Election Day in Haiti

12/09/2010 05:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At mid-morning on Election Day, Iman sat cross-legged outside her tent in a refugee camp in Hinche, Haiti, hunched over a bowl of beans. When asked if she would vote, she chuckled, rolled her eyes and continued opening the pods with her fingers.

A black pot was starting to boil on a cooking fire and two small children with distended stomachs eyed the food anxiously, hoping for a bite. Through the open flap of the tent, Iman's attempt at decoration -- three strings of cheery, colorful plastic flowers swaying from the crossbars -- contrasted the hopelessness that hung over the camp of about 90.

After 11 months of receiving limited food rations from an aid organization and collecting water from the home of a community member, Iman was longing for self-sufficiency like in the days before the earthquake when she lived in modest concrete home in a Port-au-Prince slum.

"When I was in Port-au-Prince, it was a better life," she said, head bowed and eyes focused on the beans. "I had a little business selling drinks. It wasn't much but it helped pay for my kid to go to school."

That kid is a skinny, disheveled 18-year-old boy with whom Iman shares her tent. It's spacious accommodation compared to nearby families of five or six squeezed together.

Iman heard the candidates' pledges to help. Mirlande Manigat, the former first lady, championed universal education. Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly wanted efficient delivery of social services. Charles-Henri Baker, a businessman, proposed growth through the private sector.

Each platform was designed to give Iman hope. But, she saw more potential in her son than in the government -- if only she could still afford his schooling.

"Look at my boy," she said. "He was in [secondary] school in Port-au-Prince studying medicine. But, you have to pay at the beginning of every month for school. So, sometimes he misses a month because we don't have the money on time."

More people should be worried about the future of Iman's son. It wasn't just fraud and violence that marred Haiti's first election since the Jan. 12 earthquake. The relative Election Day peace in Hinche revealed a bigger source of disenfranchisement -- the lack of proper education.

"There is a problem with this election and it's that the people can't read," said Leres Jean-Baptiste, a candidate who ran for one of 99 deputy positions in the Haitian Parliament. "The names that are written and glued to the wall, they have problems seeing it on the paper and reading it."

Jean-Baptiste's education is his pride. Standing in a three-piece suit at a polling station in a primary school, he explained he was fluent in four languages and credited his degree in international relations to his success in business and politics.

Although he openly broke election rules by campaigning in a voting center, he had a point.

Haiti has no universal public education. Schools are mostly privately owned, for-profit and expensive. Parents pay on average $12 per month, a significant expense when 70 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day.

That's produced a national literacy rate of only 53 percent.

Illiteracy is not always visible. In Hinche, it turned an empowering civil right into a demoralizing struggle.

At one voting station on the grounds of the Ministry of Education, an observer explained to an older man, "J -- Your names begins with J." As he directed the man to his alphabetical spot on the list, a young man searched for a woman's name because she couldn't decipher the letters.

Most voting stations were set up in dilapidated primary schools. Candles lit windowless rooms and math problems were visible on chalkboards through a haze of dirt kicked-up from the floor.

They were a reminder that this is how children learn every day. They showed that even when the international community spends $25 million on an election, democracy is impossible when a dysfunctional education system prevents people from demanding accountability.

As of mid-November, Canada had only given $150 million of the $500 million promised towards Haiti's reconstruction. When we make good on the rest, schools need to be a major focus of reconstruction in order to empower the populace.

It's empowerment that Antony felt when he went to vote. The 27-year-old agriculture student poured over platforms and made a decision. But, a half-hour before polls closed, he had visited multiple polling stations and still couldn't find his name on any list.

While frustrated at the system, the young man explained voting is just part of his civic duty. Whoever wins, he will keep them accountable through knowledge of their platforms and promises.

"I'm a student and my hope is that I can continue my education along with others," he says. "That's why I go out and vote, so I won't have another person talk for my country."