Haiti, a Nation in Fragments, Faces the Future

Isabeau Doucet Apr 5, 2011

joy to the world: Children in the Cite Soleil slum, a bastion of support for former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. PHOTO: Isabeau DoucetPORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — This tormented nation is about to anoint a new president, but the political leadership is as fragmented as the buildings that collapsed last January and still lie strewn over the capital. Haiti’s social movements are as neglected as the country’s decaying infrastructure. Everything from political alliances to street protests is for sale. People and organizations on the ground compete for — or are undermined by — NGO money that never provides for any cohesive structural change.

Fuel prices, for example, have jumped an unprecedented 33 percent in recent weeks. But since unions can’t organize an effective strike of “tap taps” — the outlandishly colorful buses most Haitians use — it means locals are now paying double the previous price for transport.

Fourteen months after the earthquake that killed an estimated 300,000 people, Haiti has barely begun the transition from disaster relief to recovery. It needs a strong government with popular support to oversee big reconstruction contracts effectively. But the two presidential candidates who made it to the second round of voting on March 20 — compas musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly and legal scholar and former First Lady Mirlande Manigat — have the support of no more than a fraction of the population or the Parliament.Haiti’s sovereignty has been outsourced and depends now on the life support system of the United Nations, NGOs, the U.S. government and the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission co-chaired by former President Bill Clinton.

Even as the tortuous electoral process comes to a climax, the country’s two most famous former living leaders — twice-ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier — have returned from exile with offers to help. Both ghosts of Haiti’s past have eschewed the political fray thus far, but everyone is wondering what kinds of movements and alliances will coalesce around each leader, and how the future government will attempt to court their supporters.

In a century of grotesque dictators, Duvalier father and son stood out for the brutality and avarice of their rule, which began in 1957. After fleeing to France in 1986, “President for Life” Baby Doc squandered his looted fortune on French villas, Ferraris and “couture shopping sprees,” according to one report, before returning to Haiti this Jan. 17. He was escorted by former death squad leader Jodel Chamblain, who stands accused of massacring pro-democracy activists, thwarting elections and participating in both coups against Aristide. Also flanking Baby Doc was a different sort of hired gun, former U.S. Congressman Bob Barr, who is “advising” him on how to access up to $7.3 million frozen in Swiss bank accounts. Barr explained that

Duvalier only wants to use the money to “help alleviate the suffering of the Haitian people.” Though a couple of hundred supporters thronged Baby Doc at the airport, his base is more of a fringe of nostalgic right-wingers (albeit some with powerful influences) than a democratic movement.

 A year after Haiti’s earthquake, collapsed buildings like this are still strewn around Port-Au-Prince. PHOTO: Isabeau DoucetAFTER THE FLOOD
For his part, Aristide arrived in Haiti days before the March 20 poll. Twice ousted after being democratically elected, he returned after seven years of exile in South Africa and, as revealed by 13 separate WikiLeaks cables, a concerted U.S. campaign to block his return. Even at the last minute, President Barack Obama personally pressured South African President Jacob Zuma to stop Aristide, who was accompanied by actor and activist Danny Glover and Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman.

Political histories aside, there is no constitutional provision that would bar the return of either leader. Haitians would like the international community to assist Haiti’s weak and corrupt judicial system in bringing Baby Doc to trial for the thousands who were tortured and murdered during his 15 years in power, rather than conspiring to prevent Aristide from returning before elections from which his political party, Fanmi Lavalas, was excluded.

Lavalas — which means “flood” as well as “mass of the people” in Kreyòl — mobilized a remarkable popular movement that swept Aristide into the presidency in 1991. It was not only groundbreaking for Haitian democracy, but helped inspire the mass movements that have propelled left-leaning governments to power across Latin America since the late 1990s.

