Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Haiti: Back to the Future?

Reading Time: 8 minutesFive years after the earthquake, not much has changed. Under President Martelly, some fear that things have even gone backwards.
Reading Time: 8 minutes

President Martelly walks with Prime Minister Evans Paul (right). Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty.

Reading Time: 8 minutes

January 12, 2015, was a grim day in Haiti. Not only was it the fifth anniversary of the devastating earthquake of 2010, it was also the day that President Michel Martelly placed a major question mark over the future of Haiti’s troubled democracy. On that day, Martelly began to rule by decree while a long-simmering political crisis let the mandates of one-third of the Senate and all members of the lower house expire. The terms of another third of the Senate had already expired in January 2012. Although domestic and international pressure subsequently forced Martelly to agree to a new electoral calendar this year, including presidential elections, the episode made clear that Haiti’s authoritarian tendencies remain entrenched.

No one should have been surprised. Martelly, a one-time businessman and musician, once declared that if he ever became president of Haiti, the first thing he would do would be to dissolve parliament.1 That was 14 years before he won a 2011 runoff election between his Repons Peyizan (Farmers’ Response) party and the Rassemblement des démocrates nationaux progressistes (Assembly of Progressive National Democrats—RDNP).

As the country looks forward to a new political campaign season, most Haitians would be correct in wondering whether they are indeed heading “back to the future.”2 Ever since the 1957–1986 Duvalier dictatorships, (first under Francois “Papa Doc” and then under his son Jean-Claude, known as “Baby Doc”), Haiti’s track record of democratic governance has not inspired confidence.

A commonly held axiom in Haitian politics is that electoral outcomes are determined before the first vote is cast. That has proven true in every presidential election since the Duvaliers left power. The first election, in November 1987, ended abruptly when soldiers massacred more than 30 voters in Port-au-Prince.3 The rescheduled ballot—held under watchful military eyes in 1988—attracted only 4 percent of voters and yielded a president who held office for a little over four months before being forced out by the army. Haiti did not hold a relatively successful presidential election until 1990—characterized as “free, fair and flawed” by one member of the U.S. observer mission. With over 50 percent of the electorate going to the polls, Jean-Bertrand Aristide won two-thirds of the vote—only to be overthrown in a violent military coup eight months into his term.

Presidential elections in 1995, 2000 and 2006 were flawed by low voter turnout, boycotts or party exclusion, suspicious vote counts, and/or politically fueled street demonstrations. Martelly’s election was marked by similar flaws. Only about 26 percent of the electorate voted in the runoff and Martelly, who came in third in the initial voting, won two-thirds of the vote in the second round. Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family)—arguably the largest political party and strongest opposition to Martelly—was excluded on a technicality. Street violence, allegedly orchestrated by Martelly supporters, further marred the outcome. Parliamentary and municipal elections since 1986 have been equally troubled, with charges that presidents have intervened to ensure that their chosen candidates are elected.

The primary cause of Haiti’s inability to hold parliamentary elections scheduled for 2011 and 2013 was the conflict between the president and parliamentary opposition. The key sticking points were the composition of the nine-member Conseil Electoral Provisoire (Provisional Electoral Council—CEP), which drafts the electoral law and is chosen each electoral period, and subsequent actions by Martelly attempting to circumvent the legislature’s prerogative to approve the electoral law. The president’s opponents have accused him of delaying the electoral process and manipulating the composition of the CEP to ensure the victory of his favored candidates. A reformulated, balanced CEP to oversee this year’s elections was achieved only after domestic and international pressure resulted in independent nominations of CEP members by diverse sectors of Haitian society, including churches, the press and trade unions, as well as human rights, peasant and business organizations.

All The President’s Men

Haiti’s troubles are not limited to the difficulty of holding democratic elections. Martelly’s approach to democracy is a product of the entrenched structural barriers that have undermined efforts to develop a balance of powers. Haiti’s 1987 constitution established separation of powers among three branches: executive, legislative and judicial. It also created the post of a parliament-confirmed prime minister to counter-balance the president, form a cabinet and manage the day-to-day affairs of the state.

