By Jimmy Carter
This article originally appeared in The New York Times, Oct. 1, 1990.
Free elections earlier this year in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and even Panama provide clear evidence that democracy is following tortuous, but steadily progressive paths in the hemisphere. Haiti is now moving toward an election in December, but to succeed it needs the full support of the international democratic community.
The Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government, of which I am chairman, played a key role in making democratic balloting possible in these earlier elections. Based on that experience, I believe that the Haitian election, in which the council is already deeply involved, may be the most difficult and dramatic of all.
Haiti is proud of its history as the second-oldest independent nation in this hemisphere and the oldest black republic in the world. But for 186 years Haitians' lives have been filled with oppression and poverty. Even in recent years, after finally overthrowing the Duvalier dictatorship on Feb. 7, 1986, the citizens have been plagued with a succession of abortive efforts to find freedom.
As recently as Nov. 29, 1987, an election was called to fulfill promises made in their post-Duvalier constitution. Citizens who lined up to vote were mowed down by fusillades of terrorists' bullets. Military leaders, who had either orchestrated or condoned the murders, moved in to cancel the election and retain control of the Government. Two months later, these generals conducted an ''election'' that was boycotted by almost all the previous candidates and in which fewer than 4 percent of the people voted; the victor was peremptorially removed when he dared to exert some independence as president.
Earlier this year, after another general was forced out of office, an interim Government was formed, with Supreme Court Justice Ertha Pascal Trouillot as Acting President. Her primary goal has been to bring about a successful election.
The obstacles are formidable but not insurmountable. There is a constitutionally established electoral council that has already had to postpone the November election date. However, voter registration is now rescheduled to begin Oct. 5, and elections are to be held Dec. 16.
During my most recent visit to Haiti, two weekends ago, council leaders reported that for the first time they are receiving support from the colonels and other mid-level officers in all regions. They now have assurances of about half the financing needed for the election, with a fighting chance to meet their other needs.
In August, when the Council of State declared all her decisions null and void, President Trouillot survived only after receiving support from the army commander-in-chief, Gen. Herard Abraham. He and the President have been widely and perhaps justifiably criticized for their failure to investigate several political crimes, including the assassination of a member of the Council of State and a labor leader in a Port au Prince hotel. Even more criticism has been leveled against them because of the return to Haiti of two powerful men whose apparent goals are to intimidate the people and to prevent the holding of an election.
One is Gen. Williams Regala, whom many hold responsible for the election day murders in 1987. The other is Roger Lafontant, a notorious leader in the last Duvalier regime whose name still strikes terror among Haitians who know of his former misdeeds. Their presence symbolizes the ineffectiveness of the Government and casts doubt on the ability of the army and police to protect citizens during the coming election period.
Economic crises also plague the country. The Government is already far behind in fuel payments, and there is doubt each month that it can raise cash for transportation and other needs. Unemployment may be as high as 80 percent, foreign investments are scarce and only a trickle of tourists are visiting Haiti's extraordinary historical sites. Paradoxically, these increasingly obvious troubles have awakened among many Haitians a strong determination to improve their political system.
There can be successful elections in Haiti if the U.N., Organization of American States, the U.S. and other nations will support a troubled but courageous people who hunger for freedom, justice and a better life.
The O.A.S. is eager to cooperate if moderate financing is made available. The U.S. has promised several million dollars to help with the election. Canada will provide paper for the ballots. West Germany has indicated a willingness to furnish motorbikes for election workers. Venezuela has offered to sell oil on favorable terms and to make additional contributions of services, supplies and money. It is hoped that other nations will help make possible this long overdue move toward democracy.
A crucial decision next week will be made in the U.N. The U.S. has strongly supported an unprecedented request from the Haitian President in July for U.N. election observers and security advisers. All the Haitian political leaders with whom I met said that such observers will be essential for a free election. The time has come for the U.N. to act as courageously for democracy in Haiti as it has for peace in the Persian Gulf.
Jimmy Carter, the former President, is chairman of The Carter Center of Emory University.