Contrary to U.S. government intimations, Aristide’s return did not derail the elections nor spark large demonstrations. Thousands welcomed him on the tarmac and his car had to navigate a sea of rapturous supporters who accompanied him all the way to his doorstep and eventually went home peacefully. Other than stating that “the exclusion of Lavalas from the election is the exclusion of the Haitian people” and “the problem is exclusion and the solution is inclusion” Aristide has kept quiet on the political future of Haiti, as has Jean-Claude Duvalier.

With a flawed first round of voting, delays in second round results and a final tally not due before April 16, the election is in a crisis with no obvious solution. Whether you speak to the elite, the business-savvy diaspora, street merchants or those living in camps for internally displaced, the only certainty is that, unless the results are annulled and new elections held that include Lavalas, Haiti will be run by a weak right-wing president leading a fractious government and a parliament dominated by members of the current government.

The legitimacy of this election has been in question since the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) banned Fanmi Lavalas from running, despite appeals from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS). Fanmi Lavalas, the last political party to enjoy genuine popular support, has won every election in which it participated by wide margins, including 75 percent of the vote and 90 percent of seats in the 2000 parliamentary election.

The first round of voting last Nov. 28 for president, the Chamber of Deputies and Senate was rife with allegations of fraud, ballot-box stuffing and poorly prepared voter rolls, and most candidates called for its annulment. Only 22.9 percent of the overall electorate cast ballots, dropping to 12 percent in the areas most affected by the earthquake. Even with this paltry turnout, more than 23 percent of votes were not counted by the CEP or found to be irregular. To salvage the process, Western powers dispatched an OAS mission to eliminate Jude Celestin, the candidate of the ruling party, who was seen by the United States as too close to outgoing President René Préval. Diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks revealed that the United States government had turned against Préval in recent years and did not support his candidate.

In late January, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Haiti to push all the political actors to accept the OAS recommendations. Washington also revoked the visas of a couple dozen government officials in Haiti from the ruling party, and threatened to suspend international aid. Préval never signed the document certifying the process, but instead made arrangements to issue a passport to Aristide, eliminating the final barrier to his return.

Election authorities, monitors and the United Nations declared the second round a success, but journalists and observers in Port-au-Prince reported a far lower turnout than the first round. The results have been delayed because of widespread irregularities and the CEP’s admission that 14 percent of the tally sheets — even more than the first round — were “visibly fraudulent.”

A Carnival float in the Southern town of Jacmel calls attention to U.N. forces that have been occupying Haiti for nearly seven years. PHOTO: Isabeau DoucetZOMBIE ELECTION
Even more detrimental than electoral fraud is the exclusion of Lavalas and the most disenfranchised. Among those with the most at stake in rebuilding Haiti are the 70,000 to 150,000 people who have been dumped 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince in Camps Corail and Canaan on the barren floodplain between a deforested mountain and the polluted sea. They were lured from the city center with promises of education, healthcare and jobs in a South Korean-run apparel factory where wages are typically so low that workers are unable to feed their families. But those plans have been jettisoned, and there isn’t so much as a marketplace where people can buy and sell food.

In Corail — often billed as the “model camp” — the voting center opened 90 minutes late during the first round and was shut by people protesting the fact that only 39 people were on voter lists. At Canaan, the illegitimate and more populous “squatter” camp, more than 20 truckloads of U.N. troops and Haitian National Police were sent to pacify the disenfranchised.

“We could almost say there are no elections in this entire zone” said Etan Dupin an independent human rights monitor and editor of the newspaper, Bri Kouri Nouvel Gaye. He noted that on election day at the two camps, “There are more people in church than at the voting station.”

Corail and Canaan sit atop mass graves and next to the necropolis of Titanyen, the dumping ground for the Duvaliers’ victims and later for assassinated supporters of Aristide. Also buried in Titanyen are hundreds of thousands of quake victims. At dusk on any given day you can see the corpses of cholera victims being tossed into the cavernous pits. People in the camps took to calling the first round of elections “eleksyon Zombi” because many of the dead in Titanyen are still on voter lists, but those barely living on top of the graves are not.


