PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti Democracy, a universal ideal pushed relentlessly by the United States, gets another chance in Haiti on Sunday when citizens are scheduled to elect a new parliament and hundreds of local officials.
But in Washington, Haiti has largely been forgotten.
The democratic ideals introduced at gunpoint by U.S. forces six years ago are a distant memory for Edith Jean, who huddled this week with three small children avoiding the armed gangs who last year killed her 16-year-old son, Sedrac.
Like most Haitians, she was euphoric when 20,000 American soldiers arrived in 1994, bringing the exiled president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, back to his eagerly awaiting homeland.
Mrs. Jean, 42, thought that the streets would soon be safe, her children would for the first time go to school, and that she would be able to earn enough for two and even three meals every day. Those hopes have disappeared.
For many, if not most Haitians, despair has long since replaced the euphoria. The U.S. soldiers are gone and when Mrs. Jean and others awaken on Sunday morning, they will listen for gunshots before deciding whether to go out to vote.
“In your country, when people vote they don’t have to worry about getting shot,” Natalie Beaubrun, a 30-year-old shop clerk told a visiting American reporter.
Those gunned down in recent weeks include a prominent priest, a doctor, a politician and the nation’s most popular radio personality. All were critical of the government.
Instead of dusty streets filled with the shouts of campaign revelers, one can scarcely tell that an election lies ahead. Most candidates from the 33 opposition parties have dropped out of sight. Some have even pulled their names off the ballots.
To many, the contest seems eerily reminiscent of 1987, when hundreds died during another election campaign. On the day of the vote, army thugs sprayed polling stations with gunfire, killing 30 and ending Haiti’s first-ever attempt at free elections.
“It could easily happen again,” said Evelyn Paul, 25, a hospital worker. Apart from political killings, common crimes such as kidnapping and robbery have also soared. A civilian police force set up with U.S. help during the intervention has been largely ineffective.
Unlike in the past when bandits relied on knives and machetes, today they have guns, which are thought to have been confiscated from the Haitian army that was disbanded by Mr. Aristide when he returned.
Those with political grudges also find guns readily available and have little qualms about using them.
When someone is gunned down, witnesses either claim to have seen nothing or refuse to testify, fearing they will meet a similar fate. None of the political murders of the past two months has been solved. Now, with days to go before elections, it is not even certain that polling stations will open.
Western governments and international institutions like the World Bank refuse to release $500 million in foreign aid until freely elected lawmakers sit in parliament something that has not happened since January 1999 when President Rene Preval dismissed parliament and began ruling by decree.
The government has since managed to register more than 4 million Haitians for Sunday’s vote, giving outsiders the hope that democracy will once again bloom. But Haitians whisper quietly that militants within the ruling Fanmi Lavalas Party conducted the recent killings in an attempt to keep the elections already postponed three times from happening.
Spokesmen for the Fanmi Lavalas Party deny any connection to the killings and condemn the violence, but Mr. Preval himself has been virtually silent. So has his predecessor and mentor, Mr. Aristide, who was overthrown in 1991 and returned to power by American troops three years later.
“Since ‘91 people have been accusing Aristide of all sorts of things, and it is not surprising that they are accusing the Fanmi Lavalas of being behind all the violence, and President Aristide denounces it,” said Danny Toussaint, a Aristide confidante and candidate for the Senate.
Among the killings, perhaps the most shocking was that of Jean Dominique, a radio personality and longtime supporter of both Mr. Aristide’s and Mr. Preval’s governments.
Mr. Dominique was gunned down last month as he entered his radio station on a mountain overlooking Port-au-Prince. Just days earlier, he had said on air that he was the target of a hit and had named a close adviser to Mr. Aristide as the one responsible.