But this framework has been under assault since its creation. Presidents have concentrated power by controlling the two other branches, and prime ministers have rarely been able to function independently of the president. Independent thinking and action—whether in parliament or the prime minister’s office—has never been welcome.

Effective separation of powers has been particularly problematic under Martelly. His tendency to appoint allies to judicial positions has been decried so loudly that part of the mandate of the Presidential Consultative Commission, created in late 2014 to look into the political crisis, was to address Martelly’s extraconstitutional choice for the head of the Supreme Court, Arnel Alexis Joseph.

The commission ultimately advised that Chief Justice Joseph resign. In January 2015, it also recommended the creation of a new CEP. Martelly’s track record of judicial manipulation has been extensive, evidenced by the fact that 10 presidentially appointed Port-au-Prince prosecutors resigned in order to keep their legal reputations intact in the first 26 months of his presidency.4

Relations between the president and parliament—where Martelly had few allies to begin with—have been characterized by provocation, disrespect, suspicion, and subterfuge. His allies were obtained principally by bestowing gifts and favors.5 Nevertheless, he has been confronted constantly by a core group of senators who have resisted what they view as the president’s attempts to consolidate power. Although the lack of a quorum since January 12 means that the Senate has been unable to legislate, some of its 11 remaining members carry on as a thorn in the president’s side.

When it comes to prime ministers, Martelly’s relationships have not strayed far from the norm set by his predecessors. Once it became clear that his first prime minister, Garry Conille, was functioning independently of his wishes, the president isolated him, forcing his resignation four months after he was confirmed. His second prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, a close associate, served from April 2012 to December 2014, when he resigned at the behest of the aforementioned Presidential Commission as another key recommendation to unblock Haiti’s electoral gridlock. Lamothe’s tenure had become shaky as a result of his repeated refusal to appear before parliament to answer questions concerning his alleged involvement in public corruption and intimidation
of judicial officials.

Currently, the post of prime minister is filled by veteran politician and former Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul. Named by Martelly on Christmas Day 2014, Paul became de facto prime minister when the parliament failed to confirm him prior to January 12, 2015. Although his ministerial cabinet contains several appointees who are not politically aligned with Martelly, the majority of Paul’s ministers and their top aides are.

Duvalierism Without Duvalier

A saying in Haiti proclaims, “Chak moun rive ak moun pa’l” (everyone comes with his own friends). Many Haitians are troubled by the friends Martelly has brought with him into positions of power and influence. They argue that it is a continuation of the cronyism practiced under the Duvalier dictatorships. Those friends (and advisors) include former military officers and the sons and daughters of noted Duvalierists, including some affiliated with Papa Doc’s murderous tonton macoute paramilitary force, and the son of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Raymond Joseph, a veteran Haitian democracy advocate and diplomat who was forced into exile by Papa Doc, concludes that Martelly is “bent on turning back the clock” to the era of the Duvalier dictatorship, with that regime “as the model to emulate.”6 But even if, as Joseph concludes, “the specter of Duvalierism haunts us again,”7 neo-Duvalierist tendencies are constrained by Haiti’s unflappable media, its cacophonous civil society and international actors, including the U.S., who have paid attention to the president’s authoritarian tendencies.

Only months after his inauguration, donors refused to consider Martelly’s request for more than $80 million to serve as a down payment for the re-establishment of Haiti’s army, which was disbanded in 1995. Instead, they pressed for strengthening the independent professional police force trained for the past 11 years under the auspices of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti and accountable to authorities in Haiti’s Ministry of Justice. The Haitian National Police, whose director general must be approved by parliament, currently has around 11,500 members and is slated to reach 15,000 by 2016. Such a force, along with the absence of an army as a personal tool for the consolidation of power, has helped constrain the tendencies of Martelly to roll back Haiti’s democratic gains.

Yet, the president continues to inch forward in his quest for a new military force. Despite international pushback, he has created a Ministry of Defense, appointed several former army officers as key officials, and created the core of a new military by establishing a 41-member officer and technician unit trained in Ecuador. In 2013, Brazil’s then-Defense Minister Celso Amorim announced that “the Brazilian military [would] create a military engineering unit within Haiti.”8 Martelly’s apparent determination to re-create the disgraced Haitian army, and the fact that he is now ruling without parliamentary checks and balances, is hardly comforting to most Haitians.

The consequences of Haiti’s troubled governance were evident in the aftermath of the earthquake. The catastrophe, which left an estimated 230,000 dead and 300,000 injured, brutally exposed Haiti’s chronic problems of poverty, inequality and exclusion. For some, it appeared to offer an opportunity to address the lack of opportunity and investment in people, over-centralization and the absence of an adequate social safety net. The international rescue effort was expressly intended, with the agreement of the government, to ensure that Haiti would be “built back better.”9

Post-Earthquake, Moving Forward—or Backward?

In the five years since the earthquake, four of them under Martelly, important progress has been made. The rubble of the ruined buildings has been cleared and replaced by newly paved roads and several thousand new homes for internally displaced Haitians.10 There has been investment in tourism and agriculture, and the creation of an industrial park that is ultimately supposed to bring up to 60,000 assembly-sector jobs to Haiti, though it’s brought fewer than 5,000 to date.

Extreme poverty, measured as an income of less than $1.25 a day, has declined, school participation rates have risen,11 and there have been significant improvements in the health sector, particularly in combating malnutrition.12

Yet despite these positive developments, the picture remains bleak for most Haitians.

Poverty remains high. Access to basic services remains a major concern, as does inequality. The majority of the population lives on $2 a day or less and the richest 20 percent controls 64 percent of the country’s wealth.13 Additionally, the gains that have been made are mostly a result of post-quake aid, raising the question of sustainability as aid declines.14

Equally troubling is the Haitian government’s ineffective response to addressing root causes of chronic underdevelopment, such as nonexistent or weak state services, lack of opportunity for its youth and discrimination or neglect of the poor. Allocating scarce resources on fancy tourism projects and on palliative hand-outs characterized as social programs—programs such as Aba Grangou (Down with Hunger) that are allegedly a source of enrichment to officials through intentionally inflated contract costs—don’t constitute a genuine strategy.

Perhaps the most telling evidence of the lack of faith in the government’s capacity to effect change is that most donors bypass the government and direct the majority of aid to non-Haitian entities, many located within Washington’s beltway.15

The Haitian state has also relied heavily on Venezuelan funding through PetroCaribe for projects, including the aforementioned social programs, fuel and energy subsidies, and the reconstruction of government buildings. Haiti’s debt to Venezuela is now more than $1.6 billion.

But with Venezuela beginning to sell off discounted PetroCaribe debt to Wall Street interests, oil prices falling, and the future of the program itself in doubt, the largesse available to Martelly’s government has begun to shrink.16

With fewer funds available for the poor, destabilization is a real prospect, as the almost daily antigovernment demonstrations over the past months indicate. Nevertheless, the fact that some 10 million Haitians arise each morning and find a way to make it through the day makes clear the country will survive. The key issue undergirding Haiti’s quest for elections in 2015 should be how the country’s leaders can assist citizens in moving beyond survival.

As Haiti’s self-described classe politique and its abundant political parties recruit followers and gear up for elections, one can only hope that the candidates will move beyond the politics of self-interest and engage in serious discussions on how Haiti can address its chronic problems.

Without doubt, candidates will emerge. But unless Haitians get the political leadership they deserve, their future will increasingly look like
their past.


Tags: 2010 Haiti earthquake, Michel Martelly
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter