Canada feared popular uprising in Haiti after quake
A boy bleeding from the head grimaces after he was beaten during looting of quake-damaged stores in Port-au-Prince, Thursday, Jan. 21, 2010. Sporadic looting broke up in the capital as earthquake survivors scavenged for anything they could find in the rubble left by the powerful earthquake that hit Haiti last week. (AP / Ramon Espinosa)
MONTREAL - In the chaotic days following the Haitian earthquake, the Canadian government feared the country was at risk of a popular uprising, according to secret documents obtained by The Canadian Press.
As Haitians await results of the recent presidential election, the documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs detail Ottawa's deep-seated concerns about the Caribbean nation's leadership in the two months following the January 2010 earthquake.
They refer to Haiti's "constitutional no man's land" and the need to affect a "real paradigm shift" in its political system.
Obtained through access-to-information legislation, the documents suggest Ottawa's response to the crisis was in large part driven by concerns for the stability of the Haitian government.
"Political fragility has increased the risks of a popular uprising, and has fed the rumour that ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, currently in exile in South Africa, wants to organize a return to power," says one briefing note marked "Secret."
The document adds that helping Haitian authorities was necessary "to keep the Haitian public's trust and to contain the risks of a popular uprising."
Canada ultimately deployed 2,000 soldiers to help with the rescue effort.
Aristide returned to Haiti earlier this month, against the wishes of the United States and just days before the second round of voting in the presidential election.
The former leader had been living in South Africa since being ushered from Haiti in 2004 by international forces, including Canadians, who stood by as a violent anti-Aristide uprising approached Port-au-Prince.
Canada has played a key diplomatic role in Haiti since then, rallying international support for the governments that followed Aristide's. It has given Haiti $555 million in aid in the last five years.
Coupled with the return of another divisive figure, one-time dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, many in the international community warned Aristide's presence would further disrupt the electoral process.
Aristide's old political party, Fanmi Lavalas, has been barred from taking part in elections, even though he remains popular with Haiti's poor.
But in what may be a surprise for critics of Ottawa's Haiti policy, the documents reveal Canada has been arguing for the group's return to the political process.
Ottawa's position is stated as seeking a compromise so that "Fanmi Lavalas can participate in legislative and presidential elections," putting it squarely at odds with the outgoing Haitian regime led by Rene Preval.
Preliminary results from the second round of voting in the presidential election were originally expected to be released on Thursday, but officials say they are likely to wait until Monday in order to deal with a "high level" of fraud and other irregularities.
Final election results are due April 16.
Results from the first round of voting kicked off several days of riots when government-backed candidate Jude Celestin did better than expected.
Haiti's international backers eventually pressured electoral officials to have him dropped from the second-round ballot.
The contest is now between Michel Martelly, a popular carnival singer who goes by the name "Sweet Micky," and Mirlande Manigat, a well-known political figure and former first lady.
The winner will lead a country in dire straits. Little has been accomplished in terms of reconstruction and health workers are still struggling to stem a cholera outbreak.
Foreign Affairs officials painted a bleak picture of the challenges posed by the aftermath of the earthquake.
"Haiti... faces a political void, rendering it vulnerable to a number of threats including criminal gangs as well as political spoilers and manipulators," one briefing reads.
The country's new leader will also have to deal with the ambitions of foreign patrons, including Canada.
In one briefing note, Canadian government officials call for a reconstruction effort that "will involve a fundamental, structural rebuilding of society and its systems from the ground up, beginning with the very fabric of society."
They add that "while overcoming a legacy of elitism, corruption and polarized socio-economic classes will be a formidable feat for Haiti, creating a society which is more inclusive, empowered and engaged is critical to building a strong and prosperous country in the long term.