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Haiti: unravelling the knot

Amélie Gauthier Mariano Aguirre
2 September 2008

Haiti is tossed by a sea of troubles: economic, social, political, legal, gender, security, and environmental. The fact that so many of them are interrelated increases the challenge of understanding and addressing them. The agency of Haitians themselves is indispensable if the country is to overcome its many crises. Even in the best of circumstances, however, their country will need international help for some time to come. But what kind of help, and what should be the priorities in and for Haiti? This article outlines some of the elements that need to be taken into account in answering these questions.

Mariano Aguirre is director of peace, security and human-rights issues at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid

Amélie Gauthier is a researcher in peace, security and human-rights issues at the Fundacion para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Dialogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid

This article draws on a research trip to Haiti in June 2008 for a project on justice reform, funded by the Open Society Institute. A longer report is published on Fride's website

Haiti faces its huge challenges while the international community tries to find the best way to assist social and institutional development in a context where Haitians' day-to-day problems are already immense. The damage wreaked on 31 August 2008 by hurricane Gustav - including the death of at least seventy-seven people in Haiti - adds yet further burdens on an already impoverished country; tropical storm Hanna then comes as an equally unwelcome reprise.

The problems of governance are among the most evident to observers of Haiti. A continuing political standoff is evident in the increasing dissatisfaction of all the sectors that wish to see step-change in the country - towards a strategic and long-term governmental plan, a reactivation of the economy, and the launch of a battle against poverty and exclusion. In this connection, four factors currently affect the situation in Haiti:

* political crisis

* uncertainty about the future of the United Nations Mission for the Stabilisation of Haiti (Minustah)

* judicial reform

* the impact of the economic crisis.

An immobile politics

The appointment of the economist Michèle Pierre-Louis as Haiti's new prime minister in the first week of August 2008 may begin to unblock the paralysis that has prevailed since April when the crisis caused by soaring food prices forced the then prime minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis out of office.

Two previous candidates had been nominated for prime minister since April, but they were vetoed by the Concertation des Parlementarians Progressistes
(CPP), a group of deputies with enough votes to block any initiative to stabilise the political process. CPP members are caught between their interest in maintaining chaos to defend their illegal interests and obedience to the head of state.

Amélie Gauthier is a researcher at the Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (Fride) in Madrid

Also by Amélie Gauthier in openDemocracy:

"Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics" (21 April 2008) René Préval won the 2006 presidential elections, which were organised with support from Minustah. He is seen as a passive politician who does not take initiatives to address urgent economic or political needs. At the same time, it is generally admitted that he has managed to have some effect in overcoming the sectarian political model dominant in Haiti for decades. "Préval has used consensus; he has allowed dissidents to speak out without repression, he has included opponents in his government - and this has positively transformed the road towards democracy", a political analyst says. However, his critics accuse him of not taking measures against politicians who have close links with narco-traffickers and of protecting the leaders of armed gangs.

Haiti is not a drug-consuming country but a drug-transit country, especially towards the United States. Haitian narcos have links with a number of deputies and senators, and they finance state officials who are poorly paid and corrupt. "But Préval," one businessman in favour of the democratic process told us, "has distanced himself from those friends and that electoral base, and has even allowed Minustah to act against them".

A screened truth

The greatest problem with the president is that it is hard to know if his political activity consists of not doing anything or whether his passiveness is a form of action. It is often said in Haiti that things are not the way they seem and that foreigners do not understand this other reality. "Lies form part of the culture of a slave society that was obliged to lie to survive", a UN official with long experience in the country says. The reality seems to be midway between different views: there is a a mirror-game of reflections that has also infected Haiti's international donor community.

African slaves and their descendants generated a religious culture and a world vision called "voodoo" (vodou) which they practised and continue to practise alongside the Catholic religion of the French colonists. Slaves who fled had to lie and learned to lie about who they belonged to; they distrusted the power of whites, mestizos, assimilated blacks and above all the state. This was how marronage came about - a means of managing unequal power relationships, involving ways of concealing and revealing information and preserving spaces of freedom and flexibility, which still prevails in Haitian social relations and which creates many a headache for foreigners (see Alvin O Thompson, Flight to Freedom: African Runaways and Maroons in the Americas [ University of the West Indies Press, 2006]).

