By Garry Pierre-Pierre
PORT-AU-PRINCE – Last week I spent a few days in Haiti covering the country’s elections. At stake was the presidency and the entire parliament, which is up for grabs, and those elections have been long overdue.
So naturally I am peppered with questions from friends and colleagues about Haiti’s latest sordid political chapter in the country’s continuous history of mismanagement and poor leadership.
“So is the new president going to turn things around,” is a common question that I am asked over and over. Another one is “What are his or her qualifications?” “What’s it going to take to turn things around in Haiti,” is another one of my favorites.
And that has been the million-dollar question, and the one that has kept many a technocrats sleepless as they tackled that obvious question, whose answer remains elusive.
A president no matter how devoted and competent he seems, is destined to poor governance because he or she cannot act autocratically. The problems facing the country are so intractable that all of the past leaders have struggled mightily.
Part of the reason is that the country lacks a common vision and mission, and so, there are no goals set to achieve serious changes that the country desperately needs. Do we want to be a nation of mendicants or do we want to be a leader in the Caribbean?
Since Haiti began this transition from autocratic to democratic rule in 1987, leaders seem paralyzed to do anything meaningful. It’s one step forward and 10 steps backward.
After the fall of Jean Claude Duvalier’s regime in 1986, Haiti underwent the arduous task of writing a constitution and usher in a democratic process. But one of the crucial steps that was missed was the convening of a national dialogue. Town hall meetings should have been held across the nation so that a common agenda for the country’s economic and social development could have been written.
Perhaps this is armchair quarterbacking on my part or I have the benefit of hindsight. I won’t quibble with that, but I remember clearly when South Africa emerged from Apartheid and one of the things they did was to convene a truth commission and the country as a whole decided that it was not going to seek revenge against the White oppressors. That has helped keep that fractured society glued together.
We did the opposite. There was the “dechoukaj” where Duvalier’s henchmen were uprooted and some were lynched. It is not to say that these were good guys, but we lost focus on the big picture. In recent years, the country appears stuck and even before the earthquake Haiti was not in great shape.
Sidewalks across the country are crowded with vendors hawking everything from used clothes to foodstuff to household goods. Trash is piled up and it seems to replenish as quickly as trucks haul them away from the streets. Random construction continues unchecked and schools and lottery banks co-exist next to each other.
But the government seems paralyzed and their attempt to enforce the rule of law has been met with stiff resistance from the population it aims to aid. Over the years there have been attempts to levy taxes, build outdoor market spaces and even using brute force to remove vendors from the streets and all of these efforts have not managed to clear the sidewalk and bring some order across the country.
I’m often perplexed when I hear people blame the government for these efforts because in their warped logic, these street vendors are simply trying to eke out a living and the government should leave them alone. After all, what’s the harm they’re not criminals.
The other problem plaguing the country is the trash problem. The country is unhealthily dirty with trash piled high and putrid water wafting odor that is a menace to public health. The contradiction is that when you enter inside the most modest home, the quarters are spotless and tidy.
Another example is the environmental disaster looming. Cars emit soot that hovers across this capital city like a filthy cover, choking the life out of the people. And then there is the chronic deforestation issue that sooner or later has to be addressed to get people to stop cutting down trees for charcoal and artisanal sculpture.
The answer may seem simple: Create a stringent car inspection system where cars that emit a certain level of pollution are taken off the streets. But the moment a government issues such a law, it will be challenged and pushed back on the premise that the elites are not allowing the poor the opportunity to drive a car and limiting taxi driving jobs to a chronically unemployed populace.
I deeply believe that this is not only a sign of weak central or local government, it exposes the weakness of a nation where people don’t know where they need to be. But if we had a common destiny we would be able to better understand the sacrifices that we have to make for the sake of the nation. Haitians would not accept chaos as normal. I’m hoping that it’s not too late for the nation to convene a national dialogue and set an agenda for development. Every Haitian – urban, rural, rich, poor, dark-skinned, light-skinned – needs some skin in this game. If we do that, I’m hopeful that we can turn this country around in a generation. If not, we are destined to remain the “poorest country in the Western hemisphere” for quite some time.