Dismayed by the decision to rerun controversial and fraud-plagued presidential elections, the US State Department announced on Thursday a suspension of electoral assistance to Haiti. State Department spokesperson John Kirby said the decision was communicated to Haitian authorities last week, noting that the US “has provided over $30 million in assistance” for elections and that the move would allow the US “to maintain priority assistance” for ongoing projects.
Kirby added that “I don’t have a dollar figure in terms of this because it wasn’t funded, it wasn’t budgeted.” However multiple sources have confirmed that the U.S has withdrawn nearly $2 million already in a United Nations controlled fund for elections. Donor governments, as well as the Haitian state, had contributed to the fund. Prior to the US move, $8.2 million remained for elections.
The pulling of funds indicates the growing displeasure with Haitian authorities’ decision to rerun last year’s presidential elections.
“We’ve made no bones about the fact that we had concerns about the way the process was unfolding,” Kirby told reporters on Thursday. During a July 4 address, US Ambassador to Haiti Peter Mulrean was even clearer: “We had difficulty understanding the decision … to start the presidential election from scratch.”
According to University of Virginia professor Robert Fatton, the withdrawal may be the “typical punishment” for “feeling insulted by the decisions taken by the people in its so-called ‘backyard.’”
“We believe it’s the sound thing to do, the right thing to do, for the people of Haiti in the long term,” Kirby said about the suspension. The Haitian government and electoral authorities have previously indicated a desire to fund elections from its own coffers.
“We already made ourselves clear: Haiti will make all effort to find the $55 million to do the elections,” presidential spokesman Serge Simon told the Miami Herald. “If no one comes to our assistance we will manage because the priority for us is the elections,” he added.
“Haiti organizing its own elections with its own funds is a very good thing,” Fatton said. While noting that it would not guarantee a cleaner election, Fatton continued “This new reality may finally compel Haitians to blame or congratulate themselves for the outcome, and it represents a small but important step in the country’s recovery of a modicum of its national sovereignty.”
Second-round presidential elections, scheduled for January, were scrapped amid allegations of fraud and increasing street protests. The handpicked successor to former president Michel Martelly had placed first, according to the since discarded results. The US, European Union, United Nations and other donors that make up the “Core Group” in Haiti all endorsed the results as credible.
With no president-elect waiting, Martelly stepped down when his term ended in February. The legislature elected a provisional president from the political opposition – Senator Jocelerme Privert.
Privert, with the strong backing of civil society organizations, local elections observers and a wide swath of the political spectrum, created a verification commission to audit the previous election. The five-member panel found evidence of “zombie votes” — representing hundreds of thousands of votes — as well as widespread irregularities and recommended tossing the results. Haiti’s electoral council, heeding the recommendations, scheduled new presidential elections for October.
European Union election observers, disagreeing vehemently with the decision, pulled out of the country. The Organization of American States (OAS), after initially backing the results, pledged to respect the Haitian-led verification process and new electoral calendar. However the US suspension of electoral assistance may impact the OAS’ ability to continue monitoring the electoral process.
The US provided $1 million to the OAS for its electoral observation mission last year.
Some have expressed concern that the US suspension of assistance could have greater ramifications for the electoral process. “The fact that the US is pulling $2 million from the ‘election basket’ may be a sign that it is prepared to delegitimize the forthcoming elections if the results do not coincide with its interests,” Fatton said.
Asked prior to the announcement if the US was concerned that the withdrawal of funds could undermine the legitimacy of the elections, State Department Public Affairs Officer Joseph Crook did not immediately respond, later pointing to the Thursday press briefing. Kirby repeated that “these are decisions that [Haitian leaders] have to make, and we want to continue to urge them to make the right ones.” The State Department once again pointed to the press briefing when asked if they were discussing with other donor countries the possibility of pulling election funding.
The United Nations and “Core Group” countries previously warned that the decision to rerun elections and extend the electoral process could have implications for bilateral assistance. Organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, have stated that the ongoing electoral process would impact new funding decisions.
The suspension of US assistance could also have more immediate political ramifications in Haiti. Provisional president Privert, initially given a 120-day mandate that expired in June, is awaiting a decision from parliament on whether he will be able to stay on until new elections are held or if a new interim leader will replace him. Though Privert seems to have majority support in parliament, certain members from the minority have maneuvered to block quorum and prevent a vote from taking place.
Martelly’s political party and its allies argue that Privert lacks legitimacy and must resign. The US decision will likely embolden those voices. Any funds allocated from the Haitian state for the new elections would likely need to be approved by the parliament.
This week, the Washington DC-based Haiti Democracy Project brought two parliamentarians — both opposed to Privert — to the US for meetings with Congressional staff and US government representatives. The delegation is advocating for the holding of the scrapped second round election and the removal of Privert. James Morrell, the Executive Director of the Haiti Democracy Project, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.