Haiti: Not for Amateurs

Amy Wilentz (amywilentz.com)

Amy Wilentz, The Nation, January 27, 2011
Lost in the uproar over the return of Jean-Claude Duvalier to Haiti and his to-ing and fro-ing from hotel to courthouse to hotel to mountain home, is the much more important political crisis. On election day in November, only 22.3 percent of Haiti’s eligible voters cast their ballots in what turned out to be an election plagued with fraud.

The reason for the low turnout was apathy, coupled with the catastrophic loss of identity papers in the earthquake of January 2010. Given the miserable conditions of so many Haitians since the earthquake, the anemic turnout provided resounding evidence that Haitians don’t believe their vote matters.

And they are right. Many parties were kept out, including the popular party of Haiti’s first freely and fairly elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been living in exile in South Africa since a coup backed by the international community forced him from power in 2004. Many see post-Duvalier Haitian politics as a back-and-forth between the forces who support Duvalier, a prototypical right-wing strongman, and those who support Aristide, theoretically a leftist prodemocracy leader. Although this analysis is grossly simplistic, it is also partly true.

Despite personal and political flaws, Aristide is a stand-in for the Haitian people, and his fate symbolizes the political fate of most Haitians, who are excluded from what now passes for the democratic process. The fighting for position in the ongoing election is mostly about who will control the valves on the stream of post-earthquake reconstruction dollars—in the billions—that are supposed to arrive once a new president is seated; not one of the major candidates is widely popular, although Michel Martelly, a compas bandleader whose music is well-known in Haiti’s urban centers, has a broad fan base there.

None of this much troubled Haiti’s current president, René Préval, a former Aristide protégé, until Jude Célestin, the candidate he had been backing, was eliminated from the runoff vote by the Organization of American States in its preliminary report on the election results. That was when it became clear to Préval that he was not the master of this ceremony. Until election day he’d been led to believe that this was his candidate’s election, but in the end the international community turned against him. At this point, how the vote actually went is pretty much irrelevant, since the OAS and the rest of Haiti’s international advisers have steamrollered the possibility of a recount.

The OAS report found that Martelly and not Célestin had come in second and thus should be in the constitutionally mandated runoff against frontrunner Mirlande Manigat, an educator and former first lady of Haiti. (Both Manigat and Martelly are to the right of center.) The January 16 runoff was indefinitely postponed, not least because it was unclear which candidates would be on the ballot. Préval, one of whose great qualities is his stubbornness, at first dug in his heels and refused to accept the OAS decision, running the risk that, like Aristide, he too would be thrust aside. On the day the runoff was to have taken place, the Haitian people instead witnessed the return of Duvalier, smiling and waving from a hotel balcony like the queen of England.

Indeed, Ricardo Seitenfus, the OAS special representative in Haiti, reported that as early as election day itself, the forced expulsion of Préval was being discussed at a meeting of the “Core Group,” which includes representatives of donor countries like the United States, France and Canada, as well as the OAS and the United Nations. Préval says the Core Group did offer him a plane out of Haiti, which he refused. “At around noon, they called me,” he said in an interview at the palace recently. “‘It’s no longer an election,’ they told me. ‘It’s a political problem. Do you want a plane to leave?’ I don’t know how they were going to explain my departure, but I got rid of that problem for them by refusing to go. I want to serve out my mandate and give the presidency over to an elected president.” As we go to press, Célestin is being pressured by his own party to concede.

If Célestin had placed into the runoffs and gone on to become president, it would have meant continuing power for Préval behind the scenes. Already, with twenty years of public service (he became Aristide’s prime minister in 1991 and served his first term as president from 1996 to 2001), he has been the longest serving leader in Haiti since François (Papa Doc) Duvalier, Jean-Claude’s more infamous father, and together the Aristide-Préval relay has been ruling longer than almost any other chief executive.

Would more Préval be good for Haiti? An agronomist who ran a bakery and was briefly a waiter in New York, Préval has led a largely benign administration, the opposite of the Duvalier dynasty, offering Haitians broad freedom of expression and assembly. But the tolerant attitude of Préval’s government is just the public face of a 12,000-troop UN de facto occupation that has “stabilized” unrest since Aristide was ousted in 2004. You can be pretty laid-back if the UN is stabilizing your streets. Unfortunately for Haiti, the UN’s mandate is only to stabilize, not to improve, so it’s just a repressive force. With their millions of dollars, the troops have built nothing for the people under their control—only UN bases, UN commissaries, UN restaurants, UN grocery stores, UN landing pads etc.

Even though Préval has permitted thousands of outsiders to come in to help Haiti since the earthquake, very little has been accomplished since the initial weeks of emergency care. In part this is because Haiti is thought of as a training ground for young people getting their first taste of development and foreign aid work, as if the plight of the Haitian people were just an interesting test case—a neat, accessible database for some cool experimentation. But Haiti’s problems are not easy to solve. As Seitenfus says, “Haiti’s not for amateurs.”

Nice is not enough, as Préval has learned. Haiti needs a muscular, hands-on government that addresses the structural problems of its political culture, which predate the earthquake and have been exacerbated by it. It needs a government that will not accept the norms of the international community, for example reflexive privatization, massive NGO participation, easy penetration by the global economy—all the things that destroy local production and employment. Préval has not accepted these, but neither has he been strong enough to get out from under them, despite having turned to Latin America for support. Above all, Haiti needs a government strong and self-confident enough to rise above a rapacious, power-seeking business class (local and foreign) that sometimes manipulates and sometimes colludes with the international community to get its business done.

Meanwhile, as of this writing, Duvalier is still in town. His shadow floats over the country like an evil spirit. As the baby dictator moves across the mountainside suburbs in decoy cars from rich friend’s house to rich friend’s house, Aristide figuratively stamps his foot with impatience in South Africa, sending word to supporters that he wants to return to Haiti “as a simple citizen in the field of education.” Duvalier’s return caused a teeny little dust devil to twirl along the streets of Port-au-Prince, stirring up memories of detention, torture, starvation and death, but arousing little in terms of popular support. Were Aristide to return, however, he would raise a political whirlwind so strong that UN forces, constrained by international opinion, would hesitate to try to beat it back. So Haiti must continue on, trying to find some middle ground in the unfolding catastrophe, knowing all the while that without a great, commanding and honest leader—a broker for the people who could help guide Haiti’s splintered but passionate grassroots democratic movement in building lasting institutions—that middle ground is quicksand.