In September 2004, much of Gonaives was destroyed by floods that killed more than 2,000 people. The rest of the last two years in Haiti have been marked by a decline in an economy that was already the weakest in the hemisphere, and ongoing gang violence and political unrest.
Still, many Haitians remain hopeful. Forty-nine-year-old Barrett Cajuste said he got up at 4:30 Tuesday morning to reach his voting center an hour's walk away by six a.m., when it was supposed to open. He waited in line for an hour before voting.
"I'm here because I want a change in my country," he said. "I've never been employed in my life because there's no employment in this country. That's the change I want because I have three children, and school is expensive. There should be state-funded school for everyone."
The hope and determination of many Haitians have been put to the test. Some 80 percent of eligible Haitians registered to vote this year -- one of the highest rates in the world, according to an Organization of American States (OAS) spokesperson.
But many of those who registered still faced hurdles. Voter ID cards, made by a Mexican company contracted by the OAS, came in behind schedule. Many who had registered reported walking long distances almost daily to see if their voter card had arrived yet.
On Monday afternoon, the eve of elections, there were still dozens of people waiting in line to pick up their voter cards.
Others discovered problems when they picked up their cards. Some found they were being sent kilometres away to vote despite the presence of polling centers in their neighborhoods. Some didn't know how to get to their assigned voting centers, and some were assigned to a center outside their own political districts, making it impossible to vote for their own representatives in Parliament.
One candidate for the lower house said he could not vote for himself, and election workers said some people in a region south of Gonaives were assigned to voting centers 27 kilometres from home.
Still, electoral observers predicted that logistical problems in and of themselves were unlikely to change the outcome of the vote. They said violence was a more significant concern. But tensions were high in some areas due to logistical problems.
Though observers reported no organized violence, there were four elections-related deaths and some injuries. Two individuals died after being swept up in pushing and shoving crowds outside voting centers in greater Port-au-Prince. Local radio reported one suffocated and one fainted.
Later, police reacted to increasing tension in a crowd outside a voting center by shooting into the air. One police officer shot and killed a member of the crowd, and other members of the crowd reacted by killing the police with machetes.
Electoral problems around the capital were largely straightened out in the course of the day. Voting centers across the metropolitan area were slow to open, and one large voting center for the residents of the sprawling slum Cite Soleil was nowhere near readiness for use, infuriating would-be voters.
The center, meant to accommodate several thousand voters, never opened. Hundreds took to the streets to protest, marching into Port-au-Prince, and chanting, "Vote or no vote, Preval is president!"
Rene Garcia Preval, Aristide's hand-picked successor as president in the latter half of the 1990s, is the front-runner across Haiti, and especially in some of the capital's poorest neighborhoods.
At midday Tuesday, the national electoral council held a press conference, calling for calm and assuring that Cite Soleil residents could vote at other centers. By the end of the day, observers reported that most of Cite Soleil's 60,000 registered voters had cast their ballots. And across the country, voting center crowds diminished throughout the day, and closing times were extended to allow everyone to vote.
Asked about the Election Day killings, UN mission spokesman Damian Onses-Cardona said it was not an important part of the elections. What is the most important part? "The high turnout," he said. "Absolutely."
Some voters expressed a similar optimism -- especially those who had already voted. Jesuit Gentil stood outside one of the largest voting centers in Gonaives, where more than 18,000 people were assigned to vote. His thumbnail was colored with black marker to show he had cast his ballot.
"The vote went well," he said, "and it's a pleasure for me today to see the Haitian people have the will to choose an honest, credible president to represent them."
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February 7, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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