By Michael Deibert *
Presented to the Applied Research Center and the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, August 2009
Submitted to AlterPresse on 10 October 2009
At present, Haiti is passing through a delicate and significant period, one which, while giving hints of hope, also provides ample grounds for caution.
Though there have been significant and laudable improvements in the country’s security situation under the mandate of Haitian President René Préval, inaugurated in May 2006, these gains remain fragile and Haiti’s political situation relatively tenuous, and two stubbornly recurring factors of Haiti’s political life will have to be addressed in order to concretize them.
Though he has been criticized in some quarters for ineffectiveness, I believe that it is hard to overstate the impact the restoration of relative peace around the country since Mr. Préval took office has had on the life or ordinary Haitians. Whereas only a few years ago the authority of the state extended little even in the capital, Port-au-Prince, where entire neighborhoods were held in the sway of various politically-affiliated armed gangs, citizens of the capital, including those in poorer quarters, can now largely go about their business without the ever-present fear of being kidnapped or being caught in an exchange of fire between the gangs, Haitian police and forces of the 9,000 member Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH.
Haiti’s long-crumbling road system is being gradually rehabilitated, especially in the country’s south, and its ever-erratic electricity situation has also improved somewhat. The appointment of Michèle Pierre-Louis, a respected and independent-minded civil society leader who formerly directed the Fondasyon Konesans Ak Libète (Knowledge and Freedom Foundation or FOKAL), as Prime Minister in September 2008, should also be viewed as a positive sign in a country where the Prime Minister’s office, technically the head of government according to Haiti’s 1987 constitution, has often meant little more than a rubber stamp for the presidency.
On the economic front, there has also been some good news, with the June announcement by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the the Inter-American Development Bank collectively canceling $1.2 billion of Haiti’s debt, in one broad stroke erasing almost two-thirds of the country’s outstanding debt. The latter institution went even further, approving an additional $120 million in grants to aid Haiti in improving sectors such as infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention.
Also, in the United States, the Haitian Hemispheric Opportunity through Partnership Encouragement Act of 2008 (HOPE II), with strong support in the U.S. congress, built yet further on a 2007 measure that provided certain Haitian textiles with duty-free status when entering the United States, perhaps a boon for Haiti’s long near-moribund textile industry.
The amelioration of Haiti’s security situation is, in my view, due to several factors, not the least of which has been the steady and principled leadership of Mario Andresol at the head of the Police Nationale d’Haiti (PNH), bringing back competence and accountability to an institution that, during the 2001 to 2004 rule of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and to a lesser extent the 2004 to 2006 interim government that ruled Haiti before Mr. Préval’s election, was viewed chiefly as a highly politicized bludgeon used by Haiti’s executive branch against its enemies, real or perceived.
A projected five year UN-supported police reform program is now in its third year of implementation, currently providing Haiti with 9,200 police officers, with that number projected to grow to 10,000 by year’s end. For a police force that numbered only 3,500 at the start of the UN mission (of whom over 1,500 had to be dismissed), the target of 14,000 police officers by the end of 2011 would not seem overly optimistic. This surge in police recruits is a far cry from the situation between September 2004 and June 2005, during which a PNH officer was being murdered every five days in Haiti. On the judicial side of law enforcement, Haiti has recently re-opened its school for magistrates after being shuttered for many years.
However, there are some structural problems to Haiti’s political culture that need to be addressed if the calm that we have seen in Haiti over the least few years is to be anything but cosmetic, and if a longer process of both political and economic development can occur.
By now everyone is no doubt familiar with the litany of woeful statistics that so often get repeated about Haiti in gatherings like this: The fact that over 4 million of Haiti’s nearly 9 million people live on less than US$1 a day, that only the people of Somalia and Afghanistan suffer from higher rates of hunger, that 90 percent of Haiti’s tree cover has been destroyed for charcoal and to make room for farming, resulting in erosion that has destroyed two-thirds of the country’s arable farmland and leaves it vulnerable to torrential floods such as those caused by a trio of hurricanes that killed at least 600 people last year.
As already noted, some steps are being taken at an international level to address Haiti’s economic woes and, though far from adequate, small steps to try and address Haiti’s environmental disaster are being taken by such indigenous groups as Tèt kole ti peyizan Ayisyen and the Mouvman Peyizan Nasyonal Kongre Papay.
Despite this, though, I believe that the two hard grains in Haiti’s political culture that must be addressed, both by the Haitian government and by the international community, if the changes I have outlined are to be anything more than temporary. These grains are those of impunity and corruption, the continuing presence of which have the ability to undermine all of the progress that we have so far seen.
The guilty pleas this past May of two Miami telecommunications executives, Juan Diaz and Antonio Perez. in connection with their roles in a conspiracy to pay and conceal more than $1 million in bribes to former Haitian officials during the Aristide’s government’s tenure is a step in the right direction, but it unfortunately has yet to be see reciprocal prosecutions on the Haitian side for those who accepted the bribes.
Despite the ratification of the UN Convention against corruption by Haiti’s parliament in 2007 and a vigorous speech about the problem of corruption in Haiti by Préval in May of that year, as a Haitian friend of mine recently told me, corruption is a low-risk, high-return initiative in Haiti, one has every chance of becoming very rich, and very little chance of being punished.
Going hand-in-hand with a culture of corruption and impunity, historically in Haiti, armed government loyalists with no formal law enforcement role have essentially became contractors of the state, a phenomenon that held true with the Tontons Macoutes of the 1957-1986 Duvalier family dictatorship, the attaché of the 1991-1994 defacto era and the chimere of Aristide’s 2001-2004 mandate. Under the aegis of the state, such affiliated members, rewarded irregularly through various forms of government largess, were allowed to exist as a competing armed group to the official security forces, and given free reign to commit some sickening crimes, such as the April 1994 killing of Aristide supporters in the northern city of Gonaives and the February 2004 massacre of Aristide opponents and civilians in the central Haitian town of St. Marc, the latter a crime for which no one has as yet been tried.
Though this phenomenon, as far I can tell, is no longer present at the heart of Haiti’s government today as it has been in the past, the aba/avie option of mob politics remains an attractive one to many of Haiti’s political and extra-political actors, as we saw with the riots of May 2008 and recent chaotic protests in favour of raising the country’s minimum wage.
Legitimate grievances can quickly be manipulated by those seeking instability in Haiti for criminal or political gain.
Though there is a palpable difference now from the years of the second Aristide government and the interim government, when police and security services were objects of fear and distrust in the country and brazen corruption existed at the very pinnacles of power, the Haitian public now needs to feel that the police and judiciary are responsive institutions, not simply commodities that, like so much in Haiti, are for sale to the highest bidder and out of reach of the ordinary citizens.
By my count, there have been 7 UN missions in Haiti over the last 17 years, all of which had been requested by the Haitian government in power at the time. There can be 7 more over the next 17 years, but I believe if these two core issues are not aggressively and substantively addressed, the international community risks only solidifying the already deep and decidedly deserved skepticism that many Haitians have for the political process as it currently exists in the country, as evidenced by recent feeble electoral participation, and the institutions propped up by it, both local and foreign.
The people of Haiti, and by this I mean the poor majority, need to feel that they have some sort of stake in the kind of society that Haiti’s politicians, business elite and the international community are trying to create, because without the reality of a power structure that is responsive to the needs of its citizens and transparent in its governance, the window of
opportunity that we are currently provided with will shut rapidly, and those hoping for its closure, and along with that continued drift and anarchy in Haiti’s political system, will once again step into the void, to the detriment of Haiti and its people.
* Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.
His blog can be read at www.michaeldeibert.blogspot.com