Officials Close Border, Pledge Tight Security for Haitian Vote
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ The government Saturday closed the Dominican border and barred civilians from carrying weapons, tightening security on the eve of an attempt to hold the first democratic vote since a 1987 election day massacre.
The army urged ″calm and serenity″ and said it would take whatever measures necessary to ensure a safe election Sunday.
In a statement published by the state-run newspaper L’Union, the Army High Command said it reaffirmed its commitment ″to do everything possible to guarantee maximum security.″
In a series of security measures announced Saturday, the provisional civilian government closed the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic until Tuesday. The two countries share the island of Hispaniola.
Officials gave no reason for the move, but there has been talk of worry about the possibility of armed mercenaries crossing the border to disrupt the election.
The government, led by President Ertha Pascal-Trouillot, also barred all private citizens not involved in the security operation from carrying weapons through Tuesday.
The government also prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages during the election period and restricted traffic on Sunday to cars with election permits and a few bus and taxi companies.
The capital of Port-au-Prince, with an estimated 1 million inhabitants, bustled with the usual Saturday traffic congestion and shopping at crowded marketplaces.
White vans flying blue-and-white United Nations flags ferried international election monitors around the city.
Police stopped cars on John Brown Avenue, the main thoroughfare, and checked for registration papers, but the security forces were mostly out of sight. No problems were reported from the countryside, and expectations of a successful election were running high.
″It looks, as far as anyone can tell, A-OK,″ said Ismael Diallo of the African nation of Burkina Faso, spokesman for the 130-member U.N. monitoring team, which includes 64 unarmed military security advisers.
″I regret now that I didn’t register to vote in October, but I was too afraid,″ said Huguette Pierre, 24, an unemployed switchboard operator.
Haiti’s last attempt to hold democratic elections, on Nov. 29, 1987, was aborted when assassins supported by the army shot and hacked to death at least 34 people at polling stations and in the streets.
Subsequent elections in January 1988 were controlled by the army and boycotted by most leading contenders in the previous election.
The only disturbance so far in this campaign was a grenade-and-bomb attack Dec. 5 that killed seven people and wounded more than 50 others at a campaign rally for the Rev. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the apparent front-runner.
Diallo said the U.N. observers had no confirmed reports of irregularities at any of the 14,500 polling stations across the country, which were being prepared. The Electoral Council, revising earlier estimates, said Saturday that 2,970,000 people, or about 90 percent of those eligible, are registered to vote.
U.N. observers will be on hand at polling stations at 5:30 a.m. Sunday, one-half hour before polls open, and remain until they close at 12 hours later. They are among an estimated 800 international observers, including former President Jimmy Carter, in Haiti for the election.
The Electoral Council said it did not expect to release any results before noon Monday.
Aristide, a leftist Roman Catholic priest with a large following among the majority poor, is considered a front-runner, and U.N. spokesman Diallo said widespread speculation of an Aristide landslide posed a potential security threat.
″If they (Aristide supporters) win by a landslide, there is some concern they may overreact,″ Diallo said. ″If they lose, some may not accept it.″
Rumors were circulating that Aristide supporters were preparing big celebrations Sunday while polls were still open, the U.N. official said.
Although the army has pledged to ensure a smooth election, sympathizers of the fallen 29-year Duvalier dictatorship oppose any move toward democratic government.
Last week, the self-proclaimed head of the Tonton Macoute militia vowed to prevent an Aristide victory.
″We will do everything to prevent this danger,″ said Roger Lafontant, who himself was barred from contesting the election. ″My country will never be delivered to Communism.″
The Tonton Macoutes violently enforced the Duvalier dictatorship for 29 years.
Haiti, an impoverished Caribbean nation of 6 million people, has been ruled almost exclusively by despots since gaining independence from France in 1804 after a slave revolt.
Aristide, 37, who was expelled from his ecclesiastical order in 1988 for allegedly preaching class struggle, is widely regarded as the front-runner among 11 presidential candidates.
However, former World Bank official Marc Bazin, seen as a favorite of the Bush administration because of his international business ties, could command strong voter support.
Aristide’s anti-imperialist rhetoric has made U.S. officials wary, but he has presented a moderate, though somewhat vague, election platform calling for a ″dignified″ relationship between the two countries.
At a news conference Saturday, Carter said he had received assurances from electoral officials that the army would ensure the safety of voters.
He said he had spoken with Aristide and was somewhat concerned over the priest’s attitude that his victory was ″inevitable.″
″It’s not a fatal problem,″ the former president said, adding that he himself always had predicted victory in his election campaigns.
If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held in late January.
Haitians also are electing 110 members of a bicameral National Assembly, 134 mayors, 268 municipal council members and 1,695 county officials.