Building Confidence in a Desperate Nation


By Christmas time 2005, the Haitian Diaspora, largely in the US and Canada, was hopeful for a new dynamic in Haitian politics. It wasn’t as much if at all, about the possibility that René Préval could become the next president. Instead it was the mere fact that back home, Haitians once more were to dip their hands in the ink of democracy through their choice of new political leaders. Hope there was, against most odds.

By Christmas 2006, and seven months into the Préval presidency people are, either resigned to the dreadful kidnapping reality in the capital city, or angry. The security situation has not changed. The executive branch of government seems unable or unwilling to reform the political system. The police force and the judiciary are at odds, accusing each other of corruption, of aiding and/or abetting in the kidnappings nightmare.

The dynamics of power in Haitian politics.

Haiti has remained at a very low point in its political history. The nightmare was always palpable. However in the past, one could certainly put the blame on dictatorial leaderships or the much too powerful executive branch. Since the fall of Baby Doc however, changes have begun to occur, starting with a new and democratic constitution, approved almost 20 years ago in 1987 by referendum. Unfortunately thus far government, at all levels, is reluctant or unable to reform the political system in its necessary depth.

It is not enough to have elections; it is imperative to change the way government works. That implies working by consensus and also, a different vision of the state and its roles. This also implies that many actors, who until then were quasi irrelevant for how Haitians conduct politics, have to be heard in a way that can and will be conducive to systematic and systemic progress.

It is first and foremost in that context, that one needs to understand why Haiti is still such a weak state. Government is not proactive but rather, reactive. Legislators barely know or understand their role. The state institutions, bedrock of any functional and effective state, are barely adequate in staffing and technical know-how. In fact, many are hired not on the basis of knowledge but instead, on the basis of kinship (social and/or political).

Those dynamics, needless to say, need to change. For those changes to occur, the thought process in all avenues of power have to be first in terms of transforming the state from predatory to positively functional to the benefit of all. The executive branch of government also has to communicate effectively and in clear language its decisions and the reasons thereof.

Changing the dynamics, and the current political leadership.

Perception suggests, and reality shows that things have not moved on, at least not sufficiently for the better in Haiti, although they can be. An inventory, exhaustive or partial, of the current situation is quite revealing in that aspect. Whether one considers the economic situation, or the kidnappers’ daring, or the legislature’s actions or inaction, it is evident that much can and needs to be done regardless of the economic situation.

Haitians hold dear to the myth that the notion of state will not carry through in the nation unless and until the international community dumps monies into government coffers. However, quite a bit can be done structurally, which in turn will make it much easier for international institutions to help. If thus far, despite promises, International Financial Institutions (heretofore IFI’s) have disbursed very little aid, the reasons are not solely conspiracy-driven but mostly confidence-lacking.

The myth of conspiracy and the reality of confidence-lacking.

After the fall of elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, the IFI’s assured Haiti of as much as U.S. $1.5 billion. It is not sure how much of that money had been disbursed but some had. Still, very little of that money has been accounted for in terms of allocation for public project. Even worse, costs of projects varied or got inflated to satisfy the seemingly gargantuan appetite of individuals close to the circle of power. Even worse, shortly after Préval returned to power, the previous Prime Minister Latortue returned two comfortable Japanese cars that he had purchased with state money, which he was using for personal and private use in Florida.

Such an attitude, is not only indicative of how pervasive the problem is with Haitians in general towards the res publica, but also explains why the IFI’s are so reluctant to disburse money to the Haitian state. There are nonetheless promises and assurances given to this newly elected government. However, very little of that money has been forwarded to Haiti, while large chunks of the whole are being given to nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s). The probably false hope is that with the IFI’s going that route, there will be greater and better accountability. If anything, considering the lack of accountability of NGO’s in Haiti, IFI’s may simply be transferring the corruption canal from one avenue to another with even less roadblocks.

When it comes to the 2004—2006 Latortue government, the general consensus is that it was a failure. Corruption was still rampant; people went to jail solely because of their political association with the previous régime. Meanwhile, fearing government and UN forces reprisals for political reasons, poorer sections of the capital were Aristide partisans and militia members reside like Cite Soleil and Bel-Air became dead-men zone for outsiders. The kidnapping phenomenon sprouted there, both by elements from within and by others who brought their victims to that section of the capital where otherwise legitimate authority would simply not venture.

The vast majority of people from those neighborhoods went out and voted on February 7 to elect Préval. Yet, more than eight months after Préval was installed into office, many chosen elements of the old régime, from the diplomatic corps down to the state institutions, are still in their old jobs. Thus, the hard left and even some moderates have begun to blow their political horns, frustrated at the pace of reforms in the new administration. In fact, large portions of the population are slowly yet steadily losing confidence in the Préval administration.

Building confidence.

The task of building confidence for things to get accomplished falls on the lap of the current political leadership. The executive, legislative, and judiciary branches have to make decisions that are transparent and rational, even to the displeasure of many among their own constituents. Since all eyes are focused on the executive branch of government, this is probably where it all has to begin.

Consider for instance, the seemingly simple issue of the current diplomatic corps. For a large portion of the electorate and sympathizers who voted for the current president, it is rather odd that to date, Haiti doesn’t officially, technically have ambassadors virtually anywhere.

Government traditionally, since 1992, proposes to Parliament the next Haitian ambassador to any foreign country. After hearing, the person selected by the government for an ambassadorial post to a foreign country is either approved or rejected.

After Préval’s return to power in 2006, it was expected that he would adhere to the law and traditions, and present to Parliament his choices for Haitian ambassadors. There has been no new official nomination thus far. Thus, those who held ambassadorial posts during the previous administration are still holding it. They’re doing so with the new Haitian government having yet to send officially to any foreign head of state its official letter that confirms the current chargé d’affaires as its official representative.

Granted, Haiti is still grappling with animosity between and among political competitors. It is also largely accepted that President Préval and former Prime Minister Gérard Latortue do not cover themselves under the same or similar political sheets. However, the current government may have decided (or encouraged by powerful allies in the international community, as some argue) to keep in place those who held their diplomatic position under the Latortue régime. There is however, a very serious issue which at first may appear to be just technical when in fact, it may have very real and negative ramifications.

Imagine the Haitian ambassador in Paris. He is technically, the highest representative of the Haitian government in France. His stature as such, is one that must be formally given by the Haitian president, usually through a formal letter delivered through his ambassador, to his French counterpart during a short, official ceremony. Only then does the Haitian diplomat become Haiti’s ambassador to France. This is a technical, yet significant issue because otherwise, the highest Haitian diplomat in the capital city of France is a simple chargé d’affaires. This rather technical aspect of the diplomatic corps has significant ramifications that those immersed into international administrative politics can fully comprehend.

Those mostly prone to conspiracy believe that Préval is forced to keep the diplomatic corps intact, as it was between 2004 and 2006. True or untrue, this is a situation that creates a certain malaise, especially among his core constituents. If for whatever reason, Préval decides to keep the Haitian diplomats abroad in their current post, the need to formalize their hold on the post is crucial. Putting it simply, those diplomats need to come to the capital city before Parliament as Préval’s formal choice for ambassadors in respective world capitals. They need to go through the formal and technical process of responding to Haitian lawmakers’ relevant questions, and then be voted on.

The apparent refusal to adhere to this seemingly simple formality shows how the state of Haiti is endemically dysfunctional. At the same time, it erodes from the bare level of confidence that even the most fervent partisans of the current government has or could have in his régime.

Communication-hungry.

The most ardent partisans will argue for Préval’s communicative style, which prizes silence as a positive argumentative tool. To them, actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, that communicative style is much more a remnant of a past that was at best authoritative. It was the one used in the not-so-distant past, by the likes of Duvalier to better trap his political adversaries and even give them the ultimate punishment for their opposition to his rule: death.

This is also a style that is deeply rooted in the Haitian culture itself. There is this saying for instance in Haitian: pa kite pawó- la vante (do not let people know of your intentions, for that will spoil your chances of success).

