth of minerals lie hidden in Haiti, which has no mines at present.