By Garry Pierre-Pierre
Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 after 27 years behind bars and eventually went on to become South Africa’s president in a landslide vote. At the time there were speculations whether he would go the Zimbabwe route by punishing white South Africans who had oppressed the majority black South Africans.
Instead, Africa’s most developed country chose another path. Leaders with Mandela at the helm created a truth and reconciliation commission that ultimately brought the country together as everyone agreed that peace and prosperity trump discord and division.
Few in the world would have objected had Mandela taken a hard line with white South Africans who subjected blacks to subhuman conditions for decades. But by the time he was let out of prison, the old warrior had become a wise sage and had a different perspective on life and on the best course for his country that he purposely spent his best years in prison in defiance of the Apartheid system.
At the same time, Haiti was mired in an international crisis of its own when the wildly popular Jean Bertrand Aristide was ousted during a bloody coup on September 30, 1991. The military which orchestrated the coup, maintained power and many attempts by the international community to broker a solution went nowhere. It took more than 20,000 US soldiers to restore Aristide back to power. The US forces gave way to a UN mission that left several years later.
By 2003, Haiti was back in the news. This time, Aristide was yet again deposed, not by the military because the former president had disbanded the army that was such a thorn on his sides. The culprits were former soldiers who had fled the grips of the US Drug Enforcement Agency to the Dominican Republic. They crossed the border with their ragtag soldiers and marched to the palace just before Aristide was whisked away onto a waiting private place to live in exile yet again.
Unlike in 1991, the US tacitly approved the change of power as the country went through “some things” We could not come to a compromise despite the best of intentions of the players involved. In a rinse and repeat cycle, the U.S sent soldiers (this time significantly less) and paved the way for another UN mission.
So here we are yet again at another impasse. The country is smoldering. You hear of kidnappings and six-figure ransoms being paid. No one is safe. The government has lost total control of the situation. Government officials must negotiate with gang members for many things, even paying them to pick up a tank left in a slum during a botched raid that left five officers dead.
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This week, the Biden administration urged the Organization of American States to act quickly to form a mission to broker the latest crisis facing Haiti. Also this week, a group of more than 300 individuals and organizations in Haiti have formed a 13-member commission. Called the “Commission to Search for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis in Haiti,” the group is made of representatives from the Vodou sector, the Federation of Bars, the Episcopal Church of Haiti and the Protestant Federation of Haiti.
I applaud this initiative, as I’ve always said that any solution to Haiti has to come from within and not outside of the country. Of course, in partnership with international brokers and the diaspora.
However, my issue with some of the individuals who make up this commission is that they are for the most part the same players who created the Group 184 in 2003 and claimed that they wanted to unify the country. Many young people at the time believed them and became bitterly disappointed when they saw clearly that they had been played.
The Group 184 laid down for Aristide’s second coup when Haiti was celebrating its 200 years of independence. I remain astounded to this day that people thought this was a good idea. As the Group 184 was busy preparing their needs analysis survey of Haitian society, I got to know one of the architects of the group, a businessman in the textile industry.
When I flew down to Haiti I would sometimes stop by his factory near the airport. The last conversation we had about the situation, I said that I thought his strategy of pushing Aristide into a corner was not the best and that a cornered dog reacts violently. I went on to say that Aristide would not hesitate to unleash holy terror on the country if he felt his presidency was in danger.
The factory owner told me that my analysis was colored by my American lens and that I didn’t understand Haitian politics. “This is Haiti,” he said with emphasis on Haiti. “This is not the U.S” I left and we haven’t talked since then because I knew that this man was leading the country nowhere fast.
Haiti needs to take a lesson from the Motherland
I don’t know what the Commission’s agenda is and what it aims to achieve besides restoring order, broadly. What I do know is that they need to focus beyond today’s crisis. They need to go South African on this. We need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where grievances are aired and then set a national agenda for what kind of country we want to be. Do we want to be a nation of mendicants or the Pearl of the Antilles that we once were?
This is an excruciating and arduous task, but it must be done. Thirty years of steady chaos have shown us that society building is not for the faint of heart. People of all stripes must roll up their sleeves and get to work.
After we emerged from the 29-year Duvalier dictatorship, many leaders called for such a commission. The inequality, the lack of respect for the poor and marginalization of most people are what brought us where we are. We must reshuffle the deck and start fresh. We need a common agenda where we can come together for a better country with clear objectives.
Anything less than that will be as the old Kreyol proverb says lave men w siye l atè “wash your hands and wipe it on the floor”