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Three Haitian Presidential Candidates Hold US Debate

Three of the candidates in Haiti's upcoming presidential election faced off in a rare public debate Sunday in the U.S. city of Boston. The three-hour debate was an unusual political exercise for Haitian presidential candidates, who are struggling to distinguish themselves in a crowded field of 34 people running in the election.

Two of the three visiting candidates bear the scars of their country's tormented political history.

Judith Roi, a vocal critic of ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was jailed for eight months in 2003 on charges of plotting a violent insurrection. She is only the second female presidential candidate in Haitian history.

Evans Paul, was jailed and tortured for speaking out against the military dictatorship of General Prosper Avril in the 1980s.

Charles Romain is a former minister of education and former member of the council that oversees elections.

Through 10-minute opening statements and two-minute responses to questions, the three attempted to explain how they hope to rescue the poorest and most unstable country in the Americas from political, economic and environmental ruin.

All three agreed on the need to rebuild the country from scratch, differing only in what should come first.

Mr. Paul said that first and foremost Haiti must part with its long history of violent government overthrow.

"Haiti can't jump start the economy or improve social integration without creating the atmosphere of political stability, without democracy or justice," he said.

For Ms. Roi, the political situation is secondary to a more pressing problem: an unemployment rate she estimates at 80 percent.

"We must, above all, curb unemployment," she said. "The common denominator of all Haiti's problems is unemployment. All the other problems - delinquency, social crime, political crime - come after.".

One of the toughest questions in the debate came from moderator Yves Cajuste, of the Boston-based French Center for Haitian Studies.

Mr. Cajuste says the candidates have repeatedly mentioned the phrase, "We must create, we must ameliorate, we must develop," and asks them, "Where will you find the money for this?"

The responses were vague. Ms. Roi said the money won't come from the sky, but offered no concrete alternatives. Mr. Paul said people will invest in Haiti as soon as the country is more stable, and candidate Charles Romain replied the money should come primarily from within Haiti.

Many potential Haiti investors say they are waiting for the stability they hope will follow elections, but some worry the vote will be sabotaged by boycotts, violence or fraud. Because of logistical problems, elections have already been postponed, and the vote for president is now only tentatively set for some time in December.