You ask any student of present-day Haitian politics of the challenges the new president (Oh, well) will have to confront once the November 28 presidential electoral mess is finally untangled, he /she will rattle off a long list of intractably complicated issues that will need quick, determined and resolute attention from the new president and the ubiquitous international community. Here they are: about 1 million folks to remove from under tents and tarps, an additional 6 million individuals in desperate need of decent housing, maybe 80% of the population urgently seeking to get employed, a country with a woeful infrastructure (electricity, education system, roads, potable water, sea and airports and broadband) to launch it at least to the end of the 20th century), a political economic culture steeped in corruption and blatant social inequalities, and, finally, an occupied country needing in a year or two an intelligent debate on the continuingly sad predicament of the international community making second-rate decisions on our behalf.
Which comes first: the state or the nation? This seemingly simple question had been fiercely debated in academic and political circles for as long as one can remember. On one side were those who advocated that the nation preceded the emergence of the state; and on the other side were those who argued that the formation of the state was instrumental in ushering in the inception of the nation. It’s clear, taking Haiti as a reference point, this debate was couched in mechanical terms, meaning that one entity (the state or the nation) had to exist before the other one came about. The correct approach was to look at how both concepts are intertwined and study them in their evolution, regardless of what came first or second.
Let me try to be a little bit clearer. The nation is technically what’s supposed to unite us: a common language and culture, a similar heritage, and a common geography. The state is this multitude of political and socio-economical institutions (the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, political parties, chambers of commerce, religions, police, prisons and other entities) whose charge is keep the status quo and facilitate the hegemony of one class over another. The nation-state is this sociopolitical hybrid where the institutions or levers of the state are used to build a stronger nation (equal opportunity for all, lessening of the tensions among all and this shared vision to be this perfect society) or something closely resembling to it.
It’s my hypothesis that in the case of Haiti the “triumph” or overdevelopment of the state and “defeat” or the underdevelopment of the nation should be the prisms through which one can look at our abject failure to address issues that matter: a public school system that educates free of charge every kid; a tax system that generates needed revenues to help us tackle our most urgent issues; a justice system that can in its autonomy intercede to solve societal disputes; a vibrant civil society; a political system that guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of association and the respect of the right to vote. So, the next time you hear that Haiti is a failed state, you can confidently say that this label doesn’t completely tell the whole story. Haiti is a failed state when it comes to addressing the simplest of issues, but this failed state (with its lack of functioning social, political and economical institutions) has been successful in keeping million individuals in bondage and under the most severe form of exploitation.
Let’s get more concrete by looking at our most recent crisis: the electoral mess of November 28 when failure won the day. Failure of another electoral council to organize an election with acceptably minimal irregularities. Failure of the international community to distribute these ballots in a timely manner and to the right place. Failure of the government to remove all this suspicion that surrounded the electoral council. Failure of the political parties to play by the rules.
We are a country that seems to always manage our politics the wrong way. We have almost no historical precedent (save for 1804) where in times of crisis the country eschews its political differences and finds common ground. Other countries do: The United States avoided a simmering crisis in 1999 by turning its fate on the Supreme Court to decide the presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush; The Dominican Republic went though a similar crisis in the 1990s when Balaguer decided to shorten his presidential term by calling for new elections over perceived electoral irregularities.
What made this solution possible in the US and Dominican Republic but not in our own Haiti? I think the answer is simple. In both examples cited above, the ruling class of both countries appears to have “shared” with the rest of society a set of “core values” that suggest that a key (not the only one) function of the state – the accumulation process – must go on unimpeded and any electoral issue is a small matter compared to the greater need of the business community to buy, sell its products and make a profit. And the quick resolution of this crisis is also good for other reasons: it’s better to have a relatively calm society than one constantly facing political uncertainty. People get to go to work; schools stay open; and people go on about their business. That’s what I mean when I talk about the need for a nation-state in Haiti and why the lack of it fundamentally explains our stunning incapacity to move beyond our muddy political processes. In other words, there is almost nothing that binds us that could save the day when our country is in fire. Let it burn, baby!
This shared vision, in my opinion, can only be the result of decades of political trials and errors punctuated by the demands of a minority or group of people that their grievances be addressed. Here the key is that this “country” has also the social, political and legal apparatus to co-opt any type of dissent and make it part of the overall political framework of the country. The best example may be the United States where the hallmark of this political system is its enduring capacity to evolve and make improvement: women’s and black’s grievances, and recently gays’ have been “successfully” integrated while the system retains its essence (an impoverished democracy where 1% of the population owns the riches of the 90% sitting at the bottom). Not a perfect society (its Vietnam and, currently, its Afghanistan folly (not to mention its egregious mistreatment of its African American citizens and its various minorities), but it always finds a way to change its ways and move forward.
This shared vision can also be initiated by the intelligent, vigorous work of a cadre of leaders who are “ahead of their age” and have the foresight to formulate a robust vision that meets the demands of their time. Here again the best example may be the United States before, during and after their independence. There may never have been a time in the history of humanity when a country can boast at a historically crucial time of such strong contingent of visionary leaders. Paul Klugman, New York Times columnist, had this to say about George Washington in a December 25, 2010 blog: “He was a gift to his nation – a man who could all too easily have become a tyrant but chose to found a system of freedom instead”. In our own Haiti, we have since 1986 witnessed the emergence of a few leaders whom we all thought should have been great democrats but ended up as some cheap tyrants or overwhelmed leaders.
Either by the absence of great leaders with great vision and/or of robust social, political and legal institutions of a nation-state, Haiti is where it is today, furiously digging further the hole it’s found itself into for more than two centuries. Paraphrasing Paul Klugman, Haiti is in desperate need of a man, a woman who can be a gift to his/her nation – one that can assemble the best sons and daughters of Haiti for this konbit of social equality, political tolerance and economic justice. Our country, alas, could really use one in this present juncture. The constructive tasks of the nation-state in Haiti have never been so urgent – a rampart against fascism and political demagoguery and a platform for decency and equality. Instead, what we have is indecisive leadership from everyone and lurking behind it all is the specter of a discredited political vision – see 1986 and before – apparently making its triumphant return on the grand political stage. Neo-duvalierism is here – with the Martelly presidential campaign and its embedded, despised political operatives of the Duvalier regime.
Ladies and gentlemen, this can’t be good.
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