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26 May 2000

Finding a way out of the crisis:
courageous commitment by Haiti's churches

by Nathalie Baud

Despite the climate of fear and violence prevailing in the country during the past few weeks, parliamentary elections did take place in Haiti on Sunday 21 May. The churches played a significant role in the electoral process.

On 3 April this year, the Catholic and Protestant churches of Haiti addressed a joint message to the nation, in which they reminded the authorities of their duty to organize elections as soon as possible. This was the first time that Catholics and Protestants had publicly taken a joint stance in Haiti, and the step underlines the gravity of the situation and the extent of the churches' concern. However, the public commitment of Christians in Haiti does not stop at words. For several years now they have been engaged in a vast effort of civic education. The country's democratic institutions have been suspended for over a year, and Haiti's Protestant churches have mobilized as never before to press for the holding of democratic elections and to prepare the people for casting their vote.

The Haitian Protestant Federation (HPF), which groups together all the country's Protestant churches, from Baptists and Evangelicals to Methodists and Episcopalians (Anglicans), used the medium of radio to encourage Christians to exercise their civic rights. For a number of years, "Radio Lumière", an evangelical radio station funded by HPF, with a large audience in Haiti, has produced a daily civic education programme called in Creole "Haiti Plus : Pou' le monde changer!" ("to change the world"). It is a phone-in programme, with some thirty listeners calling the Radio Lumière switchboard every day to talk about their day-to-day concerns. An invited guest, always a committed Christian, answers them. The message of the programme is clear. Taking texts from the gospel like "You are the light of the world", it sets out to convince its listeners that the people of Haiti can take their destiny into their own hands and that Christians should get involved in politics. Like six other radio stations in Haiti which have been producing this type of civic education programme for several years, Radio Lumière has shown considerable courage. The last programmes of this kind were broadcast by Radio Lumière and the other stations on 3 April 2000, the day on which the celebrated Haitian journalist, Jean Dominique, who ran the radio station "Haiti Inter", was assassinated.

The Haitian Protestant Federation has also trained more than 500 young leaders who in turn have been engaged in civic education in all the parishes in the country. One of their aims is to equip people to decide for themselves whom to vote for and why. They encouraged voters to elect candidates who have already done something useful in political and public life and to inquire into the honesty of the candidates standing for election. In a country with an illiteracy rate of 55%, and a list of more than 29,000 candidates, these precautions clearly make sense.

The Haitian churches have also been very active in organizing the monitoring of these parliamentary elections. Two hundred international observers travelled to Port-au-Prince but, for the first time, the Haitians decided to set up a citizens' observer mission. With 30,000 national observers, 1000 of them directly recruited by the churches, this is the first election in Haiti to be held under close supervision by the people themselves. According to Edouard Paultre, the general secretary of the Haitian Protestant Federation, Christians have played a leading role in mobilizing Haitian civil society for free and fair elections. He reckons that 40% of the Haitian observers are committed Christians.

It is now several days since the polls closed but the work of the observers is not finished. Numerous irregularities have been noted and the observers, Christian and non-Christian, now have to record these in their report. Failure to respect the secrecy of the ballot, inadequately trained staff in the polling stations, attempts to influence voters, intimidation of observers, not to mention the ballot boxes left unattended after the polls closed - even optimists like Edouard Paultre expected problems of this kind and these elections are likely to be strongly protested.

The Haitian churches and many leaders of Haitian civil society continue to hope nonetheless that the truth about these elections will prove the point: In the year 2000 more and more people in Haiti want to take control of their own destiny. One sign of this was the first press conference called in Port-au-Prince on 16 May by the Initiative for Civil Society, which groups together employers, trades unions, private and public sectors, the medical world and the churches. The people of Haiti want democracy, but not at just any price.

The men and women elected to government or to the opposition will in future have to reckon with a civil society which has been fighting for stronger democratic institutions and the end of the partisan struggles that have ruined this country. Gathering strength since the fall of the dictatorship in 1986, this civil society today seems to have become a significant force on the political scene in Haiti.

Click here for photos from Haiti
Nathalie Baud's photos from the visit available upon request.

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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.