MR. TONER: Good afternoon and welcome, Embassy Haiti. Hello, Ambassador. After the devastating earthquake of January 12th, Haiti has faced extraordinary challenges, not the least of which was last month’s Hurricane Tomas, and now it confronts a serious cholera outbreak. But Haiti will also be holding planned elections this Sunday, November 28th, and so we’re pleased today to have with us our U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten, who has confronted these challenges on the front lines of our international response, and who will now give us an overview and discuss some of the details on Haiti’s upcoming elections.
Ambassador, over to you.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Perfect, thank you so much. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We are five days away from presidential and legislative elections here in Haiti, and we thought this would be a good opportunity to affirm our support for the Haitian peoples’ right to participate in free, fair, and transparent elections on November 28th. This is something we have discussed with the Haitian Government and various elements of the Haitian population for a long time. Given the issues the next president and the next legislature will have to confront here in Haiti in terms of providing vision for Haiti’s future and a program for implementing that vision, we hope to see broad participation amongst the Haitian population in this important election. We urge Haitians to go out and vote and to exercise their right to do so.
While this is the fifth presidential election to take place in Haiti since the end of the Duvalier dictatorship, I think everyone is aware of the issues that arose in the aftermath of the January 12th earthquake. And before any preparation took place, the first thing the Haitian Government and the United Nations examined was the feasibility of holding these elections, from registering new voters, replacing lost or destroyed voter cards, ensuring sufficient voting centers, and tackling the question of where displaced persons could vote.
They concluded that these elections could take place, and we have supported that process. We have provided $5 million in electoral fund – to the electoral fund administered by the UN Development Program, and our contribution went towards materials such as paper for ballots and ballot boxes.
While much remains to be done this week, the process is on track: 250,000 new voters were registered and more than 11,000 voting stations have been identified. Overseeing the electoral process is the Haitian Conseil Electoral Provisoire, or CEP, and they are the agency charged with ensuring that these elections take place in accordance with Haitian law; namely, that they are free, fair, and transparent. We expect the CEP to carry out its duties in fulfillment of Haitian law and with the transparency that befits democracy and that the Haitian people deserve. We emphasize that there must be transparency in the hiring and training of poll workers.
Security is also an issue on everybody’s minds, and the Government of Haiti and the UN have thought a lot about this very subject. The Haitian National Police is in charge of election day security with support from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti, or MINUSTAH. MINUSTAH is also assisting the CEP with much of the logistics for the elections, including transporting ballots and monitoring the vote count.
There are a number of observers in Haiti, including the Joint Electoral Observation Mission, an effort of the Organization of American States, or OAS, and the Caribbean Community of Nations, CARICOM. This mission, headed by Ambassador Colin Granderson of Trinidad and Tobago, has been on the ground in Haiti since August working with the CEP and other political actors to observe the process and listen to grievances.
The mission is expected to have over 100 observers in Haiti who will deploy throughout the country to monitor the electoral process. We have supported this mission from the outset and believe it is performing a crucial role, and we look forward to hearing their continued assessments of the process.
Haitian civil society groups will also have important work to do, and we estimate that there will be between 5,000 and 7,000 Haitian electoral observers keeping an eye on things. Over the years, we have invested – invested a lot in promoting political parties and grassroots organizations, including $8 million in grants to the National Democratic Institute and the International Institute for Electoral Systems this year. We believe that democracy is more than just elections and it includes a vibrant civil society. Funding to NDI and IFES served to assist voter registration –excuse me – recruitment and training of poll workers, training of domestic election observers, and development of nonpartisan voter education materials. We believe that these initiatives will increase the accountability and effectiveness of the CEP.
So between Haitian civil society, the Joint Electoral Observation Mission, and other groups, there will be a lot of eyes watching the process and ensuring that it is free, fair, and transparent. We have been encouraged by the effort to date and hope that the Haitian people go out and exercise their right to choose their president and their legislators.
Thank you very much for coming today, and I will be delighted to take a few questions.
MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll start here in Port-au-Prince. Do we have a question for Ambassador Merten?
QUESTION: Hi. Can you talk a little bit about the – hi, can you expand a little bit on the security situation given the (inaudible) issues with (inaudible)? Is the U.S. prepared to intervene if there’s issues with stability, or what does the U.S. (inaudible)?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Thank you. We’re confident in MINUSTAH’s ability in coordination with the Haitian National Police to handle the situation that we have here on the ground. As you know, the MINUSTAH components have been here for a long time. There’s been a lot of preparation going into this in terms of logistics and considering what possibly could happen. Obviously, nobody can prepare for every possible eventuality. But I remain pretty confident that we have that – I should say that we, the international community and the Haitians, have personnel on the ground that they need. And we’re not anticipating any U.S. involvement beyond what we have here right now.
QUESTION: A number of articles have come out recently, arguing that this election is not free and fair, cannot be free and fair given the exclusion of a number of political parties. Forty-five congresspersons as well as Senator Lugar have raised that question, particularly the exclusion of Fanmi Lavalas – other parties from the election by the CEP. What is your comment on that? Is it – I mean, is it correct that these parties have been excluded on political grounds, or do you see this as a legitimate exclusion? How can this election be free and fair when you have so many critics saying that it cannot?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Yeah, I understand there have been criticisms of this. However, I think if you look at the sheer number of participants, you have 19 candidates from across the political spectrum running for president, you have over a hundred candidates, again, from across the political spectrum running for senators. I think you have a pretty good representation of the Haitian body politic.
