By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Democracy it is said is a messy thing. The United States is finding out how untidy it can be even after more than 240 years. Haiti is learning that lesson in its own democratic experiment that is entering 32 years.
While the U.S. and other European democracies had to look to ancient Rome for guidance, Haiti has had plenty of examples from which to model its democratic ideals. So far, the verdict does not bode well for any stability in the foreseeable future.
Since July, the country has been gripped by a spate of violent protests and economic inactivity that threatens to shake the country off its administrative foundation. To be sure, these problems are not unique to Haiti. We can look to what’s happening in France recently as proof. Demonstrators have shut down Paris protesting the increase in gas prices and a general malaise with President Emmanuel Macron and are asking for his departure from power. Sounds eerily familiar with what’s happening in Haiti, doesn’t it?
The difference is that France has the institutions in place to absorb these shocks to its system and can negotiate a solution out of their current problems. It is not so easy for Haiti, sadly to say.
Haitians welcomed “democracy” with open arms following Jean Claude Duvalier’s exile to France in 1986. The late president for life’s inglorious end completed his family’s 29-year reign of terror. The military junta that replaced Duvalier quickly ushered the “bamboch democratic.” It was to be a fun party. But Haiti’s democracy has been a lot of things but a fete.
Some of the endemic and systemic problems the country finds itself confronting harken back to the moment the constitution was written. It was more of a political, anti-Duvalier tract than a constitutional document to guide the country moving forward by anticipating and dealing with legal issues that were sure to come.
So now what do we have? We have elections that no one wants to bother to participate because results are rarely respected. Since 1990, there has been a steep decline in the number of people voting. Although this situation is created and exacerbated by some foreign countries, with the U.S leading the way, by consistently meddling into Haiti’s election results.
Winners are declared as losers. This repeated cycle has created a country cynical of voting and the democratic process, writ large. Seeing that elections were not having any positive effects on their lives, Haitians lost interests in democracy. The last two presidential elections were marked by low turnout and outright graft.
How does Haiti turn that narrative around? For one, it needs to strengthen democratic institutions – the rule of law, a free press, a vibrant civil society – that are the bedrock of any democracy.
At the same time massive investment must be made to professionalize the police force, the court system, parliament among other institutions. The government could strengthen itself by enforcing the law and attack corruption at its basic level by paying civil service class regularly and fairly.
Let’s analyze the latest outburst and its genesis. In July thousands took to the streets to protest a nearly 50 percent increase in the price of gas. The protests became violent and most of the police force watched idly while people were attacked and property destroyed.
While those protests fizzled eventually, everyone knew it was a matter of time before tensions exploded again. Last month, they did. And there are no signs that things will return to normal any time soon.
The catalyst for this latest round of turbulence has been the Petrocaribe affair. An oil and cash deal from Venezuela where billions in loan remained unaccounted for and the government is struggling to give a plausible explanation as people have taken to the streets demanding answers.
Lately, the Petrocaribe protests have widened to include calls President Jovenel Moise departure. I believe it is a huge mistake to conflate the two issues. The Petrocaribe case can stand on its own and garner meaningful results if the right pressure is put on those responsible. Asking for a government premature exit based on the fact that he is ineffectual isn’t part of democracy.
If that were the case, the U.S. would have taken care of its own problem with its own incompetent president. You get rid of a president who isn’t charged with a crime by presenting a strong opposition and offering ideas of where you want to lead the country. A credible opposition must be for something, not against someone.
I was in Haiti to cover Moise’s elections two years ago. A sad affair it was. Less than 10 percent of eligible voters bothered to cast a vote and the opposition fielded some weak candidates and essentially threw up their hands and assumed the obstructionist position.
It was clear that Moise was in over his head as president. He had no natural base, having the distinction of being a puppet of his predecessor, Michel Martelly, who plucked him from obscurity to be his handpicked candidate. Martelly left the country in a constitutional crisis after being forced to vacate the presidency for failing to organize legislative and local elections two years after they were due.
So anyone who is seriously pushing for Moise’s departure cannot be taken seriously. This is fools’ gold and our history has shown us that doesn’t change anything because the problems we’re facing are more profound than just one man.
What is the solution and how should the powers that be handle this latest crisis that some people predict may result in more violence? There are no easy solutions. Western officials keep asking for dialogue when talk is not the problem. Haitians have a zero sum approach to negotiations and do not bargain in good faith.
At the same time, while Western diplomats have weighed in with words, it is clear they are not following up with any deeds. Many countries face their own internal problems and Haiti fatigue reigns in many capitals around the world. Haitian leaders need to wake up to the reality that they are on their own. There is no appetite for another United Nations or any other foreign invasion. No additional resources will be allocated to Haiti.
This is a self-created crisis and the solution rests squarely on our shoulders if we want to attain it. It’s time for political leaders, business elites, civil society and the average Haitian to roll up their sleeves and decide what kind of country they want to live in and what kind of society they want to leave for their children.
Until we come to this realization, there will not be stability in Haiti in the near future.