Haiti Special Coordinator and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Kenneth Merten on Haiti's Roadmap Towards Completion of the Electoral Cycle

Special Briefing
Kenneth H. Merten
Special Coordinator for Haiti 
via Teleconference
February 17, 2016

MS PFAFF: Good morning, everyone, and thanks for joining us. We have with us here today Haiti Special Coordinator and Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Kenneth Merten. He’s here to discuss the evolving state of play in Haiti’s roadmap towards completion of the electoral cycle. Today’s call will be on the record. We’ll start with some brief remarks at the top, and then we’ll open it up for your questions.

So with that, I’ll turn it over to the special coordinator.

MR MERTEN: Hi, everybody. Thanks for taking the time to join us today. I appreciate it – appreciate your interest in Haiti. I think from – some of you who I know who are on the call I know follow Haiti very, very closely; others perhaps not on such a regular basis. But I hope what we’ll be discussing today will be germane for all of you.

I think we – the United States has been interested in Haiti for – and in democracy in Haiti for a long time. And I think we recently welcomed this February 5th agreement that President Martelly and the presidents of the two chambers of parliament came to. I think we recognize that challenges remain, as Haiti moves towards the completion of its electoral cycle with voting due to take place on April 24th. But the success of the February 5th agreement between these parties depends on the interim leadership’s commitment to implement the terms of the agreement on the timeline that’s outlined in it. Our goal here is to, again, to ensure that the Haitian people have a chance to have their voice heard about who determines their leadership. Their voice has already been heard in terms of populating both the upper and lower house, largely, of parliament, and the presidential election process now needs to run its course.

As one of Haiti’s many international partners, the role of the U.S. is to support and strengthen democracy in Haiti. And we’ve been active in doing that in many different ways for over 30 years. For Haiti’s many challenges, fully functioning and legitimate democratic institutions will also facilitate and make more sustainable the work of the United States and our other international partners, with the goal of improving the quality of life and improving economic opportunity for Haitians. We support the expeditious conclusion of this electoral process with an outcome, as I said, that reflects the will and the desire of the Haitian people.

The upcoming elections and the incorporation of the recommended steps by the Independent Electoral Evaluation Commission to improve the transparency and fairness of this third round of presidential – of the elections will enhance citizens’ overall confidence, we believe. And the swift convocation by the provisional president of concerned sectors within society to designate new members of the provisional electoral council we think is very important because it will give this new CEP a chance to learn their jobs, learn – time to learn to avoid mistakes that have been made in previous CEPs.

So again, once again, we support, the United States supports credible, transparent, and secure elections that reflect the will of the Haitian people, and we believe that only a democratically elected government provides the legal legitimacy to govern Haiti and provides the Haitian people with the transparency we certainly believe that they deserve.

So that’s pretty much it for my opening statement. I’m happy to take some questions.

OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press *1 at this time. And one moment please for the first question.

Your first question comes from the line of Amelie Baron. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, hi. This is Amelie Baron from Port-au-Prince. Mr. Merten, you talk about the agenda in the agreement. Are you confident that the election will happen on April 4 – 24th, as you said?

MR MERTEN: I think so. I mean, people chose those dates knowing what they represent. This is, as I mentioned, a Haitian agreement that was reached among Haitian parties. They knew what they were doing when they chose those dates. I think obviously there are chances, as in any country, for dates, deadlines not to be met, but our sincere hope and our efforts are going to be to encouraging people to meet their – the deadlines as they’ve been set, and to do what we can to help – if requested, to help facilitate that process.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Carrie Kahn. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: This – thank you so much for doing this. But I just have a question: The statement that you just gave was really nothing changed than what you’ve been saying all along. Are you – why now are you speaking out? Are you concerned about the process as it’s going forward? And also, what gives you more confidence that they can pull off elections February – on the 20 – I’m sorry, April 24th, when they haven’t been able up to date?

MR MERTEN: Well, let’s look back here. I mean, we did have elections in August and we had elections in October, the first two rounds of the three-round series. So elections – we’ve had elections to seat a parliament, which has happened, which we were very – we think is a big step and one we’re very grateful to see. I think we know what is – what happened in the preceding months. Our position hasn’t changed. What we have always believed and continue to believe is that the Haitian president should be chosen, as reflected in the Haitian constitution, by the Haitian people. And the only way to do that is through elections, which is why we have supported elections these many years in Haiti and continue to do so and will continue to do so. So there’s nothing new. I think we – one of the reasons we’re doing this is just to get our point of view out there, to people who have questions; we want to be open and answer questions that you and your colleagues have about where the United States stands in its support for Haiti in this endeavor.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Frances Robles. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, good morning. I guess I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about how much money the United States spent on this electoral process in Haiti, yet it was such a problematic – nonetheless. So when you look back at the 30 million that was spent, have you evaluated to think, okay, maybe we should have spent – redirected this in this direction versus that direction?

MR MERTEN: Well, I think we always do a sort of after-action review of these. And I think we are – obviously, have looked back on what is going on. I think – look, as I mentioned earlier, it is important to note that Haiti has a functioning parliament now for the first time in over a year. Our support of these elections has been in large part to ensure that that happened and that Haitian people have their – have themselves represented in both houses of parliament. So in that respect, I think it is something that we – we’ve certainly been very happy to see as a result of our investment in the elections process. I think you need to – I think we need to note that the elections in October were peaceful. I think in retrospect when we look at the work of the evaluation commission and others, I think people have pointed to things that could have been improved. Our efforts certainly since October have been to work with the then-CEP in place, to work with them, encouraging them to address the shortcomings that were noted by the evaluation commission and by others.

