Haiti’s first elections in five years were marked by chaos Sunday. Thousands of voters were prevented from casting ballots because of administrative foul-ups and isolated violence, while reports of irregularities were widespread.
Despite the obstacles, the municipal and legislative elections appeared to be “proceeding relatively smoothly,” the Organization of American States said Sunday night. But problems ranging from ballot shortages to vandalism shut down hundreds of polling sites while angry voters turned on election officials with insults and protests.
At one Port-au-Prince polling site, election material was stained with bloody footprints near the spot where a precinct worker was shot and wounded.
Enraged voters in the country’s central valley cast ballots into the mud after voting was canceled. Voting was shut down around the northern city of Limbe after an election office there was firebombed.
“It’s total confusion,” said Martin Roosevelt, a United Nations worker, while trying to open up a precinct in the Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Soleil while about 30 people argued over piles of ballots scattered across a courtyard. “There’s stuff missing. Nobody knows what’s going on.”
International observers tried to put the day in a positive light, pointing out that nine months after a military junta relinquished power, the voting was relatively peaceful. The military has since been dissolved by President JeanBertrand Aristide, who returned in October from three years in exile after the threat of a U.S. invasion persuaded the military leaders who toppled him to step aside.
A successful election would have supported President Clinton’s decision to intervene, unpopular with many because it restored a left-leaning leader whose criticism of American policies changed only when they worked in his favor.
A force of 6,000 United Nations peacekeepers - including 2,400 Americans - provided security Sunday. But in most areas it wasn’t needed. In the midafternoon along the National Highway, 10 American soldiers were parked at a closed Texaco station, chatting and entertaining children with a rubber ball.
Haitian election officials extended voting hours at several polling places that opened late because of the confusion. Acknowledging there had been problems, the officials said the elections would not be nullified.
Whatever the organizational difficulties, many enthusiastic Haitian voters did make it to the polls, crouching beneath banana trees, kneeling on concrete floors and crowding into gutted, bullet-pocked buildings after waiting in lines that never seemed to move in the blazing Haitian sun. “All we’ve had are a couple fights,” said one of the soldiers monitoring the voting.
“Even if it takes all night I’ll be here,” shouted Celia Bathelmy, 27, standing in line after four hours in the blazing sun in the southern town of Leogane. “I’m here because I want things to change. I want my kids to go to school. I want them to have jobs. I’ll spend the night here if I have to.”
In Cite Soleil, perhaps the poorest neighborhood in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, dozens of people turned out at dawn to vote at a grade school that stood near the former local headquarters of FRAPH a paramilitary organization that killed and terrorized thousands.
An American flag was painted on the side of the building along with the message “Thank you, America,” in Creole. Genor Petit, the 65-year-old man who painted the message, pointed with pride at a bullet hole in the wall. He said FRAPH thugs once shot at him for painting memorial portraits of his dead neighbors.
“I said to myself: ‘Aristide or death,”’ said Petit. Asked if he planned to vote, he said: “Of course.”
“We are living proof of atrocities,” said Roseanne Profile, 18, using crutches to help her bullet-ravaged legs carry her into a polling site in the city of Rabateau. “This is my way of revenge.”
Although the elections, the first since Aristide was elected in 1990 and the second ever to be held in the Caribbean nation, were relatively peaceful, critics have said they were doomed before they started. The Washington-based International Republican Institute, one of several groups monitoring the electoral process, issued a 300-page report describing a general climate of disorganization and discrimination against some candidates.
That assessment is unlikely to change after Sunday: Confusion reigned most of the day. At some polling sites, ballots lay strewn on the ground, handled by anyone who happened by. Others fluttered away in the wind. One man, after wiping the supposedly indelible ink from his thumb, flashed seven voter registration cards to a reporter.
Many election workers, dissatisfied with their low wages ($11.50 for the 14-hour day), failed to show up for work. Some monitors reported that voters, most of whom were illiterate, were told how to vote by election-site supervisors. Candidates whose names were left off the ballot staged demonstrations.
“Don’t even think about security,” said Roland Parish, who was monitoring one of the precincts around Leogane. “There’s no UN, no government officials. There’s only one Haitian cop and he isn’t doing anything; you can do whatever you want with him. It’s disappointing; I was told by a UN person that there wasn’t going to be any fraud.”
In the city of Grand-Desdunes in the Artibonite Valley, some 25,000 people were prevented from voting because 15 cartons of ballots were missing from an expected allotment of 45. Organizers refused to open polling sites, touching off a near riot.
Groups of angry voters pitched some of the remaining cartons into the steaming street mud. Election officials retrieved them but tensions remained high. “It’s a conspiracy; they’re trying to steal the election from us,” a woman named Josef Edeline, 27, yelled into a bullhorn. “They stole our ballots.”
“It’s a disaster,” said Philipe Pierre Roland, head of the local election office. “I’m counting on the United Nations to escort me out of here.” The voters, he said, “want to string me up.”
In the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Carrefour, a man showed up at a polling site at 2 a.m. and shot an election official twice. The official staggered into a back room, leaving behind a pool of blood that coagulated near stacks of cardboard screens that were used to provide privacy.
In all, about 3.5 million people had registered to vote at more than 10,000 polling places. The ballots will be counted by hand, and the results are not expected for at least a week.