Rebuilding Haiti: The Next Two Hundred Years
- Emergency Planning & Recovery;
- Latin America and the Caribbean;
- Poverty & Inequality
Haiti is in ruins today. The earthquake of Tuesday January 12 has laid bare the nightmare reality of the misery of the Haitian people: few hospitals, inadequate infrastructure, weak state institutions, and the illiterate urban poor huddled in shanty towns or perched precariously on hillsides. What the harrowing images in the media have dramatized is nothing new for the vast majority of the Haitian nation. They have lived this way for more than two centuries. We should not forget Haiti was in ruins on the morning after the declaration of independence on January 1, 1804. For the past two centuries Haiti has stood still. We cannot grasp this immobility unless we understand that independence meant the beginning of a neocolonial relationship with the outside world. Haiti’s territorial waters were constantly violated in the nineteenth century. Recognition of Haiti by its former colonial masters meant only further dependence with the massive indemnity paid to France. By 1915, an American Occupation, which was to last nineteen-years, meant that Haiti had entered the U.S. sphere of influence. It has not left it. The U.S. led intervention of 1994 under President Clinton may have been called “Operation Uphold Democracy” but it was primarily driven by the need to stanch the outflow of refugees and not to restore democracy. Under President George Bush, the bicentenary of Haiti independence was marked by U.S. complicity in a coup that ousted President Aristide. Now that everyone laments the weakness of the Haitian state, no one remembers the extent to which lawlessness was encouraged in February 2004 when it suited the powers that be.
If Haiti’s present ruin is as much historical as it is natural, we must also take into account those forces within Haiti that have traditionally resisted change and immobilized the country. Haiti may be unique in the Caribbean in that its society cannot be fully understood without addressing the terrible asymmetry of economic power that exists in the country. If Haitian society cannot move forward and cannot realize the dream of modernity that sparked its revolution at the end of the 18th century, it is in part because it had an elite that lived by siphoning off the country’s productivity to support its personal consumption, an elite whose power was consolidated during the U.S. Occupation. It is not the Haitian masses who are resistant to progress. Rather it is often the Haitian ruling classes who are impervious to change. Neocolonialist isolation, we should remember, suited the Haitian elites perfectly as they secured local control of the country as importers and exporters living off the ever-dwindling resources of the nation. The elites formed the state that lived off the peasantry who formed the nation. The idea of the nation from which the elites drew their legitimacy had nothing to do with the majority of Haitians who were never consulted or included in any institutionalized way and had no leverage against the state.
The story of post independent Haiti is one of increasing ruin from this unequal social and economic order. The eventual collapse of Jean Claude Duvalier’s ostentatious presidency in 1986 was directly linked to the consequences of this exploitative structure. The normally passive peasantry was roused by the message of social justice spread by the grassroots Catholic Church or ti-legliz. The forces that brought down the dictatorship did not originate in political organizations that the regime had successfully crushed, but the Catholic Church. By 1990 a return to the former status quo could only be thwarted by a populist savior like Jean Bertrand Aristide. His Lavalas movement was more of a metaphor for sweeping away the old order than an organized political institution and Aristide represented everything that the ruling classes hated and feared. They struck back and ousted Aristide who was returned to power only after a flood of refugees pushed a reluctant President Clinton to use force to reinstate Haiti’s first freely elected head of state.
Ever since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, there has been an endemic crisis in Haiti’s political culture. The popular anti-Duvalier movement put the ideal of democratic reform within the reach of the previously dispossessed masses but it also ushered in an economic model that linked democracy with free-trade. Consequently, the central paradox that frustrates the post-Duvalier transition to stable democracy derives from an explosive combination of laissez-faire capitalism, which favors an elite that dominates the local economy, and democratic elections, which give power to the underprivileged. The mass of the population has been energized since 1986 by issues like constitutional reform in 1987 and the electoral process that resulted in the overwhelming vote for Jean Bertrand Aristide in December 1990. The problem posed to the wealthy minority has been how best to thwart these demands and to profit from a free-market model. Both sides are by now keenly aware of the stakes of the bloody contradictions of a free-market democracy in post -Duvalier Haiti.
Such a contest for power has produced two kinds of leadership: either politicians who are aligned with the wealthy few and are viewed with suspicion by the population or demagogic populists who try to hold on to power by constantly inveighing against the machinations of the business class and its foreign backers. Recent events in Haiti bear this out. On one hand, Jean Bertrand Aristide created his “Lavalas Family” in the name of the dispossessed masses and to frustrate the free-market expectations of Haiti’s wealthy minority. Eventually state business became family business as the incompetent and corrupt rose to positions of power because of family loyalties. The anti-Aristide opposition had as its ultimate goal the dismantling of the Lavalas family. Their hope was that, once the populist demagogue was safely in exile, their access to state power and a free market economy could be guaranteed by those murderous elements of the discredited Haitian army who had deposed the Lavalas leader.
In post-Duvalierist Haiti, no presidential candidate can be successful unless he or she represents the mass of the Haitian population. The victory of Rene Preval is a clear demonstration of the importance of a popular mandate in governing Haiti. Unfortunately, Preval inherits the fallout from the crisis that removed President Aristide from power, a crisis resolved not by constitutional means, not by international mediation but by brute force. An abrupt and violent change in government and not a constitutional transition had unleashed in Haiti elements of the disbanded Duvalier army. It has also given renewed confidence to those in the market dominant elite who wish to govern the old-fashioned way – by force. Preval’s ineffectiveness in the present crisis should not obscure the kind of leadership he has provided since being elected. He has tried to build bridges in the wake of Aristide’s polarizing politics, neutralize the armed, predatory elements in Haiti, walk the tightrope between market-based economic reform and social justice as well as attract aid from an easily distracted international community.
The image of the collapsed national palace constantly replayed in the media is a dangerously misleading symbol. Preval’s government is certainly in crisis at present as he and his Prime Minister have been unable to assert themselves in the face of overwhelming calamity. Yet, he and his government must be central to rebuilding Haiti. A strong Haitian state does not mean enlightened dictatorship nor some benevolent strongman as some desperate commentators have suggested. Obviously, legislative and presidential elections scheduled for later this year and next cannot be held in the present circumstances. Haiti cannot be rebuilt unless respect for state authority and the rule of law be reinstated. Preval has his work cut out for him but whether he succeeds or fails is not strictly an internal matter. The international community has a key role in Haiti’s reconstruction but this must not be “the helping hand” of humanitarian assistance that we keep hearing about. The United Nations must take the lead on this question but it cannot be just another U.S. led effort. Canada, Brazil and the CARICOM states must play a decisive role in Haiti’s future. In the beginning of the 19th century, Haitians attempted to create a modern state from the ruins of the plantation. Their will was thwarted by a hostile international community. That job still remains to be done. We can only hope that the international community is prepared to end Haiti’s historical nightmare.