Is Haiti a failing state? Or is it, as they say in French, “a la dérive?” The expression more accurately depicts what is happening in Haiti, providing the image of a drifting vessel at the mercy of currents, moving toward an inevitable disaster.
Several factors seem to point in this, drifting, direction.
Political dysfunction. Haiti has not had a functioning government since the dismissal of Prime Minister Jean-Henry Céant in mid-March. His successor, Jean-Michel Lapin—President Jovenel Moïse’s third appointment in two years—has remained as acting PM, unable to acquire the support of the Parliament. A point of substantive dispute involving how many holdovers from the previous two cabinets would be part of Lapin’s team has also caused some theatrics. This includes fistfights among parliamentarians, and more recently, the Monty Python-like strategy to block a debate to confirm Lapin by throwing furniture from the Senate chamber out into the neighboring yard—it worked. Over the last few days there were also perplexing rumors that a number of lower chamber deputies would redefine the voting quorum by resigning from Parliament (most likely encouraged by a cash incentive) to push through Lapin’s confirmation. Either by bad luck or limited political acumen, Moïse’s selection of prime ministers has only deepened the lack of confidence in his presidency. His initial choice, Jack Guy Lafontant, was inexperienced and ineffectual. While Céant was arguably a better pick; he never seemed to be aligned with Moïse. Even if Lapin is confirmed, he faces a disjointed and unhelpful parliamentary opposition and a potentially explosive mix of pressure points—most notably a growing push to rewrite the country’s constitution, mixed with calls for shortening Moïse’s term, which would certainly be a more constructive alternative to an unconstitutional ousting of the president.
Imploding economic prospects. One significant consequence of the delays in confirming a new PM is that Haiti has been functioning without a ratified national budget. Not only does this confirm Haiti’s poor governance, but it also drastically affects the country’s short-term prospects. An IMF loan agreement signed earlier this year was initially suspended pending the Céant-Lapin transition, but then expired at the end of May due to the absence of a ratified budget. This is also delaying other pending funding streams from the World Bank and the European Union. Haiti’s budgetary gaps have meant that varying layers of public sector employees have not been paid. The end of Venezuela’s discounted oil program, PetroCaribe, and the disintegration of the Maduro regime, has caused fuel shortages exacerbated by payment disputes with international suppliers over debts. Despite these dismal economic prospects, the March summit between United States President Donald Trump and Caribbean leaders (including Moïse) and with Capitol Hill paying more attention to Haiti’s predicaments, potentially lead to more promising developments. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation’s May visit to Haiti was a direct outcome of the gathering, though it has limited immediate impact. Haiti might also potentially benefit from Washington’s overdue awareness to compete with China’s geopolitical ambitions in the Caribbean–although neighboring Dominican Republic switched over to Beijing last year, for now, Haiti remains in Taiwan’s orbit as they are a willing financial source for the Haitian government. There are also vague signals of possible private investments from the Middle East Gulf states, but concrete outcomes have yet to emerge. Nonetheless, none of this really adds up to a coherent and robust base for investments and job creation.
Boiling public temper. The political and economic dysfunction has also had dire consequences in the streets of Haiti. The country has had a rolling series of public demonstrations for the past twelve months, including three violent explosions that partially shut down the country, reinforcing the public’s perception of governmental ineffectiveness. Nationally, violence is up, with 22 recorded killings of policemen so far in 2019. An underlying theme of public sector corruption permeates much of this, with the massive embezzlement of PetroCaribe funding only the most visible expression of the problem. The scale of the issue has created its own civil society dynamic, most notably the “petrochallengers,”a loosely coordinated politicized group that pushes for greater accountability and transparency within the public sector. A report from the Cour Supérieure des Comptes (roughly equivalent to our Government Accountability Office [GAO] but with more autonomous legal authority) was issued on May 31, 2019, and further expands on earlier reporting accusing PetroCaribe and a large swath of Haiti’s government machinery of embezzlement. This is not good news for Moïse; it highlights his own entanglement with the notoriously corrupt program as well as those of Lapin’s proposed cabinet members and Céant and Lafontant’s cabinet members as well.
Another emerging example of costly dysfunction may be the over-hyped Caracol Industrial Park in northeast Haiti, built from scratch after the 2010 earthquake with massive U.S. and IDB support. The park was designed to tackle the country’s estimated more-than 40 percent unemployment rate as well as create a nexus of jobs away from the overcrowded capital, Port-au-Prince. Major investors, notably South Korean textile/garment companies, set up operations, taking advantage of abundant labor, reliable electricity, and other key factors. However, there are now threats to decamp across the border to the Dominican Republic because of the government’s mismanagement of the park, which has included corruption, growing insecurity, and deteriorating maintenance of the facility.
Electoral calendar debacle. An unintended consequence of political dysfunction and budgetary impasse is the absence of resources and mismanaged political mechanisms needed to administer October’s scheduled local and partial parliamentary elections (a third of the Senate and the entire lower chamber). While timely elections have been a perennial problem for Haiti, electoral delays will add to an already fragile environment. If delayed into early 2020, Haiti will be left nationally with only 21 elected officials (two-thirds of the Senate, and President Moïse). This harks back to the 2015-16 debacle involving similar factors at the end of Michel Martelly’s term, Moïse’s predecessor and feeds into speculation about the need for some form of constitutional reform. There is some logic behind this, notably in the electoral arena. The main institutional machinery under the 1987 constitution remains the provisional electoral council (CEP). In addition, the hybrid presidential/prime minister system has led to uncertain divisions of political mandates, and could use an informed look. But a constitutional reform process, framed by electoral uncertainties, invites more worries, not to mention political mischief. It could invite a quasi-constitutional push to shorten Moïse’s tenure and energize an already increasing consensus calling on him to resign, or even more problematic, a push from the streets to oust him.
Lessons learned from the past four decades suggest that a Haiti “a la dérive” quickly graduates to wider problems.
Let’s be frank, a level of fatigue and frustration is present in views expressed about Haiti in Washington and other capitals. Critics also note that over the past decade the international community has provided very timely and generous amounts of support–true indeed. But Haiti is arguably on the cusp of a major crisis that suggests a serious need for a renewal of disciplined attention by the U.S. and other friends of Haiti. As the current UN apparatus (the United Nations Mission for Justice Support in Haiti – MINUJUSTH) and its already reduced peacekeeping/security presence shrinks even further by October, and a widening Caribbean agenda absorbs more U.S. strategic attention (Venezuela and Cuba for starters), what happens in Haiti for the remainder of 2019 is critical to U.S. interests.
Georges A. Fauriol is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies