Throngs of voters turned out for elections in Haiti, exactly two decades after the downfall of the Duvalier dictatorship and almost two years after populist president Jean Bertrand Aristide was forced out of office. Tuesday's election took place in a country wracked by violence, political turmoil, and poverty -- in which a United Nations peacekeeping force has been unable to completely restore order.
Haitians have gone two years without a democratically-elected president -- ever since President Jean Bertrand Aristide was ousted.
Mr. Aristide, a former priest who had a wide following among Haiti's poor, had been overthrown before in 1991 but was returned to power by U.S. troops in 1994. He was elected again in 2000, but his rule was marred by corruption and violence -- and tension between his government and Haiti's minority elite. Despite this, he remains popular among many poor Haitians -- and the leading candidate in Tuesday's vote, former President Rene Preval, is viewed as his protégé.
However, Robert Maguire of Trinity University in Washington says Mr. Preval, who governed the country in the late 1990s, appears to have put some distance between himself and Mr. Aristide.
"There's no doubt that in the past Preval and Aristide were very, very close; in fact they were called ‘The Twins,’ said Mr. Maguire. “And Preval was Aristide's prime minister in 1991 when Aristide was elected and stuck with him throughout. But they are not twins anymore. I think Mr. Preval has distanced himself both personally and politically from Aristide."
According to reports, many voters believe if Mr. Preval is elected, he would allow the exiled former president to return. But the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., Raymond Joseph, says this would be a mistake.
"If Aristide were to come back then I would expect the same cycle of violence and problems that he installed in Haiti over the past 15 years. So it's up to the person who becomes president to know whether he is going to invite him," said the ambassador.
Tuesday's vote is the latest chapter in Haiti's struggle to emerge from poverty and destitution. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where life expectancy is only about 50 years.
Haiti's interim government, led by technocrat Gerard Latortue, has been faulted for its inability to improve conditions. Also, the UN peacekeeping force led by Brazil that was deployed in 2004 has failed to stop rampant violence.
Ambassador Joseph says the situation would have been different if U.S. troops were on the ground now.
"I think the Haitians have more respect for American marines than they have for Brazilian soccer players,” said Mr. Joseph. “They love the Brazilian soccer players but they respect the marines, and if the marines had stayed a little longer perhaps we would not be in the mess we are today."
But Haiti expert Maguire draws a different lesson from the events of the past few years.
"If Haiti is a weak state, which it no doubt is, in order for it to strengthen itself you've got to strengthen the institutions. The dilemma being: what if you don't like the leader? Well, if you don't try and find a way of working with the state and strengthening its institutions it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that this state is going to fail and is going to become chaotic."
Despite the election, Haiti's future remains uncertain, as does the future role of the international community in the Caribbean nation.