No. 1: July-September 2011

Robert Maguire


Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present political and social situation in Haiti?

Haiti has entered a new period of political crisis following the mid-May 2011 inauguration of Michel Martelly, an entertainer and political novice, as president.  This can best be seen through the current impasse over the confirmation of a prime minister.  Martelly, whose party does not hold a majority in the Haitian parliament, is having a difficult time working with parliamentarians to identify a mutually acceptable nominee. A government cannot be formed until there is a prime minister in place confirmed by a parliamentary majority. The battle over the confirmation of a prime minister is symptomatic of the broader difficult relationship between the president and legislators, almost half of whom are linked politically with former president René Préval. That relationship is seething with mutual disrespect.

After Martelly’s first nominee was rejected in late June, the Haitian president sent his second nominee to the parliament on July 6th. That nominee, Bernard Gousse, is an attorney who served as Minister of Justice under the interim regime of Boniface Alexandre and Gerard Latortue (2004-2006). Immediately, 16 members of the 30 member Senate vowed to reject Gousse based largely on his tenure as Justice Minister that was marked by unlawful arrests, detentions, and human rights abuse aimed in particular at supporters of deposed President Aristide. Some of those he arrested are currently elected senators.  Martelly cut short a trip to Europe to return to Haiti on July 9th and affirm support of his nominee. Few are optimistic that Gousse will be confirmed; instead there is widespread concern that his rejection will deepen and extend Haiti’s governmental paralysis and the bad feelings fueling it.

Haiti’s social situation remains one of extensive depravation among the 78 percent of the Haitian population of almost 10 million who live on US$2.00 or less, juxtaposed with the opulent lifestyle of a small group of Haitians who dominate the country’s society and economy, and are extremely influential politically. The country’s small middle class has suffered tremendously from losses due to the earthquake of January 12, 2010 and has been largely forgotten in the recovery efforts. An increased exodus towards the United States of this key group is probable.

Today, the most prominent indicator of the polarization between poverty and wealth is the status of those who lost their homes during Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake of January 12, 2010. An estimated 650,000 of the 1.3 million mostly poor people who were displaced continue to live in tent settlements without any clear indicator of when they will find better housing or where that housing will be. Some wealthy Haitians complain that the poor are reluctant to leave the tent camps because they are receiving services there – clean water, medical care, and security provided principally by international non-governmental organizations – that they did not have access to prior to the earthquake.

Massive migration of poor people into Port-au-Prince over the past three decades pushed the capital’s population from less than half a million to close to three million at the time of the earthquake. Opportunities, even if elusive for the poor, were centralized in this city. Post-quake recovery and development plans call for decentralization of Haiti through the creation of opportunities in at least three ‘growth poles’ elsewhere in the country, and for greater investment in the long neglected agricultural sector.  Garment assembly plants are viewed as one key job creation strategy in the decentralized zones. These strategies are intended to help expand opportunities for Haiti’s poor. Port-au-Prince elites support decentralization at least in part because they want their city to be built back without the massive numbers of poor people who invaded it in recent years.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve in the next five years?

The key to answering this question is whether or not Haiti‘s new president will serve out his five year term. In sum, if the current political impasse is resolved swiftly and peacefully – and that is not guaranteed – then Haiti will be in a better position to move forward and make progress toward its recovery from the earthquake and to achieve development beyond that. With a government in place, international donors, important because they fund about 70% of the Haitian government’s budget and the lion’s share of the envisaged post-earthquake recovery/development programs, will begin to disburse. Their disbursements have largely been on hold since November 2010 on account of disputed national elections and subsequent political developments. In this scenario, the recovery and development plan created after the quake and endorsed by international donors can be enacted, creating a better future for Haiti. A major part of that plan, it is important to note, is to strengthen the capacity of the very weak Haitian government and provide it with resources it needs to be able to implement policies and regulations. This is especially needed in view of the plethora of non-governmental organizations and for-profit aid contractors that form virtual parallel governments in Haiti.

If, however, Haiti’s political impasse continues, or if the political crisis reaches the stage of either the president suspending the parliament or the president himself stepping down, Haiti’s chances for a positive next five years diminish considerably.  It is for this reason that a recent visit to Haiti by this writer suggested that most Haitians, regardless of political affiliation or tendency, want Martelly to be able to serve out his full five year term in order to avoid another descent into political chaos. Martelly himself, at a press conference on July 9th given when he returned from a three-day visit to Spain, underscored his intention to stay as president through his five year term. Of course, that this question must be addressed only two months into his term is rather unsettling.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

There are two elements to addressing this topic – within Haiti and beyond Haiti.  Within Haiti, there needs to be change to narrow the gap between rich and poor so there is marked improvement in the social and economic status of the poor.  Greater inclusion of poor people in all aspects of the national life is needed.  Haiti has been characterized in the past as having a type of ‘social and economic apartheid in the Caribbean.’ Also, the over-concentration of wealth, investment social services and opportunity in Port-au-Prince must diminish.As suggested above, there are possibilities for this, but political will in Haiti and ongoing support from international sources of finance are important factors to determine whether or not this will happen.

On the international side, there will have to be a long-term commitment to Haiti, given the country’s needs and its financial and human resource deficits. Key players are the United States and the United Nations, followed by Canada, Brazil, the Caribbean nations, the Organization of America States, Venezuela, France and the European Union. International actors will have to resist temptations to ‘take over’ Haiti, especially in terms of prescribing what Haiti needs and then engaging with preferred, non-Haitian organizations to do it. This approach toward economic and social development has been rampant in Haiti for decades and has systematically failed. 

Both Haitian and international actors will have to respect each other and work together, including on issues of security.  Haiti’s law enforcement, judicial and penal institutions are weak, if not dysfunctional. The National Police have improved considerably, in large part due to international investment and oversight. The judicial and penal systems have not improved and, as such, undermine improvements in law enforcement.  Haiti is susceptible not only to internal corruption and abuse of the law by elites who traditionally have exercised impunity, but also to the influence of international criminal operations, largely in association with international drug trafficking.  Haiti will not be able to strengthen state institutions if the onslaught of impunity and international crime continues to overshadow rule of law in its territory.

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Robert Maguire is Professor of the Practice of International Affairs in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington DC. He teaches in the university’s International Development Studies graduate program. Dr. Maguire is known as a leading expert on Haiti in the United States. He has worked on Haiti issues as an academic researcher and, from 1979 to 1999 as the representative for Haiti and the Caribbean of the Inter-American Foundation, a US government agency that supports bottom-up, or grassroots, development.  Maguire earned a Ph.D. in Geography from McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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