In 2004, as Haiti was set to celebrate its 200th year of independence from France, the business community and the political opposition thought it was a grand idea to remove Jean Bertrand Aristide from power.
Leading the chorus was an ad hoc organization of civil society and politicians, called Group 184. It drafted a plan and vowed that once Aristide was out of office, they would restore Haiti to its former glory in less than three months. Haiti’s problems, as they saw it, rested with Aristide.
Unfortunately, we continue to hear the same tired narrative at every crossroads, which we had heard many times before and since 2004. Today’s boogeyman is the gangs. I have spoken to many people who truly believe that once Barbecue, Ti Je – the colorful names of the current crop of gang leaders – are out of the picture, Haiti will be a better place.
But, will it be? It was not better in the last decade or so. It was stuck. We’ve been kicking the can down the road and now we’re at a dead end with nowhere to go. Let’s take a look at the recent assassination of president Jovenel Moise. That July 7 murder shocked the world and put Haiti in a tailspin from which it is still reeling.
You would think that as jarring as the assassination of a sitting president is these days, it would bring the nation together and that we’d be more reflective and assess where we are as a society. Instead, the political parties writ large have been silent and have offered few ideas to restore some political stability.
Then again, prior to the assassination, there were daily calls for Moise’s departure where, you guessed it, we were told once again that Haiti’s problems could be solved if Moise were no longer in power.
These days, the conversation about the state of affairs rests on the international community’s nefarious actions in Haiti and the negative impact they have had on Haiti and its impoverished people. Some of them border on conspiracy theories that are not worth repeating.
I’m not discounting the role of the international community here. I have written about failed policies of the United States, the United Nations and the Organization of American States. But laying the blame solely at their feet is intellectual dishonesty at best. Delusional, at worst.
Andy Apaid, the garment factory owner who was the vocal leader of Group 184, did get his wish. Aristide was whisked away and the U.S sent in Marines to stabilize the country before passing the baton to the UN, which called that mission MINUSTAH and stayed in the country for 17 years.
The garment industry got its wishes with the HOPE Act, which lowered or eliminated tariffs on garment exports from Haiti to the U.S. I’m sure Apaid made plenty of money. But the country got nothing in return. Under the UN stewardship, Rene Preval was elected for a second time, Michel Martelly was elected and eventually Moise was as well. He ruled until he was killed. There were no coups or this level of prolonged unrest to speak of.
However, the elections, except for Preval’s, were deeply flawed and the country was not governed well. The U.N. presence masked a lot of problems that were percolating below the surface. The current situation with the gangs existed long before the U.N. presence in Haiti.
One question that few, if any, in Haiti bothered to ask themselves is why the U.N. was in Haiti in the first place. The U.N. usually sends troops to places ravaged by civil wars, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kosovo, to name a few. But Haiti wasn’t facing a civil war, it was mired in a political stalemate that had descended into chaos.
Our inability to solve our problems among ourselves have had more negative impact on the country than whatever harms the international community has done. The U.N. was responsible for a cholera epidemic and some soldiers were accused of rape and assault.
Imagine what would have happened if Aristide could have been trusted to carry out his terms, with the opposition offering a better alternative and marshaling support among the population? Is that asking too much? By the look of things now, we’re repeating the same mistakes.
Gangs throw a curveball
The second ouster of Aristide had generated quite a bit of news and the New York Daily News, which doesn’t cover Haiti much, decided to send one of its staff writers, Leslie Casimir, to cover the events.
Leslie and I met for dinner a couple of days before she to Haiti. I had put her in touch with a few trusted sources and my brother as her driver. She seemed worried about the situation and I assured her that she was in good hands.
I was sure that Sergo could navigate his way across Port-au-Prince. The Pierre-Pierres were one of the first settlers of that neighborhood and Sergo had lived in Bel Air all of his life and knew everything and everyone. He had gotten me out of some hairy situations in the city and across the country.
A few days later, the Daily News front page story was of Leslie being accosted and her driver assaulted. I’d been wrong. I underestimated the new reality on the ground. There was an anger and resentment that had been building up among the city’s dwellers. The assault on Aristide, in their mind, was a personal affront and they would deal with the perpetrators by any means necessary.
That caught me by surprise.
Under Aristide’s watch, the gang situation had worsened and once his tenure appeared tenuous, these young men unleashed a reign of terror, which lasted until the U.N. arrived. But once the nightlife returned and people could drive without much worry, most Haitians didn’t think or care about what was happening in these neighborhoods where the majority of the poor lived under conditions that are unfit for human beings.
The leadership mirage
The country’s leaders never worried about the gangs falsely thinking that the situation had been taken care of. Martelly was promising a country of milk and honey and promoting Haiti as a tourist destination. He unleashed a public relations campaign befitting the superstar musician that he was. It was all a mirage.
He did what he knows best: he organized two carnivals per year during his five-year term. One of Martelly’s prime ministers told me that once they were in a meeting and the conversation was turning technical and beyond the president’s comprehension and grasp, he would start to utter banalities, disrupting the meeting with no meaningful understanding and no decision taken.
As we try to reset the button once again in Haiti, let’s bear in mind that we’ve met the enemy and the enemy is us.