Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts on Haiti’s elections

Writing from one land of misrule (the United States or, more specifically, New Orleans) about another (in this case Haiti) is always a tricky business. As much as I would have loved to have been on the ground in Haiti for the presidential and parliamentary elections conducted this past Sunday, my work in Guatemala - researching drug trafficking and organized crime - precluded it. However, one doesn’t spend as long as I have visiting and living in Haiti without wanting to follow such a momentous development closely, if only from afar.

In the recent months in the aftermath of January’s catastrophic earthquake that leveled Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince and surrounding towns such as Léogâne and Petit-Goâve - killing well over 200,000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more - I had grown increasingly worried that the conditions for a well-organized, credible ballot simply did not exist in the country, despite what the voices of the international community were saying.

With well over a million people still homeless and the infrastructure of the electoral authorities decimated by the quake, it struck me as reckless in the extreme that Haiti’s voting process - often fraught and politicized even during what pass for “normal” times in Haiti - would come off well. The last-minute decision of the INITE coalition of Haiti’s current president, René Préval, to throw Préval’s former Prime Minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, overboard in favour of Jude Célestin, the heretofore largely unknown former director of the country’s Centre National des Équipements, likewise to me suggested a dangerous dissension and division at the very top of the political process. That discredited men of violence such as Nawoon Marcellus - who routinely violently dispersed anti-government demonstrations in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien during his affiliation with the 2001-2004 government of disgraced former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide - would be running on the ruling party's ticket was cause for further concern.

The exclusion of Mr. Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party - now a badly fictionalized and divided image of its former self, with many of its former grandees such as Mr. Marcellus and former Prime Minister Yvon Neptune having migrated to other political groupings - was, in my view, also conducted by unlawful means, despite the party's mediocre showing in Haiti's 2006 general elections.

During and shortly after the voting on Sunday, reports began filtering in to me regarding its progress from friends of mine both within and outside of Haiti.

This from a friend who spent more than a decade living in Haiti:

Spoke with my people in Les Cayes. Lots of intimidation at the polling places and this was for the people who were allowed the vote. They are apparently turning away potential voters by the drove.

And this, from a friend with family near Pignon, close to Haiti’s second largest city, Cap-Haïtien:

My wife's brother and cousin [are] in the commune of La Jeune just outside of Pignon. They were attacked by a group of people paid by the INITE party yesterday morning. Evidently INITE had paid a bunch of people money to vote for Célestin and most of them turned around and voted for Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly...The attackers accused my brother-in-law and cousin-in-law of sending a list of actors (intimidators, "magouyè") to the police so they went to be brother-in-law's house armed with machetes and guns. One man beat up my wife's uncle. Another fired a shot over my nephew's head. My brother-in-law wasn't home at the time, but he knows nothing about any list. He's a local candidate for magistrate in Pignon, so it seems they're blaming him and his influence on the lack of votes for Célestin...He told me they're still saying they're going to kill him and his cousin but they're not backing down because they did nothing wrong...If this is happening in a place like Pignon I can only imagine it's happening in many other places, too.

And finally, in a typically comic Haiti touch, from another friend near Port-au-Prince:

Yesterday a dog wearing a Jude Célestin yellow and green campaign t-shirt was sent running down the Kenscoff Road.

In the central city of St. Marc - site of a ghastly massacre by government forces and allied street gangs during the waning days of Aristide’s government in February 2004 - at least fifteen people were injured, including six by gunfire, protesting Sunday’s vote. Several leading candidates for presidency had called on the vote to be annulled, a demand that was modified when it appeared that some of them may in fact be very close to winning if not the ballot as a whole than a place in any potential run-off.

Most worrisome developments, to say the least, especially for those of us who have been observing Haiti for some years and know that the disputed ballots of one year can plant the seeds of chaos that will bloom later.

We are once again confronted with the figure of René Préval, one of Haiti’s most enigmatic politicians, presiding over a deeply compromised and flawed election, as he did in 1997 and 2000 during his first tenure as Haiti’s president, but who has nevertheless governed as one of the more unassuming and least violence-prone of Haitian leaders. Based on my travels around Haiti since 1997, until the earthquake Préval was the single figure in which both Haiti’s poor majority and its economic elite could meet and find common ground. The earthquake, and the government’s disorganized, piecemeal response to it - helped along by an international community that, after the initial trauma, seemed to view Haitian lives and suffering as essentially worthless - has effectively shattered this paradigm, it appears.

As I pointed out in a July opinion piece for The Guardian, it was the economic policies of the international community, along with Haiti’s own irresponsible and rapacious political and economic elites (not always one and the same), that helped drive so many Haitians into the slums of Port-au-Prince where so many of them died. Haiti’s deep structural and political problems have almost always fallen victim to expediency where foreigners, well-meaning and otherwise, were concerned, and the agonizingly slow pace of Haiti’s partners abroad to deliver aid to a country a county on its knees has been sobering for the callousness and cynicism that it has displayed.

Such events have also given an opening for the destructive forces who always seek advantage from Haiti’s misery to move in, and not only from Haiti’s political class itself.

Groups such as the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which also denounced Haiti’s legitimately democratic 2006 elections, lined up to denounce Sunday’s poll before the results were even announced.

This is not surprising as the IJDH has proven itself in the past to be little more that a well-oiled cog in Mr. Aristide’s propaganda machine, linked inextricably as it is with Miami attorney Ira Kurzban, one of the group’s founders and donors who also sits on its Board of Directors. According to U.S. Department of Justice filings, between 2001 and 2004 Mr. Kurzban’s law firm received nearly $5 million from the Aristide government on behalf of its lobbying efforts, and since Mr. Aristide’s subsequent 2004 ouster from Haiti, Mr. Kurzban has frequently identified himself as the former president’s personal attorney in the United States.

For its part, the CEPR, led by the dishonest and opportunistic arriviste Mark Weisbrot, is perhaps better qualified at weighing in at white-tablecloth Washington luncheons than on the reality of Haiti’s poor majority, but that has never stopped them before. They have tried in recent years to buttress their profile by exploiting Haiti’s woe to further line their own pockets, and they did so again after Sunday's vote.

Such groups, as well as violent, naysaying forces among Haiti's political aspirants, have much to gain from as deeply flawed a ballot as appears to have taken place this past weekend.

But the question remains, where to from here?

It my deep hope, perhaps a naive one, that being one of the very few leaders in Haitian history able to retire to his country home after serving out the full length of his democratically-elected term, René Préval will allow the legitimate electoral desires of the Haitian people to be expressed, no matter if it means that his chosen successor will go down in defeat or not. This will, ultimately, be the final act on which history will judge him and the final good deed he could do in the service of his people. Even before the earthquake, I have first-hand seen Haitians endure unimaginable hardship and difficulty as part of their daily lives at a level that most people can’t even begin to imagine. Since the earthquake, their lot has become more difficult still.

Elections may seem like an imperfect, dull tool with which to confront such systemic problems as rampant environmental degradation, weak institutional traditions, yawning economic inequality and a large swathe of the country that continues to lie in ruins, but it is the best tool that, for the moment, the Haitians have at their disposal.

The Haitians have been deprived of so much. In the cases of the 1.5 million still living in tent cities in and around Port-au-Prince, they have even been deprived of their already-modest homes.

They should not be deprived of their votes, as well.

Exit well, Mr. Préval.

Kenbe fem, tout moun.


Regine Barjon said...

Mr. Deibert,

I truly appreciate your insight on the elections.

But I would like to point that in spite of all the current going ons, - Haiti's real problems all stem mainly from a lack of money. Meaning a lack of available investment dollars for economic development and job creation; and from distinct misguided "investments" and/or funds allocation from institutions such as USAID and others.
What Haiti needs now is long-term and sustainable economic development for job creation. Period.
The international community must adopt and finance programs and projects that make sense and that meet actual Haitian needs as well as capacity and existing realities.
The solution of band-aids however expensive will not heal a cancer patient. The international community’s program of containment and/or of one meal a day and nothing else is proving more expensive in the long-term for both the donors and the Haitian people.
The Result has been economic serfdom, consistent socio-political instability and chaos.
What is the reality? Let's look at the numbers:
2 out of every 3 Haitians are farmers. Farmers represent 66% of Haiti’s workforce.
Haiti imports over 60% of its food, - of which rice sugar and poultry represent over US$ 500 Million per year or over 50% of Haiti's annual trade deficit. All of these products can and were produced locally less than 30 years ago. These products represent the foundation of Haitian economic revitalization.
Haiti has 700,000 hectares of underutilized land.
Only one in 10 Haitian farmer has access to irrigation.
Haiti has less than 10% of the seed stock necessary to ensure good harvests.
Haiti has an over 60% unemployment rate.
Haiti is one of the most food-insecure places on earth with 58% of Haitians lacking adequate access to food (=5.2 million people)
60% of the Government of Haiti's budget depends on international donors.
Haitians cut millions of trees every year for energy use, -primarily cooking and due to inability to afford alternative fuels that are on the market, - such as kerosene, etc... Less that 10 % of the Haitian population has access to electricity.
Yet Haiti has 2 sugar mills which with some investments could produce 30 megawatts of renewable green electricity while also reducing the country’s energy deficit by 50 %; As well as reduce the sugar imports by 70%, - which would also improve GDP and reduce the trade deficit by over 10%.

What are the Solutions?
The international community has pledged over US$ 11 billion to Haiti and the US generally provides Haiti with some + 300 million dollars to US$ 500 million per year, - with fiscal 2010 planned budget of US$ 1.2 billion, - increased as a result if the earthquake.
Yet an investment of only US$ 350 MM in agriculture towards Haiti's staple foods sectors would create an estimated 250,000 jobs, - resulting in food security for 2,000,000 people since each worker in Haiti cares and feeds 8 others.
This same investment would reduce Haiti's annual trade deficit by 50% within 2 years and produce 30 megawatts of electricity, - thereby providing more affordable and accessible electricity to Haitians, - which in turn would contribute to the infrastructural foundation needed to promote and invite foreign investments.
All of the above would establish the base for viable economic development aka job creation, socio-economic and political stability.
Result: an Economic Self-sufficient Haiti.

Michael Deibert said...

Dear Regine,

I couldn't agree with you more about how essential the agricultural/peasant sector is to Haiti's future growth and in fact wrote about it, among other places, here.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article and share your thoughts.

All best,


Figaro said...

Hello, Michael:

I hope you're well. I have enjoyed reading your analyses on Haiti even though I have never made any comments. "The Last Testament" is a must have on one's bookshelf.

Thanks for your comments on my blog. I usually post on friends' blogs, but I think from now on I will work to develop my own blog.

As you know, the situation in Haiti is serious and difficult. My hope is that the players will seize this moment to engage in a constructive dialogue and be serious in moving the country forward. I hope that the hyper-partisanship rhetoric that has derailed the country for so long is reduced so that people can begin to find ways to work together. Yes, I am highly idealistic but, hey, one has try.

Thanks again, I wish you well.


Michael Deibert said...

Thanks, Figaro. I look forward to reading your new posts!