Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Barbara Lee, who led a caucus delegation to Haiti yesterday to observe that calamity-stricken nation’s tumultuous election, said today that “the jury is still out” on whether that vote was free and fair.
“The polling places we went to, the turnout didn’t appear to be very high,” Lee, D-Oakland, said, noting that although some people had suggested to her that turnout was low in the morning because many people were in church, turnout seemed low in the afternoon as well.
“I talked to Sean Penn, we had a quick meeting – he’s doing phenomenal work there, but of 5,500 people in his camp, only 750 were eligble to vote,” she said – a common problem throughout the camps in which Haitians displaced by January’s massive earthquake are still huddled.
Without permanent addresses, many had to re-register to vote, Lee said; about 380,000 people applied for new voter registration cares, but only about 250,000 had been distributed before yesterday’s vote. Haiti doesn’t have a system of provisional ballots as we have here; if you’re not on the voter rolls at the polling place, you don’t vote.
“It appears as if there were a lot of people disenfranchised,” she said.
What with the earthquake, last month’s lashing by Hurricane Tomas and a cholera outbreak still in progress, “it’s overwhelming in terms of all the challenges,” Lee said.
But she said the delegation also was told that out of 1,500 polling places, only a few dozen had some problems, very few of which actually turned violent. It’s too early to tell whether reports of disenfranchisement, fraud and tumult were isolated anecdotes or a widespread pattern, she said.
In general, Haiti has made some good progress in recovering from its awful year, Lee said; for example, rubble-removal efforts have progressed noticeably since her last visit a few months ago. But Haiti simultaneously must recover from centuries of economic exploitation and political oppression, she said, and that’s going to take a lot longer. “The next president will have to take the country to the next step, and it’s going to be very challenging, but I believe it can be done.”
Accompanying Lee on the trip were House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C.; Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich.; Del. Donna Christian-Christiansen, D-Virgin Islands; caucus chairman-elect Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Tex.; Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio; Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Tex.; Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla.;, Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Calif.; Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.; and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb.
The delegation arrived in Port-au-Prince yesterday morning and was briefed on the election by Kenneth Merten, the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti, before meeting with senior Haitian government officials and visiting a voting center. In the afternoon, the lawmakers took part in a working lunch with several non-governmental organizations involved in overseeing the elections; visited another voting center; got a situation report from the Organization of American States-Caribbean Community Electoral Observation Mission; and then received a final election briefing from a special representative to the United Nations Secretary General before flying back to Andrews Air Force Base.