Also by Mariano Aguirre on openDemocracy

"America underneath New York" (18 November 2004)

"The many cities of Buenos Aires" (16 February 2005)

"Exporting democracy, revising torture: the complex missions of Michael Ignatieff" (15 July 2005)

"Mr Rogers goes to war: America's 'democracy by force'" (5 August 2005)

"The Hurricane and the Empire" (5 September 2005)

"Failed states or weak democracies? The state in Latin America" (17 January 2006)

"Haiti: living on the edge" (24 February 2006)

"Spain's 11-M and the right's revenge" (10 March 2006)

"Bush's security strategy: defend the nation, change the world" (31 March
2006)

"Bolivia: the challenges to state reform" (15 September 2006) - with Isabel Moreno

"Power and paradox in the United Nations" (7 November 2006)

"Mercenaries and the new configuration of world violence" (16 October 2007)

"Annapolis: how to avoid failure" (12 November 2007) - with Mark Taylor

For example, when the price of rice and other staple foods rose in April 2008 there were violent demonstrations outside the presidential palace. From abroad this was interpreted as a rebellion against hunger; but in Haiti, many believe that though the problems were real people took to the streets for different reasons. Some analysts also argue that the head of state delayed speaking for a week, and even then saying very little, in order to provoke the fall of the then prime minister Jacques-Edouard Alexis.

"(The president) maintained a disconcerting neutrality", a journalist tells us; wondering if Alexis's fall had been engineered from within the presidential circle to damage his possible candidacy in the 2011 elections. Minustah circles tend on the contrary to feel that sectors who do not want stability for Haiti provoked the government and the international force to impose unpopular measures.

A caste beyond

Haitian politics over the last two decades has been dominated by René Préval (president, 1996-2001), Jean-Bertrand Aristide (president 1991, 1993-94, 1994-96, 2001-04) - and by successive international missions. The 2011 elections are already on the horizon, and these are possibly the greatest question-mark over Haiti. The moment will be a new opportunity for a different leadership with representatives who might be willing to govern more for the country and less for their own interests. If Haitian society begins to trust politicians, there could be a slight shift from presidential autocratic government (what would be called caudillismo in Hispanic parts of Haiti's region) to perceiving elections as a form of legislative and municipal participation.

"Haitian politicians practise a Florentine style of politics, as if the country were rich and had no problems; they live in another world", declares a European ambassador. In fact, a visit to the streets of Port au Prince, or a trip outside the capital, confirms that politics is in one place, the reality of life for 98% of the people in another - and the state is practically nowhere to be seen.

People in Haiti say that the Toussaint l'Ouverture Airport, named after the 1801 independence leader) has two gates: one (if you are leaving the country) to heaven and another (if you are arriving) to hell. Some aspects of this hellish reality are the appalling situation in the streets, the lack of public education, an 85% illiteracy rate, an almost non-existent health system, the vulnerability of children, massive violence against women, the absence of justice for most of the population, and the absolute poverty of hundreds of thousands of people who earn less than $2 a day in a country with prices similar to Europe.

Yet most politicians, deputies and senators in the country are more concerned about maintaining their positions and privileges than in tackling these pressing issues. "We are learning", said one deputy who, however, has already learnt the essential fact: "Parliament needs more power and independence". There are politicians who openly proclaim that they want legislation that favours their business. "They find it hard to understand", adds one international official, "that while before they got nine out of every ten state contracts, now they may only get six". Haiti is among the five more corrupt countries in the world; but reinforcing the corruption is inertia.

A widespread idea is that Haitian society, and in particular its politicians, have got used to living off international aid and to having decisions made elsewhere. The massive flow of international funds does not help to counter this tendency, and some cooperation and non-governmental officials wonder if all this aid has really been useful. "After decades of international aid, of coming here with our models and our recipes, I look out the window only to see that the poverty, destitution and corruption have all got worse".

A vanishing elite

Amid the corruption, inertia and inefficiency, civil-society movements and organisations are working towards a politics of engagement with Haiti's real problems. These have contributed to some (if modest and slow) institutional and social advances. One of these relates to Haiti's elite.

