By Michael Deibert *
Submitted to AlterPresse on November 3, 2009
It was said that during the reign of Jean-Jacques Dessalines - liberation icon, military dictator and “emperor” who ruled Haiti from 1804 until 1806 - a certain level of corruption was tolerated and dismissed with the phrase plumez la poule, mais ne la faites pas crier. Pluck the chicken, but make sure it doesn’t squawk. That tradition of corruption has been a woeful constant in Haiti’s political life since Dessalines was assassinated over 200 years ago.
Another chapter in the disregard for honesty and transparency that infuses the marrow of Haiti’s political class was written last week with the ouster of Haitian Prime Minister Michèle Pierre-Louis by a parliament dominated by the allies of Haitian President René Préval, who appointed Pierre-Louis to the position a little over one year ago.
Since she assumed office in September 2008, Pierre-Louis was probably more responsible than any other single individual in beginning to restore some level of confidence in Haiti’s government and in encouraging the stirrings of international investment in a nation of industrious but desperately poor people all-too-often written off as an economic basket case. During her tenure, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the the Inter-American Development Bank collectively canceled $1.2 billion of Haiti’s debt, while the latter institution approved an additional $120 million in grants to aid Haiti to improve such sectors as infrastructure, basic services and disaster prevention.
Having previously led FOKAL, a civil society group supported by businessman and philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Institute, Pierre-Louis was well-regarded both at home and abroad for her personal incorruptibility, and displayed a surprisingly adroit political touch on the international diplomatic stage.
That being the case, one might then ask why Haiti’s senate, dominated by partisans of Préval’s LESPWA political current, chose this moment to oust Pierre-Louis under the almost-laughable rationale that, in her year in office, she had not solved the problems caused by two centuries of what Haitian writer Frédéric Marcelin in 1904 called “civil strife, fratricidal slaughters, social miseries, economic ignorance and idolatrous militarism.”
With the ouster of Pierre-Louis spearheaded by such LESPWA stalwarts as Senators Joseph Lambert and Jean Hector Anacasis, and with René Préval himself remaining publicly silent as the plot to remove his Prime Minister came to its inevitable and absurd conclusion, there appears to be an explanation as simple as it is depressing for removing Pierre-Louis at a moment when Haiti finally appeared to be gaining some international credibility: The Prime Minister was standing in the way of some powerful people making quite a lot of money.
Government insiders speak darkly about millions of dollars in aid money being siphoned off via the Centre National des Equipements, a body established by the Préval government to aid in Haiti’s efforts at reconstruction after a trio of hurricanes killed at least 600 people last year and further devastated the country’s already fragile infrastructure. The machinations of the Groupe de Bourdon, a cabal of allegedly corrupt businessmen with firm roots in Haiti’s elite who have the president’s ear, are also mentioned as culprits. Many of the leaders of the drive to oust Pierre-Louis in Haiti’s senate are also individuals around whom allegations of corruption - and worse - have swirled for many years.
Pierre-Louis’ assertion to me when I interviewed her in Haiti this past summer that “chaos is good for a few sectors” and that Haiti’s political system would reject anyone who would not allow themselves to be corrupted now appears to have been prophetic .
After his return to office in 2006, René Préval succeeded, against all the odds, in bringing relative peace to Haiti after years of bloodshed, something for which he should be lauded in no uncertain terms. However, the weight of corruption, along with a tradition of impunity, is continuing to strangle Haiti under his watch, and the ouster of Michèle Pierre-Louis is a worrying sign for Haitians who have long sought in vain for decent leaders who would build a government responsive to the nation’s poor majority.
The fact that Pierre-Louis’ replacement, Jean Max Bellerive, served in the personal cabinets of both Jean-Marie Chérestal and Yvon Neptune, Prime Ministers during the 2001-2004 tenure of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, an era that was marked by both widespread corruption and political violence, is cause for further concern. Bellerive has more than once been described to me with the rather nasty Kreyol phrase se yon ti poul ki mare nan pye tab yo, an allusion to someone who essentially does whatever they are told.
So the forces of disorder have won this latest round in Haiti. No doubt Haiti’s parliamentarians and perhaps even Préval himself are congratulating themselves at their cleverness, with the country’s corrupt bourgeois no doubt equally thrilled to now have a government with a popular base that will more or less allow them to continue unmolested with their nefarious activities.
But, as Haiti’s politicians strut around in expensive suits and travel over decaying roads in SUVs with impressive armed escorts, they seem not to realize that they should take no pride to occupy the position that they occupy with their country in such a state, a fact that remains equally true for many of Haiti’s economic elites.
Since the deployment of an international peacekeeping mission in Haiti in February 2004, almost 50 members of the United Nations mission in the country and thousands of Haitian civilians have lost their lives to political violence, criminal banditry and environmental catastrophes whose severity is directly linked to the inability of the country’s political class to create some semblance of a state to serve its people. This despite the presence of 7 UN missions to Haiti over the last two decades. Haiti’s long-suffering people deserve better than the country successive generations of leaders have bequeathed to them.
In his finest novel, 1955’s Compere General Soleil, Haiti greatest novelist, Jacques Stephen Alexis (who would be slain by agents of dictator François Duvalier in 1961), wrote of the journey of a pair of Haitians home from near-slavery in the neighboring Dominican Republic that “the closer they came to the promised land, the more they felt the net tightening around them.”
The net of corruption has been tightening around Haiti for far too long, and one hopes that those remaining honest people in Haiti’s political and business sectors, and Haiti’s genuine friends abroad, may find the tools to cut free that confining web that has succeeded in almost choking the life of the country that once taught the world so much about freedom.
* 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