Presidential candidate Michel Martelly cast his ballot in Petionville, the hillside suburb of Port-au-Prince where many of Haiti’s elite reside. More people were dressed in his campaign color of pink, waving his posters and throwing confetti than were queueing to vote. Campaigning on election day is a violation of the electoral law, but it went unhindered. Esaie Geline Jules, an election monitor, said, “All the people in Petionville didn’t go to participate in the elections, but went to participate in a day of Carnival.” The first carnival since the earthquake was a boon to the campaign of Martelly. But despite the cheering supporters, that voting station opened two hours late, and the line had dissipated two and a half hours before the polls closed.

Martelly faced off against Mirlande Manigat, the 70-year-old former First Lady and Haiti’s foremost constitutional scholar. Though Manigat won a plurality in the first round, she lost momentum as she stayed silent during the wrangling over who would be declared the runner-up. Her campaign was not as tech-savvy, youth-focused or rousing as Martelly’s, which hired a Spanish communications company that promised Obama-esque “change” and specializes in packaging right-wing candidates such as John McCain in 2008 and Mexico’s Felipe Calderone in 2006.

Despite Martelly’s past alliances with the forces that overthrew Aristide and massacred thousands of Lavalas supporters, and his “patriotic” support of both coup d’etats, many of his poor backers see no contradiction between their desire for Martelly as president and their love of Aristide.

Martelly and Manigat may differ in age, gender manners and mores, but their political differences are more cosmetic than ideological. Both are right wing and spoke of restoring the army, and possibly setting a timetable for the withdrawal of the U.N. peacekeeping forces that have occupied Haiti since U.S., Canadian and French troops handed the mission over five months after Aristide’s second ouster in 2004.

After Aristide was restored as president in 1994 following the first coup, he issued a decree to demobilize the army that had overthrown him. Former soldiers formed the paramilitary death squads that massacred Aristide supporters before and after the second coup, and threatened to topple Aristide before he was forced into exile.

Since his second ouster, the country has had a permanent U.N. military force that has been implicated in killing civilians. The possibility that U.N. forces brought the cholera epidemic, which has now killed almost 5,000 people since October, has amplified long-standing grievances that the blue helmets are an occupation force that does little to protect civilians while taking away much-needed employment.

A young recruit in the would-be Haitian army stands in a changing room with a portrait of revolutionary leader Henri Christophe and the Duvalier party red-and-black flag behind him. PHOTO: Isabeau DoucetRE-BOOT CAMP
For over a year, on a hillside south of Port-au-Prince, around 100 former soldiers and young recruits train three times a week. They claim to have a network of camps all over the country where Haitian men meet and exercise, learn military protocol and martial arts and receive basic training. They have a doctor and a dentist, and hand out used T-shirts with handmade logos for Haiti’s demobilized armed forces. The black-and-red flag of Jean-Claude Duvalier’s party hangs in their tarpaulin dressing room flanked by old paintings of the liberated slave republic’s founding fathers Henri Christophe and Jean-Jacques Dessalines. Somebody is paying for this, even though they claim that it’s all-volunteer, and the current government is turning a blind eye, if not giving tacit support.

It’s not difficult to see how young people frustrated with the U.N. troops and in need of work and a sense of patriotism would see a future in an army career, but the Haitian army of the past was created and formed by the U.S. Marines who occupied Haiti in the early 20th century. It was set up to oppress Haitians and later became the agent, with U.S. backing, for toppling democratically elected governments.

Though Aristide is still the most popular political figure in Haiti, the constitution bars him from a third term, and Fanmi Lavalas has yet to remobilize. It’s believed the party is planning to organize at the neighborhood and community level with an eye toward the 2016 presidential contest.

Whoever takes office in the next month might not last five years, given the lack of popular support, the sense of exclusion, the deep divisions within the government and the popular political will.

With all the reconstruction money hanging in the balance, a delegitimized electoral process and a cholera-soaked rainy season ahead, Haiti might face more of the same protracted political crises that left it in shambles even before the devastating earthquake.

Isabeau Doucet is a producer for Al Jazeera and writes for The Guardian and The Christian Science Monitor.