Haiti Strives to Tackle its Democratic Shortfalls.
James R. Morrell
The Haitian democratic sector, notable for both its courage and its disorganization, completed an important act of self-definition August 28–30, 2009 at a hotel meeting in Santo Domingo. This was the Rencontre Patriotique pour une Stratégie de Sauvetage National, uniting leading lights of the Haitian intelligentsia from Port-au-Prince and the diaspora in a marathon brainstorming session about the country's future. There was also a sprinkling of businesspeople, politicians and former officials, and many Haitian students from the University of Santo Domingo.
The participants committed themselves to challenge the "traditional bastions of irresponsibility, incompetence, corruption, nepotism, influence, and inhumanity which have poisoned the evolution of the Haitian nation for the past 50 years." They set themselves no less a task than to "restore national sovereignty and re-found the nation-state."
Fine rhetoric, and there was plenty more of it, but what does it mean? Before dismissing it, one must recall that Haitian civilsociety members and opposition politicians went into this meeting with important accomplishments under their belt:
• On November 17, 2002, the Initiative Citoyenne in Cap-HaVtien came from nowhere to mobilize 60,000 people at the historic VertiPres battlefield in a protest against the abusive ruler of those years, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
• In 2003, a business-backed coalition of 184 civil society organizations (the Group of 184) organized demonstrations including most sectors of Haitian society, and created a climate in which a rebellion of Aristide's armed supporters and bands of former soldiers were able to scare him out of the country on February 29, 2004.
• In 2006, Jacques Bernard, a progressive businessman who administered national elections, delivered the freest and fairest elections in Haiti's recent history.
Each of these exploits pointed to the democratic sector's power to reach the masses. A Haiti Democracy Project trip to the Nord and Nord'Est provinces during Sept. 7–13, 2009, following the Rencontre Patriotique, found deep, universal disdain for the government expressed at all levels, from unemployed youths and street merchants interviewed at random to intellectuals and businesspeople. A leadership need only have a clear message, an honest discourse, and not be focused on in-fighting in order to have the broad support of the Haitian masses.
That was the enormous potential of the Rencontre Patriotique — it issued the clearest message that has been heard from the democratic intelligentsia since the days of the Group of 184. If coherently delivered, this message will fall on fertile ground. "What Haiti has always been lacking is a strategic partnership between the public and private sectors to assure national salvation. It is this that the Haitian people have always demanded of these sectors and which the meeting in Santo Domingo means to offer."
Other sections of its declaration hinted at the abiding weakness of the democratic sector—its disunity. "We have come together to discard past differences. […] Our work will be collective." If unity of most of the sectors was briefly achieved in 2003 in the drive against Aristide, it was quickly dissipated during the confusing 2004–2006 period when power went not to the victorious movement but to an artificial interim regime imposed by the United States. When Haitians went to the polls in the 2006 elections, they found the mugs of 44 presidential candidates staring at them from the ballot. Most were from the democratic sector, and most had attended numerous unity meetings. Faced with this confused mass, many voters threw up their hands and voted for the candidate they recognized best: Aristide's protégé, former president René Préval.
No wonder then that the renowned peasant organizer Chavannes Jean-Baptiste told the Santo Domingo conference, "It will require serious unity among the social forces that want to save the country. It is essential to resist the 'presidential disease,' the craving for power.." Equally poignant was former minister of commerce Danielle Saint-Lot's reminder to the male-dominated political class: democratic construction could not happen without "much greater involvement of women in political decision-making at the local and national levels."
The Rencontre Patriotique made a valiant effort to bridge another age-old political gap, separating the Haitian business class from government. The separation of the economic elite from the politics is longstanding in Haiti, dating back to an infamous semaine sanglante in the 1870s when a president sent mobs to sack and burn the strongholds of the bourgeoisie. Since then, the sector has stayed in its place and been content to pay the tribute demanded by those in power. The government's announcement of a new tax on the business of one of the conference participants, and a judicial summoning of another, indicates that the price will continue to rise. The Group of 184 had briefly mobilized this important sector; it is modern-minded businesspeople who have pulled countries such as the Dominican Republic and El Salvador out of political morasses as deep as Haiti's.
Beyond the business component, the Haitian democratic sector both in the country and abroad has deep ranks of competent, uncorrupt professionals who alone have the capacity to govern Haiti rationally. This is another enormous advantage that the civil society movement and diaspora has, and it was fully on display in the brilliance of many of the presentations.
It was surprisingly not a Haitian nationalist, but a Dominican congressman invited to the conference, Pelligrin Castillo, who delivered the most telling critique of U.S. policy: off-loading the Haitian problem onto neighboring Dominican Republic. Years of aid without meaningful reconstruction had accomplished nothing. Most attendees applauded this statement: "Il a raison!"
Indeed, poor policy-making, which continues to this day, has sacrificed the effort of two U.S. troop interventions, billions in aid, and a 9,000-person, five-year United Nations military mission. The approach to Haiti is cravenly bureaucratic; it clings to the elected president as the bearer of stability, totally unaware of the historical role of Haitian presidents as incubators of instability. President Préval, with recent elections so fraudulent that they were denounced by the vice-president of the electoral board, and a clumsy but persistent effort to amend the constitution to allow successive presidential terms, is acting fully within this historical tradition of presidential overreaching. The only difference is that this time he is doing it with the protection of a foreign military mission, an advantage only dreamed of by his predecessors most of whom quickly succumbed to the domestic enemies they had so assiduously generated. The U.N. mission to stabilize Haiti is thus protecting destabilization.
Accordingly, a theme increasingly heard at the conference from intellectuals who are by no means anti-foreign was the need for Haiti to regain full control of its territory. Resolutions called for a negotiated, staged withdrawal of the U.N. force. This theme is not yet a unanimous demand for it to leave, which could unleash chaos. But to the extent that this mission only acts as a Praetorian Guard protecting an abusive president against the inevitable domestic reaction, it sets itself squarely against Haitian nationalism. Once trapped in that unenviable position, its days in Haiti will be numbered.
Thus it was not merely a Haitian default that the Rencontre Patriotique sought to cure with its ringing call for national renewal. It was a foreign one as well.
James R. Morrell is Director of the Haiti Democracy Project. Conference information is on haitipolicy.org and in Le Matin and the Caribbean Net News.