Granted, unless someone is arguing in bad faith, it cannot be said that Préval is a dictator, or one in the making. He is nevertheless Haitian, in every sense of the word, and seems to truly believe that the best way to prove his critics wrong is by keeping silent, letting them realize much later that all along, he was working on specific projects. This is essentially how he approached government between 1996 and 2001, the first time he was in power.

This is not however, the way democratic governments work. Communicating one’s agenda and policy initiatives are part of the democratic process. That in turn, encourages and even promotes transparency. It makes it easier to make government accountable for their actions or inactions. It also serves well in the political process, because it helps advance the process of debating the validity of governmental initiatives.

In the current situation, communicating governmental intentions and deeds will help increase the confidence level of not just government’s constituents but also opponents. There is deep societal hunger for better communication at the highest level so people can understand the whys and the what’s of government’s policies. After all, this silence-as-policy of Préval can be translated in so many different ways, from fear to condescendence to lack of confidence in his own capacity to do things. Worse, it adds to the general public’s feeling of being let go, of being alone when everything else is going wrong.
Otherwise, anyone can effectively argue that the government itself lacks confidence in its actions and level of authority.
A way to communicate through actions.

If the government takes the initiative of sending to Parliament all members of the diplomatic corps that shall represent it abroad, it would have accomplished more than one thing in this period of uncertainty, and even malaise.

On the one hand, it would have signaled to the opposition, the international community, and perhaps most importantly its partisans that it is committed to working with the opposition in a coalition because the nation is in a period of deep crisis. At the same time, the government would conform to a parliamentary process that has not only come to have traditional and even legal value, but also confirms his respect for the constitutional authority of another governmental branch. This would also finally, end all speculations by the very government representatives themselves, who are abroad and are supposed to have full authority as ambassadors to protect the interest of the nation.

Currently and as they are technically still in limbo, their legal authority is limited as chargé d’affaires. They may have very little incentives as such to start out projects which they might rightfully fear, may be completely rejected once the government in Port-au-Prince decides to terminate their temporary stay at their respective embassy.

Dimensions of the Systemic Crisis: the Judiciary and the Legislature

Although most kidnappings take place in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the repercussions nationally and abroad are far worse. The perception that has thus far ensued is that Haiti is not only lawless but also, incapable to deal with its own demons. Potential investors, whether they are international, reside in Haiti, or are of the Diaspora hesitate at best to risk bringing along a portfolio that will create employment.

As at this time of crisis, the government seems willing and able to adhere to its policy of embracing all sides, it should have been easier by now to at least plant the seeds for creating an effective security service. This is such an opportune time to finally start putting an end to the continual series of “crime with impunity” in Haiti.

A well structured and balanced security service can be viewed much easier at this time, not as a political instrument for the powerful but as a tool to combat rampant and unpunished crimes. This is such an opportune time, for even mainstream analysis of the present security situation in the capital and its periphery suggests that many individuals from the right and left edges are using kidnappings as a strategic and tactical tool for political and economic gain.

The problems in the very conception of state authority in Haiti are enormous yet, solvable. The approach thus far, has been haphazard. The consequences have been surprising to so many people, yet anticipated for those who either knew or have come to realize that the real issue is not individualistic but rather, systemic.

Even the judicial system has to deal with its own demons. It now seems that the executive branch is stepping away from trying to over-influence the way justice is delivered. As it does, powerful individuals are trying to block the judicial process if and when their name is rightly or wrongly implicated in misdeeds. The now infamous case of “Michael Lucius” is a classic prototype. Summoned for questioning by a judge for his alleged implication in kidnappings, he ranted continuously in sympathetic media and even used derisory language to disqualify the judge.

In any law-abiding country, the issue would have been resolved based on law. This judicial case has instead become political , with powerful individuals protecting the accused and effectively forcing the investigative judge to transfer this particular “Lucius” docket to another judge. Since then, no one has heard of the issue.
Under such constraints, Parliament should play its role as an effective buffer between the judiciary and the executive branch. They could have taken it into their hands to at least propose legislations that prevent powerful individuals from negating any judge their right of subpoena.

This case did more harm to the judiciary than the eyes can temporarily see. It is a horrific precedent, as it reinforces the conviction of the average individual that the traditionally powerful, even in a stumbling democratic system, is still unfairly as powerful, can commit crime with impunity, and is even above the law. Regardless of Lucius’ guilt, or hopefully innocence, the lack of respect of the judicial process in this case is patent.

In essence, the executive branch does not provide the confidence needed to bolster growth and stability; the judiciary is perceived to not only be weak, but also ineffective and even irrelevant; the Parliament is functioning, yet, has very little to show as it is more reactive than proactive.

There is for instance, not a single piece of legislation known to the public, passed by Parliament during this past 8 months which is truly its own. They may perform their function of checking on government. However, they have yet to exercise their legislative influence in a way that the larger public can find to have been positive.

As Haiti’s political crisis deepens, the hope that Parliament would show greater ingenuity to tackle the myriad of systemic and security issues has all been all but dashed. Regardless, even if reactive, the lack of creative thinking from political thinkers in government and political parties is notable. Yet, the potential is there.

Fear seems to have become the greatest inhibitor in this struggling democracy. If fear can be an enhancer of human imagination, it has not proven to be so thus far when it comes to management of the current Haiti crisis.

Although caution and precaution are keys to hold very near and dear, if this Haiti crisis is to finally be resolved, political leaders on all sides ought to make the leap forward, towards rational decisions that are legally and constitutionally correct. Once done, once the systemic machines are in place and all technicalities have been dealt with, all that will remain to do is start the engine so Haiti can start running on the road to progress. Even if they start at a mere 5 miles per day or month, at least the population and the rest of the world, including the Diaspora, have to feel the movement forward. This is government builds confidence: through rational decisions; as impartially as possible; and with forces and powers that ensure legitimate forms of stability that are legally construed.

Is there hope?

People are still jailed tragically because of political beliefs. Kidnappings are rampant in the capital, keeping the Diaspora and the whole tourism industry out of Haiti. Businesses shut down, downsize, or are holding by a simple thread. Meanwhile, the executive branch is hesitant to articulate its goals and policy orientations. The security situation is in dire strait. The judiciary is being wrongly tested by those who wrongly benefit from the status quo ante. The parliament, mirroring the state of the nation, is multiparty with very little ideological orientation.
Yet within that mess, lies great hope. At least the current president is not reputed as a power-hungry leader. Debates occur in the open, on the radio and throughout the capital city and the provincial towns. In fact, it is even a badge of honor for anyone to disagree with the current government, or any government for that matter: disagree to disagree. The diverse political parties in parliament have agreed to form blocs that vote together on issues. The executive branch is even questioned, with the Prime Minister having to constantly respond to legislators’ calls for public hearings about issues as important as the kidnappings phenomenon. The mere fact that people raise as an issue the refusal, of a high officer in the police force to appear before a judge, is progress. The mere fact that, the executive branch tries as much as possible to stay away from the court’s decision in this matter, also deserves praise.

Hope can be built upon but only with confidence. Hope there will be when the executive branch explains its do’s and don’ts; when parliament better plays its role as a buffer and an equal governmental branch; when a solidly professional and apolitical security service is in existence and follows through justly on discovering crimes and their perpetrators; when the judicial branch will no longer be the poor, weak, and panicked child among the three primary governmental branches; when people are hired in state institutions on the basis of what they know, not who they know.

Haiti is on a long, widely stretched road. But it is a road that it can walk on fearlessly toward its glorious end, if it has in its feet the right shoes to walk along the asphalt, or the muddy terrain and the rocky mountains. It is a road it can walk on fearlessly, if it carries its umbrella against the rain or the blazing sun. Those shoes, this umbrella, and every other protective gear are nothing other than the respect for law, adherence to process as substance, not just form, and fairness to all.

Hyppolite Pierre is author of “Haiti, Rising Flames from Burning Ashes”, published in 2006 by the University Press of America. He is currently writing a historical fiction about the leader of Haiti’s independence, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, entitled “Dialogue with Defile”.

 

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