Regarding Lavalas, I think if you look at just the presidential candidates, there are at least five I can I think of off the top of my head who are former Lavalas members, who are people who are associated with – still with Lavalas. So I think their representation as a part of those running for various offices is pretty significant. I think it’s – we need to keep in mind that what is happening here is fulfillment of the Haitian constitution, which mandates that elections have to take place on November 28. We think that’s – that is important, that those requirements to the Haitian constitution be met.
I also think that in this period of – just quite frankly, this has been a difficult year for Haiti. I think it is important that the political process move forward. We are going to need a partner here in the post-election period, whoever gets elected both in the legislative and presidential election. We’re going to need some partners here who can make decisions, who have a mandate – a fresh mandate from the Haitian people. And we believe we’ll be able to find those partners here.
MODERATOR: Back there.
QUESTION: Hi, (inaudible). You might have said that one of the protestors (inaudible), that there have been some forcesdeliberately trying to destabilize the country, taking advantage of the situation. (Inaudible) and can you stand on (inaudible) and A, whether – who these forces might be and what are their names? And then I (inaudible).
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Right. Quite perfectly frankly, I don’t think we have a really completely clear picture of who those people were who were fomenting unrest up in the North. There are – there is no shortage of people with suggestions as to who may be behind it, there – and that those suggestions go across the political spectrum and the social spectrum here in Haiti.
I think the important thing to remember is that things have calmed down and the United Nations has been able to respond and is doing its job, again, with coordination of the Haitian police, with the Haitian police. I think as we move forward towards Election Day, we’re – I believe that they will be able to fulfill their mandate as outlined.
I believe I’ve answered your question, or did I miss part of it? Sorry. Yeah. Okay.
MODERATOR: Mark, I guess we’ll turn it over to you in Washington.
MR. TONER: Perfect. Thanks so much. Nicole, you had a question?
QUESTION: Mr. Ambassador, thanks for this briefing. This question might not fall under your brief, but I’m wondering what – can you hear me? Can you hear me? It doesn’t look like he can.
MR. TONER: He’s (inaudible). He can hear.
QUESTION: Oh, okay. I’m wondering what the U.S. has done to deal with the public health challenge of containing the cholera epidemic while still getting people out to the polls.
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: Well, the U.S. has done a great deal in partnership with many NGOs here on the ground, the Haitian Government, UN organizations, and other donors to combat this cholera outbreak. We have been transporting and importing rehydration solution, making sure it gets out to people. Our colleagues from CDC, which there are quite a few here right now, have been training Haitian and other trainers so that people can go out to the countryside and talk to people and help people learn how to get the treatment they need and get the care they need, because cholera is, in effect, a very treatable malady if you catch it in time and give it the proper treatment. We’ve been very active in that regard, as have many of our donor partners.
Again, I go back to my earlier assessment. I think these are Haitian elections. The Haitian Government believes that they don’t see a reason, a public health reason, for these elections not to take place. I think as long as people are informed, as I think they increasingly are, of how they can protect themselves from cholera and what treatment to seek should they be unfortunate enough to be exposed to it, I think that will – that is – should be sufficient to deal with any problems we might have.
I’m not anticipating problems in this regard on Election Day. I think it is important that these elections go forward and then take place.
MR. TONER: You had a question, sir? Go ahead, Goyal.
QUESTION: Thank you. Raghubir Goyal. Mr. Ambassador, according to some reports, many people are not even getting basics from the last tsunami or from earthquake and also now, just following my colleague, about this disease, how you think this will affect the elections, opposition or the ruling party?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: I think what you’re talking about are challenges that Haiti faced, frankly, before the earthquake and before the cholera outbreak and before Hurricane Tomas passed. As I think we can all appreciate, Haiti has had some challenges in terms of infrastructure, in terms of the capacity of the Haitian state to reach people in the way that they would – way they would desire. We believe that with the people here on the ground, whether they be from the United Nations, donor countries, other partners of Haiti and a very large NGO community here, we believe we are helping to deal with this issue under the leadership of the Haitian Ministry of Public Health. And I don’t see that what you’re talking about really means that elections shouldn’t take place. These are problems and challenges that existed before. I hope I’ve answered your question.
QUESTION: One other thing, actually, for this election is going to have any impact on what happened or what is happening there, and if anything U.S. can do more or the international community?
AMBASSADOR MERTEN: We meet and discuss on this subject every day and meet with our colleagues to try and determine what more we can usefully do to help the Haitian people confront this issue. This is not a static process. This is not something where we’ve decided we are going to do X and X is all we’re going to do. We continue to evaluate and see what we can bring to bear to be most helpful.
But again, I’m not really sure that discussing this in terms of the election is really all that germane. I see them as two separate issues. We have a cholera problem here, which is something that the Haitians and we are all grappling with, which is a major public health challenge here. And we have the elections which should take place, need to take place, and we are here to support that effort.
MR. TONER: Okay. Any other questions here? No? Back over to you, Port-au-Prince. And we’re leaving you now. I think you’re going to take some questions in Creole and French. And so thank you very much, Ambassador, for sharing some of your insights with us, and we very much appreciate it.