PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haiti knows about suffering. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it has spent the better part of its more than two hundred years as an independent republic under the relentless siege of natural disasters, economic destitution, violent upheavals and widespread corruption. Yet, Haiti has proven remarkably adept at diverting its attention away from its multitude of pressing problems -- pervasive unemployment, lack of infrastructures, a malfunctioning legal system, poor access to education and health care -- to focus instead on the futile power struggles of corrupt men with larger-than-life ambitions.
Today’s Haiti is no different. Two exiled politicians – one a former dictator remembered for the brutality and corruption that marred his regime; the other a twice-deposed populist president – are now clamoring for attention, while the country is adrift, buried under rubble, and floating in a power vacuum left by a presidential election whose outcome probably won’t be known for weeks.
The country’s interminable political saga, its leaders rising and falling in an eternal cycle so far removed from the daily plight of average Haitians, continues despite the massive presence of the international community. MINUSTAH, the long-running UN mission here, has 12,000 military and police officers on the ground, while dozens of foreign governments and thousands of international NGOs pour in aid.
Yet, almost exactly a year after a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the capital Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 2010, killing an estimated 230,000 people, displacing over a million more and leaving behind only mounds of rubble and despair, Haiti’s politics is back to business as usual, once again entirely consumed by its carefully choreographed political theater.
On Sunday evening, Jean-Claude Duvalier, 59, who ruled Haiti for fifteen years until he was forced out by a popular uprising in 1986, unexpectedly reappeared in Port-au-Prince, having flown in from France where he spent the last 25 years in exile.
Duvalier, known as Baby Doc, had been appointed president for life in 1971, at age 19, upon the death of his father Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier, who had been elected in 1957 but soon thereafter turned into a dictator. Both Papa and Baby Doc relied for protection on the Tonton Macoutes, a violent, pro-government militia who, by some estimates, murdered about 60,000 people during their combined rule. During his fifteen years in power, Baby Doc is also believed to have siphoned hundreds of millions in public money to private accounts abroad.
On his second day in Haiti, Duvalier was taken from his luxury hotel to the prosecutor’s office and questioned about such allegations of embezzlement and misappropriation of funds. He has been released for the time being, while a judge decides whether to bring charges against him.
With Duvalier ensconced indoor, and some say gravely ill, another exiled leader started making noises about wanting to return to his homeland.
Jean Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected President of Haiti, has been living in South Africa since 2004, when he was ousted from his second term in office (he was first elected president in 1990, only to be forcefully removed by a military coup a few months later, and then reinstalled by the U.S. in 1994) under pressure from a small group of rebels that were about to enter Port-au-Prince and from the United States. On Wednesday, taking a page from the Duvalier playbook, Aristide released a statement saying that he’s eager to come back and pressed the South African and the Haitian governments to give him a passport. “Once again I express my readiness to leave today, tomorrow, at any time,” Aristide said.
Speculation is rampant as to the intentions of both Duvalier and Aristide. For the time being, they have both denied rumors that they have political ambitions.
Aristide said that the purpose of his return would be “to contribute to serving my Haitian sisters and brothers as a simple citizen in the field of education.” Similarly, in a statement released Wednesday, Jean-Claude Duvalier rejected all claims about him re-entering politics, “I formally deny all political statements, vague or otherwise that are attributed to me.” In the only press conference organized since his return to Haiti Friday, Duvalier added that: "when I made the decision to come back to Haiti to commemorate this sad anniversary with you, in our country, I was ready for any kind of persecution," he said. "But I believe that the desire to participate by your side in this collaboration for the national reconstruction far outweighs any harassment I could face."
Some say that Duvalier is simply trying to regain control of a family’s bank account in Switzerland worth approximately $6 million. The money has been frozen by the Swiss government, but the former dictator hoped it would be released to him if he could prove Haiti was willing to allow him to return as a free man. A new Swiss law, which is known as the Duvalier Law and which goes into effect on February 1st, would make it harder for Duvalier to ever recover the money, which might explain the timing of his move.
This latest installment in a saga whose protagonists have been on and off Haiti’s political stage for decades comes at a particularly delicate moment in the country’s history.
The first round of the presidential election held on November 28th and bankrolled by the international community were plagued by widespread fraud. 12 of the 19 candidates were calling for fresh elections before the day’s balloting was even over.
The preliminary results released Dec 7 by the CEP, Haiti’s Election Commission, put Mirlande Manigat, the wife of a former president, in the run-off with Jude Celestin, the candidate favored by sitting President Rene Preval. Supporters of popular musician Michel ‘Sweet Micky’ Martelly, ranked 3rd by the CEP, took to the streets setting Port-au-Prince on fire for several days.
Under intense pressure, President Preval asked the Organization of American States, which helped run the vote, to carry out a review of the preliminary results. The OAS findings were released last week and overturned the initial calculations of the CEP, putting Martelly ahead of Celestin.
On Tuesday, the CEP issued a statement saying that the OAS review is only to be considered a recommendation on how to move forward but it is in no way final. Starting January 24th, the CEP added on Wednesday, all presidential candidates would be allowed to file legal claims against the results of the first round.
This means it could be weeks before an official decision on the first round results is made and a run-off organized, and months before a new government takes office. On Thursday, Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, urged the Haitian government to follow the OAS recommendations.
The winner so far of this political stalemate appears to be Preval. He is the only Haitian president to have carried out a full term in office and to have never been exiled, but he is deeply unpopular in his country today. By law, Preval was supposed to step down by February 7th. However, he has already cut a deal with the Senate that will allow him to stay on through May 14th. But even that deadline may slip, leaving uncertainty as the sole ruler.
With over 800,000 people still living in camps, several million cubic feet of rubble waiting to be removed, and the reconstruction phase barely started (and a cholera epidemic that left more than 3,500 people dead since October), this should be no time for political jockeying, decades-long power struggles and the rehabilitation of former dictators. If anything, Haiti would have needed a quick, smooth political transition to a new, democratically elected government – one that could effectively manage the influx of foreign aid and take charge of the international relief effort. Instead, Haiti is once again absorbed by its long-running Greek-style political tragedy with a Caribbean twist.