The abyss in Haiti between the rich minority and the rest is as great as that between politicians and citizens. In Haiti there is no middle class that invests and produce goods. Most of the elite are involved in trade: they import food and cars (legally, and illegally as part of the extensive market in stolen goods) and other goods, and distribute them both in a small formal marketplace and in a huge informal market made up of hundreds of thousands of people who sell all sorts of things in urban areas.

The instability during the 1990s and the early 2000s - plus the international boycott that continued until 2004 - caused many companies to leave. Some that remain have taken advantage of the cheap labour-force to produce clothes that require simple manufacturing processes, and which are sold in the United States and Europe.

Also on Haiti's troubles in openDemocracy:
Johanna Mendelson Forman, "The nation-building trap: Haiti after Aristide" (11 March 2004)
Nick Caistor, "What election hopes for Haiti?" (3 February 2006)

"But we are changing", comments a member of the Group of 184, a coalition of business people and civil society that supported the removal of Aristide in 2004. Indeed, more business people, bankers and traders are beginning to see that it is better to pay taxes; to act within the framework of a constituted state; and to become legal actors in the globalisation process. They are still in a minority and they distrust both the new political power and Minustah. "They feel excluded from the process", said a World Bank official in all seriousness.

The members of the elite live in the hills surrounding Port au Prince, behind walls and security systems, fearful of kidnapping (there are about forty abductions a month). When they get sick, they take a helicopter or a plane and fly to Miami. "How far up will they go?" wonders an official who knows the country well. "As high as the sky, running away from the poverty of the shantytowns?" Indeed, each month, each year, the city creeps higher up the slopes, and the elite retreat even further.

Cité Soleil: many in one

One part of Port au Prince is on low ground, almost at sea level: Cité Soleil. Here, approximately 300,000 people live, crammed together in houses that have no running-water, far less drinking-water. There are only a few schools and health facilities. Cité Soleil was the dominion of armed gangs who controlled everything - from poor people stealing from other poor people, to violence against women. In the absence of a state, they also provided protection and some basic services. A number of these gangs had connections with representatives of Aristide, the deposed president.

In 2006, the then United Nations special representative Edmond Mulet decided to put an end to the gangs. Minustah, supporting the Haitian national police, went in to Cité Soleil and took on the armed gangs, killing some leaders and imprisoning others. Although the disarmament process was limited, Cité Soleil calmed down. "What happened to the guns?" we asked a local organisation leader who works with young people to reduce violence, as we walked in front of buildings pockmarked by the heavy artillery-shelling in 2006. "They are asleep", he answered.

"In Haiti, there are many Cité Soleils", said a researcher from the Inter-University Institute that coordinates the project against violence. "In Carrefour and Martissant there were about a million people crowded together and nobody went in there before. Even Minustah bypassed it."

An international dilemma

The international presence in Haiti is very prominent: as well as Minustah, agencies of the United Nations system and other donors operate in the country. In the wake of several UN, Organisation of American States (OAS) and United States missions with limited mandates, France and the US forced Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office. Aristide, once a politician who inspired almost all sectors of the society, had become a populist authoritarian leader who relied on violent gangs and who divided society even further. The country became fragmented, with several armed gangs controlling areas or trying to seize political power, amid economic collapse.

Since 2004, Brazil has led the 7,200 troops that compose Minustah. The mission's mandate has been expanded: to provide stability and security, to assist the government in strengthening state institutions (particularly in the area of the rule of law), and to control the borders and coordinate with the UN.

In the streets of Port au Prince and other cities, hundreds of white cars and dozens of armoured tanks manned by soldiers of varying nationalities drive by with the UN logo. These "blue helmets" cannot use force unless they are attacked. But the 7,500 personnel of the Haitian national police are not enough to control a country with a population of about 9 million, and Minustah cannot act as a symbolic deterrent force - either to prevent armed gangs from regrouping, or to guarantee the security of the government, parliament and the police.

For some, both inside and outside Haiti, the United Nations mission is an occupation force at the service of the United States and France. But a wide range of opinion within the country considers that the mission's presence is central to dissolving gangs, and that it is necessary to guarantee the transition towards democracy and more stable institutions. The problem (according to other international actors) is not whether Minustah should or should not be in Haiti, but rather what it does. A European official tells us that the mission is "like an octopus" because it is involved in everything, and that this weakens the state's capacity instead of strengthening it.

For this official and other critics, the mission should provide security and leave other bodies to look after development. This is also the message that Hédi Annabi, the current UN special representative, wants to give. He considers that Minustah should provide security but that it is essential to create development. After the 2011 elections, the mission should be reviewed; this may lead to the military component being reduced and the police force increased.

A corroded system

Minustah has responsibility for the police, and aims to use donor-support to train 14,000 police officers by 2011. The problem is twofold: building an effective and non-corrupt police force and ensuring that it that is supported by a judicial system with the same characteristics. There are hardly any prisons and those that exist are like something out of hell. The Port au Prince prison holds seven times more prisoners than its capacity; conditions are awful, there is so little space that prisoners sleep standing up.

However, many international donors are not very keen on funding prisons, even though the correctional system is crucial to overall security. The problem is aggravated by the fact that the United States (and to a lesser degree Canada) are deporting Haitian criminals back to Haiti at the rate of around 200 a month - some of them descendants of Haitians who no longer speak French or Creole, who contribute to an increase in street-crime. By contrast, Minustah trains only 600 police officers annually. The balance between public security and crime is highly unequal.

A key priority for Minustah, the UNDP and many donors in Haiti ss justice reform. With a corrupt judicial system that is closed upon itself, and in the face of prison overcrowding, the police have to act as local justices of the peace, solving disputes and tackling the majority of crimes.

But only a very few Haitian actors themselves want this reform - and this is true even of almost all judges. "We tell them that we have come to collaborate in making the justice system honest and they look at us with scorn and astonishment", says an international official. In fact, most people who study law and become judges in Haiti have done so to benefit themselves and not to be honest.

For most Haitians, justice does not exist - nor does it even have a specific expression. For two centuries laws have been written in French, while the people speak and write Creole (a synthesis of African, French and other languages). Justice has been an instrument of the relationship between members of the elite and a tool for oppressing the poor. "The problem of justice has to do especially with the social exclusion of the majority", says Hérold Jean-François at the offices of Radio IBO.

Minustah has promoted three important bills in parliament to promote reform. Some analysts consider the measures they contain important, but until they become a reality there is a need to apply what might be called interim formulas of justice; for example the advice of elders in villages or legal assistance through peace laboratories that combine international and national legal experts. The latter is not easy to implement however, because no Haitian judge wants a French or Quebecois judge telling him how to dispense justice.

A clouded future

Everyone concedes that agriculture needs to be relaunched, tourism promoted and practical measures taken to ensure that the state can provide basic services such as health, education and waste-disposal. There is also strong agreement that Haitians themselves must be the central actors.

Some donors think that Haiti is "merely" a weak state, others that it is a failed state which, to all intents and purposes, needs to be completely rebuilt. The difference is significant in judging whether an integrated mission should or should not take over the whole country.

In either case, the prices of food, transport and oil are rising and the Haitian state has little room for manoeuvre because domestic food-production capacity is limited. How long will international aid pay for the importation of rice? The possibilities of destabilisation are great.

A Minustah official believes that an emergency agreement between donors and the new Haitian government is needed until late 2009. This plan, together with the appointment of a new government, would ensure continuity until the 2011 elections. But there is disagreement between donors about what the priorities are and how to implement them. The fear remains that René Préval will continue to fail to exercise the powers of the presidency; and that the socio-economic situation will, in all likelihood, deteriorate. "We are sitting on an arsenal", says the Brazilian general Carlos Alberto Dos Santos Cruz, the Minustah commander.

The high level of discontent leavened by modest bribe-money would make it easy to "wake" the guns and manipulate the excluded people of Cité Soleil and other deprived areas. In other words, if measures are not taken that balance long-term needs with the urgency of immediate demands, distrust towards the political process and the international presence will grow. The fragile process of political consensus could break down and Haiti would fall back towards greater destruction.

This article was translated by Fionnuala Ni Eigeartaigh

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