Haiti: living on the edge

Mariano Aguirre
24 February 2006

Haiti's legislative and presidential elections on 7 February 2006 were held in a climate of tension, even though there were few major irregularities and less violence than seen in Haiti over the last two years. The supporters of René Préval, the ex-president who nearly won an absolute majority, organised demonstrations to demand that their leader be declared the winner with 48.7% of the votes, thus ensuring that a second round of voting would not be held. The electoral committee and the Brazilian government (which leads the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti, [Minustah] decided to be flexible in their interpretation of the electoral laws and awarded victory to Préval to avoid more serious incidents).

At the same time, the Spanish defence minister José Bono – giving only forty-five days' notice – announced on 10 February that he is ordering the return to Spain of 200 Spanish troops who form a component of Minustah. The withdrawal of the Spanish forces will pose a problem for the UN, as it will weaken a very complex and controversial mission and leave Haiti more insecure.

The state's many crises

Haiti is the poorest state in Latin America. It has 8.5 million inhabitants, four out of ten of whom are under fourteen years old. Economic growth has been negative for the last twenty-five years and Haiti ranks 157th out of 177 countries on the UN development index. Most of the population lives on less than one dollar a day, and thousands of citizens try to emigrate, especially to the United States and Canada.

Haiti's colonial legacy is to blame for much of its structural instability: slavery, a corrupt and repressive mulatto elite (5.4% of the population) that ruled over the black population (94.2%) from independence in 1804 until the US occupation (1915-34). When instability made foreign companies lose interest in Haiti's cheap labour it suffered economic bankruptcy. Its agricultural sector was displaced by competitors and prices either fell (coffee and sugar) or hit the northern countries' tariff barriers. Moreover, tourism was hit by the rise of HIV/Aids and the unstable political climate.

Rural poverty, environmental destruction, mass emigration and internal migration towards teeming cities are all part of life in Haiti. In post-colonial times, Haiti was run by an alliance between the army and the business elite. Now the capacity of the state to provide services and guarantee rights and employment has collapsed. Land is neither productive nor competitive, the elite is fragmented (and part of it has fled the country) and the Lavalas movement, led by former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought the lower middle classes into the circles of power. As in some African states, the impact of integration in the global liberal market, corruption and internal institutional fragility has broken down post-colonial alliances, and violence has become a means of fighting for ever-scarcer resources.

France, the ex-colonial power, has lost interest in Haiti. For the US, Haiti matters because of the Haitian balseros (rafters) who arrive in Florida and compete for resources with the Cuban community. Black members of the United States congress also lobby on behalf of the mainly black population in Haiti, factors that led to the US intervention in 1994.

Haitian migrants send back an estimated $1 billion dollars in remittances every year. In 2000, the US froze economic aid, intensifying the country's crisis. The economist Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University (then too an advisor of Kofi Annan) accused Washington of fomenting the Haitian crisis by backing a criminal opposition against the president-elect, Aristide.

Aristide gained strong popular support during his years fighting against "Baby Doc" Duvalier's dictatorship. He was elected president and took office in February 1991, but was ousted seven months later. The US invasion put him back in power in 1994 but his popularity waned. His government (in which René Préval served as prime minister) was plagued by corruption, internal power struggles and repression. To make matters worse, Colombian narco-traffickers began to use Haiti as a transit route to the US. The police forces became deeply corrupt.

Since Aristide – for some an anti-imperialist leader, for others a dictator – was forced to step down by the US and France in February 2004, the country has been governed by an interim government. At the same time, the UN Security Council sent Minustah; the stabilising mission has succeeded in organising the elections but has not been able to stop the increase in internal instability, violence, the growth of armed groups or the economic crisis.

The mission and "diffuse" conflict

Minustah's force is 9,000-strong: 7,265 soldiers under Brazilian command and a 1,741 strong police force led by Canada. It is the first time that a Latin American country (Brazil) has led a peacekeeping operation on the continent and, moreover, one in which, other countries of the region are participating (including Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador) alongside Nato members. It is also the first time that Spanish and Moroccan forces have collaborated in a mission. The Chilean lawyer Juan Gabriel Valdés has political charge and the UN Security Council extended the mandate by six months on 14 February 2006.

In some Latin American circles, the UN mission is considered a hasty undertaking designed to satisfy US needs and give an opportunity for Brazil, Argentina and Chile to compensate for their governments' rejection of Washington's position on Iraq. It is also argued that its presence has exacerbated Haiti's problems. On top of that, Aristide's opaque departure seemed to some to resemble a coup.

But for several Latin American governments, the operation has proved to be a way of managing a crisis on the continent, especially in a country where the US has traditionally intervened. At the same time, the intervention has opened the debate on interventionism in Latin America: this is good news for some and bad for others who fear that the classification of some states as "failed" or "fragile" leaves the door open to interventionism and that this is a dangerous step for Latin American sovereignty.