So I think – again, I think it is – I think we recognize that not everything worked perfectly, but I think we and all the other partners, and including the folks in Haiti who ran the election, realized that steps needed to be taken, and they were in the process of taking them to fix those challenges that existed in October. I think our efforts moving forward are going to be to work with the new CEP to give them the benefit of whatever information that our partners such as IFES and other folks on the ground can have. And hopefully they can benefit from that expertise.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Calvin Hughes. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Mr. Merten, thank you very much for doing this. And from the last question, I just sort of wanted to follow up on the figures, the numbers for the new election. How much is the U.S. Government going to invest in making sure that the elections go off on April 24th, or whenever they decide to do it? And my second question is this new provisional government and the new president, Mr. Privert, he has the option, I believe, of not using the two candidates who are in the race – Celestin and Moise. He could actually open up the runoff, the presidential runoff, on April 24th to more candidates. Is that true? I heard that when I was over there a couple of weekends ago to interview Martelly. Is it true that he can open up the race to other candidates?

MR MERTEN: Two questions there, so make sure you hold me to answering both of them. So the first one on the expenditures, we’ve so far spent, as I understand it, $33 million in support of these – of the election process so far. I don’t think we have an analysis or a cost estimate from either the – our Haitian partners on the ground or from other folks yet as what, if any, additional funds are going to be necessary. My guess is that there will be additional money necessary, certainly from the Haitians to put into these elections and probably from international partners. I don’t think we have a good figure for that yet, so I’m not going to put out a figure until we know something concrete, until we have a good ballpark figure.

In terms of opening up the elections, I mean, that is – I don’t have the agreement in front of me, but that is not my understanding. I think, as I recall, the agreement talks about a completion of the process. And the process so far, I mean, has resulted in two candidates, Jude Celestin and Jovenel Moise, proceeding to the next round. From what I have understood from observers on the ground that – they understand that that is what the results showed, and my guess is that’s what’s going to happen moving forward.

But I think that is – we will – we’ll see what happens. But I don’t think there is any – any expectation that the election will be opened up to more candidates. I don’t think that is legal according to the electoral decree nor according to the Haitian constitution. It’s my – as I recall, it says the top two vote getters will move on to the final round if nobody gets over 50 percent. So there is no provision, as I understand it, for opening it up to more candidates.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Amelie Baron. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. In his (inaudible) speech, Preval spoke on the international – talking on the interference – U.S. and the OAS was at that time much more involved in the election, especially for Martelly, and there’s a lot of suspicion that the international community is also interfering too much in the political affair. What is your answer to Preval’s speech was letting know that the internationals should stay (inaudible)?

MR MERTEN: Well again, I think we’ve been very clear all along in emphasizing that this is a Haitian run process. These are Haitian elections. We, the international community, have been invited in to participate with technical expertise and with the money that we bring to enable these elections to take place. So I don’t necessarily agree that there’s been any interference in the process. I think I would certainly like to underscore the fact that our involvement effectively enables these elections to take place, and I think we’ve been very careful in every Haitian election to not interfere.

But to – again, our goal has been and remains to be to allow the Haitian people to have their voice heard in choosing their leadership, not to have their leadership chosen by other people who may or may not be acting on their behalf, but to have the Haitian people have the ultimate choice in who’s going to represent them in parliament and who’s going to be their leader as president.

OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1. Next we’ll go to the line of David McFadden. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thanks for having this call. Just curious if you think that there’s a strategy now by some political factions to make the transitional government last for two years.

MR MERTEN: Well, I mean, I think there are – there have been those people who have been pretty open about their belief that the need for a transitional government – in their belief that a transitional government needs to be out there and needs to be active for, say, a two-year period. That has – that is not our view. Our – again, our view is that elected officials are the ones who need to be representing the Haitian people whether that’s in parliament or whether that’s in the executive branch.

I think a lot of these recipes for transition governments don’t really necessarily follow the strictures of the Haitian constitution, and I think as a partner of Haiti our belief is that in our work that we try to do to be good partners and good neighbors with Haiti as a hemispheric neighbor, we work in a whole broad range of areas, whether it’s health, whether it’s increasing economic opportunity, whether it’s helping develop Haiti’s infrastructure. And having legitimate authorities in place in line with the Haitian constitution makes it much easier, makes it unquestionably easier for us to do that kind of work.

So that’s one of the reasons we are – we really believe that completing the electoral process, having people in power who enjoy that power because they got there legally through the Haitian constitution and through elections is really the best way forward. And I think if you look back at transitional governments in Haiti in the past, I think we have seen these periods as times when work at addressing the chronic challenges that Haiti faces doesn’t really progress very well. People spend a lot of this time focused on the politics and not really on advancing the developmental goals that we want to help Haiti achieve.

So I think – I hope that’s answered your question.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Jacques (inaudible). Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, good morning, Ambassador Merten. I am going to ask my question in English, so I will appreciate if you answer in English and Creole as well. Many sectors in Haiti think 120 days is not enough for the president to organize the elections. What is the Washington position?

MR MERTEN: As I said earlier, I think the people who organize – who came to this agreement knew what they were doing when they signed up to it. There is precedent for these dates in the past. I think if everybody is focused on meeting their deadlines, focused on doing their work and moving the process forward, I believe that these deadlines can be met.

So just to say – repeat it quickly in Creole. (In Creole.)

OPERATOR: And at this time there are no further questions.

MR MERTEN: Sure. Anyway, I just wanted to say to everybody thank you again for your interest in Haiti and discussing this. Like I said, Haiti remains of great interest to the United States, and I think getting the election process completed with an outcome that the Haitian people will feel comfortable and confident in is our goal. And we are, again, very eager to continue to work with – work with the Haitians and the Haitian Government to continue to address the challenges, the developmental challenges that Haiti has. And again, thanks again for your interest.