Elections at time of cholera

Sunday, November 28, 2010    

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CYNICISM and frustration run deep over today's presidential and parliamentary elections in Haiti, campaigning for which intensified within recent weeks amid mounting deaths and widespread suffering from a cholera epidemic.

Indeed, this electoral democracy battle that involves a long list of 19 presidential candidates to succeed President Rene Preval, who demits office on February 7 next year, seems quite irrelevant to suffering Haitians themselves and not just to independent observers.

After all, as the most poverty-stricken nation in the entire Western Hemisphere, Haiti has fallen victim, in this first decade of the 21st century, to two most massive disasters within 11 months:

First, the unprecedented earthquake of January 12 this year that unleashed death and destruction on a scale never experienced since Haiti's independence over two centuries ago.

The official death count was estimated at some 220,000 but is believed to be more accurate at nearly 300,000, with thousands more suffering from various injuries, and over one million reduced to living like refugees in tents, with many reports of sexual abuses and exploitation.

Then came the dread news last month of an outbreak of cholera, a disease hitherto unknown among Haitians. By last week, conservative estimate of deaths had climbed to over 2,000 and those lucky enough to receive medical treatment — minimal or adequate — numbered at least 6,000.

In the meantime conflicts have erupted in various parts of the countryside, and even in urban areas, as angry Haitians complained about United Nations peacekeeping forces with disturbing allegations that the cholera disease may have emanated from septic tanks at a camp used by Nepalese soldiers in the town of Mirebalais.

Simultaneously, conflicts were also occurring in other areas with Haitians chasing off election candidates and campaign workers to register their anger over continuation of the electoral process in the face of the spreading cholera epidemic.

With some of the contesting presidential candidates themselves divided over continuation of the campaign for today's vote, discussions became even more emotional about the relevance of electoral democracy at this time.

Cynicism and disenchantment worsened when the most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas, founded by deposed President Jean Bertrand Aristide, was excluded, on a reported legal technicality, from contesting the elections.

But Ambassador Colin Granderson, the official who is heading the Caribbean Community's segment of the joint OAS/Caricom Observer Mission for Haiti's election, had an explanation.

While fully sensitised to the prevailing social and political mood of the people of Haiti and its nightmare tragedies, Granderson, communicating from Haiti, offered me a useful explanation this past week.

Granderson, who is assistant secretary general for Foreign and Community Relations at the Caricom Secretariat, said those questioning the relevance of the elections, in the prevailing circumstances, should also consider that without them the Government, as exists, "will lapse on February 7, 2011, as the legislature already has...

"At this moment, any attempt to postpone the elections could lead to widescale civil unrest as political parties and voters ready for elections and will interpret such a delay as an arbitrary political response from a government whose party could lose the elections."

Further, Granderson wondered whether a transitional government without "constitutional legitimacy", could seriously be expected to pursue the challenging task of "combating the spread of cholera; relodge the many thousands of displaced Haitians and undertake the rebuilding of the Haitian State and not just buildings?"

Mass graves

While the Caricom Observer Mission for today's elections grapples with the logic as advanced by Ambassador Granderson, the nightmare in which the mass of Haitians are so frighteningly gripped now include witnessing the dumping of bodies of cholera victims in mass graves originally filled with bodies of Haitians killed in January's horrific earthquake disaster.

It may be too much for even victims of hurricanes and other natural disasters, in this and other Caribbean Community countries, to imagine the scale and depth of the tragedies unleashed on Haiti from the January earthquake to the current horrors of the cholera epidemic.

Perhaps that's why so many people and some governments, political parties and organisations in our Caribbean Community can continue to behave as if numb by the tremendous sufferings of Haitians — some eight million of them — across a Caribbean land where incomprehensible poverty and misery have been the way of life for far too long.

In the circumstances, it is quite encouraging to know that despite its own problems, the Caricom Secretariat has been quietly and effectively organising emergency aid for the cholera victims of Haiti.

Such assistance, underway in collaboration with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Agency and sections of the region's business community, may be comparatively small in terms of the extent of overall needs identified by the United Nations.

However, the aid already mobilised includes doctors and nurses who have volunteered their services; as well as financial resources and materials being made available through the Government of Jamaica.

The Bruce Golding administration in Kingston has been functioning, on Caricom's behalf, as the principal co-ordinating centre for assistance to the Haitian people since the January earthquake disaster.





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