Another frequent criticism is that the UN multinational force has taken sides with the group opposed to Aristide, by fighting against the latter's followers and it has not done anything to disarm the militias formed out of the dissolution of Haiti's armed forces.

In contrast to what has happened in other UN operations over the last fifteen years, Minustah's mandate has been more widely interpreted, and this has entailed the use of force on occasions. In some UN circles it is considered to be an "explorative" mission, combining peacekeeping negotiated between armed actors with the imposition of peace – in other words, using force without the consent of those actors. The UN in New York speaks of a "diffuse conflict, which is not a case of separating two groups but rather of multiple actors who establish mobile and changing alliances."

However, other UN circles consider that the mission was improvised, and that instead of a peacekeeping operation, an international police deployment would have been necessary in 2004, as well as significant investment in development resources for immediate needs. This should have been combined with an effort in promoting reconciliation between the groups in conflict, paying special attention to deactivating the political view of "winners take all" that is so dominant in Haiti.

This critical view considers that the UN mission should have centred its attention on rebuilding the police force, so as to break the self-fulfilled prophecy that the international forces cannot leave because there is no local security. A source who prefers not to be identified said: "We have a Kosovo-style mission with civilian officials, but we do not run the towns and we do not have experts in dialogue and reconciliation."

A shortage of appropriate equipment and funds compounds this difficult mandate. As a result Minustah is being criticised for not disarming Haitian society: it is estimated that around 390,000 short weapons are in the hands of citizens and chimères (violent bands) who carry out an average of ten kidnappings a day. Amnesty International has indicated that the UN should improve the protection of its citizens, carry out disarmament and prevent impunity by taking to court those responsible for human-rights violations.

The problem is that weapons are a means of protection for the rich and of earning a living for the poor. And this means that disarmament must be accompanied by options and incentives to encourage people to disarm. On the other hand, the state system is on the verge of collapse and there is no provision for services or the rule of law. The UN under-secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, considers that the forces should move from a peacekeeping mission to a peacebuilding mission, beginning with areas such as the legal system.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan's idea is that there should be long-term engagement in the country for at least a decade. Haiti could also be one of the cases where the Peacebuilding Commission, which was created by the United Nations in September 2005, could begin to function. However, in general, the trend regarding interventions in fragile states over the last decade and a half has been to go in with a fast exit strategy; this approach is apparently cheaper and less risky but not necessarily more efficient.

A short version of this article was published in La Vanguardia (Barcelona) on 18 February 2006

The politics of aid

In July 2004 the international donor conference promised $1.25 billion to Haiti. Around 50% of this has been made effective, though Oxfam criticised the fact that $422 million were in the form of loans and that this would increase Haiti's external debt. José Bono complained about international tardiness in channelling the aid and said that if the trend continued he would indeed withdraw Spanish troops.

In UN circles, however, they remember that big projects need time. Damián Onses Cardona, Minustah spokesperson, explained in a telephone call that Haiti is receiving aid from important projects but that it needs "other mechanisms for more immediate projects" that would satisfy people's urgent needs and create trust.

Until 2006, Haiti received $165 million annually in aid, but this was frozen because of accusations of corruption. In 2004, Spain placed Haiti on its list of priority countries and committed itself to donating €4.1 million of development assistance over the next two years; the areas given priority were governance, water supply, food security and education.

The UN considers that Spain and Morocco are fulfilling an important role. At the same time, it is very unusual for a state to give such short notice before withdrawing its troops; usually between nine months and a year's notice is given so as to avoid logistical problems. The reasons that led Bono to evacuate the troops are not officially known. The possibilities are numerous: a perception that the mission has failed, that the Spanish army prefers to take part in Nato rather than UN missions, or a fear of casualties that could be exploited by domestic political opponents of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's government.

Despite the six-month extension of Minustah's mandate by the UN Security Council on 14 February, the judgment must be that – as with other post-cold-war UN missions – Minustah has not achieved its goals. This failure could now have serious consequences. The total withdrawal of troops could give rise to chaos or perhaps a temporary return of US troops and the resistance of armed groups. This in turn could lead to a new cycle of foreign forces leaving, internal insecurity and collapse, leading to further intervention. The scenario would be a Somalia or Afghanistan in the Caribbean.

René Préval's government may succeed in stabilising the situation, perhaps with the presence of UN troops under a different mandate more sensitive to some of the criticisms, and with the support of foreign donors. If it does not, Haiti will fall into another wave of violence. This will reopen the debate as to whether fragile countries such as this one should be placed within a protectorate system established by the international community, either formally or informally, for a defined period. This scenario, however, is rejected in Latin America, and it does not arouse much enthusiasm in the international community. For the foreseeable future, Haiti seems destined to continue living on the edge.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData