Once again Haiti is in the throes of a political crisis. Former president Michel Martelly’s mandate ended on February 7, with no elected successor and without having held parliamentary elections during most of his five-year tenure. Throughout, Haiti’s foreign backers protested with notable lack of effect.
Welcome to Haitian political practice and the disconcerting—and often unproductive—international policymaking that frames it.
The responsibility for this mess was not Martelly’s alone, but confusion, charges of electoral shenanigans and general political upheaval predictably undermined the elections that were finally held in August and October of last year. While the government was able to pull off October’s first round of presidential balloting, by December the wobbly process could not secure a run-off. So, after several delays, Martelly ran out the clock.
The compromise negotiated among Haiti’s political factions in extremis on February 6 gave rise to an interim government with a 120-day transition timetable, concluding with the inauguration of an elected new president by May 14. But the process went off the rails almost immediately, planting the seeds of an additional crisis. The resolution of that crisis is now tied to a controversially created Electoral Verification Commission that, in effect, has supplanted the country’s (admittedly less-than-perfect) national election commission. This was also essentially the solution to Haiti’s previous election crisis in 2010-2011, which allowed Martelly to reach the run-off election. Then, as now, this “verification” mechanism was not intended to be a long-term solution. Unfortunately—though perhaps predictably—the UN Security Council’s meek response has been to express “deep disappointment” over the electoral breakdown while agreeing with the expediency of once again relying on an ad hoc verification commission.
The noteworthy characteristic of all of this is not so much Haiti’s abysmal governance but the near-continuous engagement of the international community, notably the U.S., since Jean-Claude Duvalier’s (aka “Baby Doc”) departure thirty years ago on February 7, 1986. In the intervening 30 years there have been seven variously turbulent election cycles, two multinational peacekeeping interventions (the latest now in its 12th year), two interrupted presidencies (1991 and 2004), and the devastating 2010 earthquake.
The immediate implication of the current crisis is that it undermines the relative progress made since the earthquake. What the last five years demonstrated is that with enough resources and sustained attention, the country’s economic prospects could be improved—somewhat. The five years of relative stability allowed Haiti to rebuild its modest foundation of national institutions and democratic mechanisms. To be sure, those institutions and processes remain severely hobbled by financial corruption, politicization and, at times, just ineptitude. That there is even an economy left and a thin layer of modern entrepreneurs is a testament to Haitian ingenuity and perseverance. There is also an increasingly sophisticated, if not always well synchronized, civil society. But none of those things are sufficient.
The country’s dysfunctional political process remains its Achilles’ heel. So intractable has the political situation become that donors can be tempted to simply double-down with more targeted economic development projects, private sector investments, and a menu of job-creating initiatives. The idea under the “development-first” approach is that signs of economic growth and an independent political class can incentivize political leadership to adopt more stabilizing and less polarizing means of competing for and wielding power. Unfortunately, the longer Haiti’s current political crisis drags on the more difficult it becomes to sustain even this line of argument.
These depressing prospects should energize Haiti’s political class to get serious. Many of the country’s political elite profess pretentions of responsible leadership but few have translated those claims into action. Instead, most appear engaged in pseudo-constitutional disputes. For example, more radio air-time is spent arguing over the scope of the president and prime minister’s authority than governing, at the same time that members of parliament deviously push the boundaries of legislative quorum rules to insure paralysis.
The current crisis will not be resolved by another tranche of development funding, and it might actually dissuade some donors from doing anything at all. For all his faults, Martelly had it right in a recent New Yorker article,“[t]he fact that sixty to seventy per cent of Haitians don’t read isn’t the fault of the Americans or the Chinese. It’s our own bad governance.”
It’s time to try something different. This, dare I say, “reset” (admittedly a tired and often-mocked term) for Haitian and international policymakers can begin by recasting policy in the following five ways.
First, rather than expecting Washington and other actors to put Humpty Dumpty back together once again, Haiti’s discordant political leaders need to start getting serious and address once and for all a touchstone of successive political crises: the “provisional” status of the nation’s electoral machinery. Rather than blending this into a broader effort to revise the 1987 constitution—a recipe for mischief in the current context—Haiti’s political leaders need to just implement fully existing election-related provisions (starting with Article 289). Haiti’s current electoral fiasco—with a reported price-tag of between $30 and $70 million—repeats, with similar ingredients, the mess that ensued from the 2010-2011 election cycle and provided a shaky start to Martelly’s presidency. Enough is enough. It’s time to fix it once and for all, and stop throwing good money after bad.
Second, Haiti’s political leadership and civil society activists should start looking down the road to anticipate the obvious: the winding down of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). The force has declining political credibility and has exhausted its policing mandate, but it remains a crutch for the government. Before MINUSTAH packs up, Haiti needs to begin to transition toward another form of international commitment more closely associated with Haiti’s long-term governance needs. One possible model might be a variation of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), itself made possible because of the pre-existing mandate of the UN Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) that ensued from the 1990s national peace process. The CICIG operates as a UN-sponsored institution but is not a UN body. It attracted considerable attention last year as a key instrument in the demise of Guatemala’s president and others caught in a web of corruption on a grand scale.
To be sure, several key elements of the CICIG model don’t transfer easily to Haiti, especially the willingness to allow core judicial and investigatory functions to operate autonomously from government bodies. Yet, other countries in the region, notably Honduras and possibly El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, are starting to explore local adaptations of this effective, high-profile model. If nothing else, for Haiti it would build a layered, longer term commitment of international institutional support, integrating elements of good governance, transparency and judicial reform. Critically, civil society activism associated with such an initiative could provide the needed backbone to Haitian political leadership to genuinely engage in the difficult tasks of governing and institution building. Over the past three decades the Haitian political class has presided over little more than a sequence of elections joined together by political crises, with very little real governance in between.
Third, the seeming ungovernability of Haiti has given American policy an intermittently fatigued quality and anesthetized decision-makers into accepting the country as a permanent problem with special needs. Richard Nixon’s off-hand remark that Haiti was just a “distraction” does not reflect the painful reality faced by all of his successors in the White House—including President Obama. Still, rather than isolate Haiti by maintaining the bureaucratic mechanisms in place since the 1990s—such as the Haiti Special Coordinator, the Haiti Special Envoy, and the Haiti Special Advisor—it is time to integrate Haiti policy back into a broader vision of a changing Caribbean political and economic environment. This includes: Cuba’s reemergence; the increasing influence of China; stagnation in the region’s small, fragile economies; regional energy integration; and the old standbys of immigration and drug-trafficking. This also applies to U.S. congressional interest, which has been generous in responding to crises in Haiti—most recently after the 2010 earthquake and with trade preference legislation (HOPE and HELP)—but uneven in maintaining effective oversight or accountability over policy.
Fourth, while U.S. election politics remain an immediate hurdle, one has to begin looking over the horizon. Good intentions will not be enough to re-energize Haiti policy unless there is, in tandem, a leadership process that can sustain it. This might be a hard sell given today’s fractious U.S. politics and the growing isolationist tone in some quarters. But overcoming long odds has been done before, during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The relative success of its Haiti policy during the 1980s had a number of ingredients but two elements were key: an administration that came into office with an expanded vision of freedom and democracy as an instrument of American foreign policy, and an increasingly empowered Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) willing to tackle a broader range of issues—notably Duvalier’s Haiti and apartheid South Africa.
Otherwise disagreeing on a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues and coming to the Haiti agenda with different motivations and senses of urgency, the administration and the CBC agreed on a core narrative. The first element was that democratic regimes best serve U.S. foreign policy interests, and the second was that to achieve that strategic goal, there was a need to gradually disengage from “friendly dictators” such as Duvalier. The underpinnings of this coalition were not tied to any virtuous notions of bipartisanship in foreign policy. This was not a formal partnership as much as a tactical alliance based on a synergy of interests and a demonstration of policy trust.
For about a decade this produced not just a relatively stable working coalition but also results. Duvalier was pushed out in 1986, and—after several missteps—reasonably democratic elections were held in late 1990. (Though, what was to be learned later from post-authoritarian transitions around the world became clear early on in Haiti and demonstrated the inevitable weakness of U.S.-Haiti policy: that successfully supporting a political transition did not insure a democratic outcome.)
And fifth, there is a need to recognize the expanding role and potential benefits of an emerging Haitian-American community. Until recently, viewed mostly as a funding venue for political causes in Haiti as well as a significant source of remittances (estimated at over $1 billion a year), Haiti’s growing diaspora is graduating into local U.S. politics and beyond, including the Obama White House. State-wide elections in Florida, for example, now demand attention to the Haitian-American community and ads in Creole. Today these local Haitian-American voices are more likely to be listened to by state legislatures, and even the U.S. Congress, than the government in Port-au-Prince.
The Haitian diaspora is also following its Caribbean counterparts—Cuban, Dominican, and West Indian—and creating institutions representing community interests that can shape U.S. policy. Admittedly, translating this into a nascent force in U.S.-Haiti policymaking is a ways off. Yet, as a general principle, the character of American politics and foreign policy priorities cannot be separated from the expanding dynamic of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States–look no further than this year’s presidential campaign and the emergence of two Cuban-American candidates.
Criticism of the international community’s engagement in Haiti has merit, but it is not for a lack of trying or of resources, which, since the 1980s has involved a full panoply of diplomatic initiatives and efforts, economic development packages and security assistance from across the globe. In short, Haiti policy has had lots of everything, except success. One can also question Haiti’s limited capacity to manage what Clare Lockhart refers to as the “chaos of good intentions” that descends on the country with regularity. However, in the end, Haiti’s conflict-prone political actors bear the most responsibility for the country’s problems. A silver lining to the ongoing electoral crisis is that it provides another opportunity for Haiti’s leaders to broker their way out of the impasse they have created—a reset of sorts. If so, the five policy ideas outlined here could serve them, and U.S. policymakers, well.
Georges Fauriol is Vice President/Grants Operations & Evaluation, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and also Senior Associate, Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). These views represent those of the author and not those of the NED.