WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (search) said Tuesday that Haitian authorities must move more quickly to prepare for presidential and parliamentary elections set for Nov. 20.
Rice called the elections a potential "new start" for Haiti as the country tries to overcome two decades of democratic failure accompanied by widespread political violence.
She met with Haiti's interim leadership, President Bonaface Alexandre (search) and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue (search)(search), at the presidential palace after a helicopter trip over the area, where she could see row after row of ramshackle housing, evidence of Haiti's underdevelopment.
"Elections can be a very important and precious step along the road to democracy," Rice told a news conference with Latortue at her side. Calling the vote a "powerful weapon," she urged Haitians to exercise it in November.
Thirty candidates for president have been approved by the country's electoral commission. About 700 candidates have registered for legislative elections.
Rice said Haitian authorities must accelerate the pace of electoral preparations, including the selection of sites for polling places and registration of electoral workers. She urged Haiti to take advantage of electoral services offered by the United Nations and the Organization of American States (search).
Latortue said he shared her concerns.
The elections are the first since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was forced from office in February 2004 during a revolt against his rule. The Bush administration has provided almost $400 million in electoral and other assistance to Haiti since early 2004 and almost $200 million is budgeted for 2006. U.S. troops were sent here in the aftermath of Aristide's departure and remained in Haiti until U.N. peacekeepers were deployed in June 2004.
The Brazilian-led force, which also includes significant contributions from Argentina and Chile now numbers 7,600.
Repeated efforts to install stable constitutional rule in Haiti have failed over the years but the United States, with a big assist from U.N. peacekeepers, is eager to see the country turn a corner this time.
The State Department did not announce Rice's trip until less than 24 hours before her early morning departure Tuesday, a sign of uneasiness about the potential for violence during her visit.
When former Secretary of State Colin Powell traveled to Haiti 10 months ago, gunfire erupted outside the presidential palace not long after he arrived there for talks. It was not clear whether the violence was related to his visit.
Politically motivated violence has erupted frequently in Haiti since Aristide's departure. Haitian authorities hold Aristide's supporters largely responsible. But police operations in pro-Aristide neighborhoods have often turned deadly. Aristide is living in exile in South Africa.
The 15-nation Caribbean Community suspended Haiti's membership shortly after Aristide fled the island during last year's revolt. The Caribbean Community (search) maintains the post-Aristide government is unconstitutional.
Aristide's supporters contend that the United States forced him from office. The administration says he left voluntarily.