Sunday, January 11 marked the ten-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, centered near Port-au-Prince, that killed 220,000 or more people, and displaced millions. Being a ten year anniversary, there were a number of retrospective political analyses looking at the current crisis through the lens of events in the ten years since the quake. The weakening of the economy, corruption in the deployment of development assistance, the cholera outbreak brought on by UN carelessness in 2010, and additional disasters in the intervening years like Hurricane Matthew, all punctuated by controversial election processes, serve as a backdrop for discussions of the current economic crisis and protests calling on president Jovenel Moïse to step down. What lessons emerged in a week of commemoration? Let’s see….
One lesson, apparently, is the need for new legislation in the U.S. Congress: The Haiti Development, Accountability and Institutional Transparency Initiative Act. I’m not sure the intent of the title, but it comes close to just being the HAITI Act – which is…clever? This act was introduced specifically to mark the anniversary of the earthquake. The bill requires a number of investigations: Investigations into the massacre at La Saline, how to better protect the freedom of the press, how to better take action against corruption through investigating individual governmental and non-governmental leaders, and assessing delivery of U.S. disaster assistance, including investigation of the Caracol industrial park (the only major U.S.-funded project anyone can really point to in the last ten years, and not usually positively). None of this is particularly controversial. I mean who could argue against investigating human rights violations, corruption and assessing the impact of U.S. aid, right? But as the primary mechanism for these investigations in the bill is the U.S. State Department in “consultation” with the non-governmental sector, I am not holding my breath for a substantive re-evaluation of anything, assuming the bill even gets a vote.
Meanwhile, over the last week the major transition in Haiti was the departure of two-thirds of the Senate, and all of the lower house. In the absence of elections, originally scheduled for last October, all of these Parliamentary terms expired. The ten remaining senators cannot form a quorum. As a result, starting Monday, January 13, President Jovenel Moïse began governing through decree. His first act was a commitment to allocate the money saved by not having to pay salaries to members of Parliament to build 10 new schools. From Jacqueline Charles of the Miami Herald, “The amount, about $16.3 million, would have gone to pay 118 members of the Lower Chamber of Deputies and 19 senators this year. The entire budget of the Parliament is roughly $60 million. Moïse did not say what he plans to do with the rest of the money.” By sending a message that Parliament is unnecessary and/or wasteful, the symbolism of Moïse’s first decree is somewhat alarming – though in the short-term it is likely to play well. Certainly the country needs new schools.
Toward the end of the week Moïse was indicating he would use his decree power to offer a new constitution that would be put to a vote through a popular referendum. Reuters reported, “The president aims to get the new constitution drafted within three months of being started, the source said, and voted on in a referendum by year-end.” Specific proposals are not yet drafted, but the sense is that a new constitution would seek to weaken the authority of the Prime Minister/Parliament in Haiti’s system of dual executive rule. In times past, a presidential, or unitary executive, has been promoted with mixed reception. Hard to say where all of this will go.
With the partisan opposition sidelined (along with parliament), perhaps Moïse will have more space to operate. However, while members of parliament may have been the most vocal opponents, they were hardly the only ones. Certainly among the younger generation of activists represented in some sense by the PetroChallenger movement, most of the political leadership is viewed as corrupt. Which is just to say Moïse may not be the best person to lead constitutional reform, given that the country has periodically erupted into massive protests over the last 18 months in an effort to get rid of him.
Everybody knows this, of course. It is just worth repeating, as the U.S. government and international organizations continue to act as if the problems in Haiti are institutional design problems, and somehow Moïse’s political survival would be emblematic of successful design. “Moise won his election, after all,” they’ll say, “he should finish his term.” Without a parliament, Moïse can write his own electoral law and offer constitutional reforms. The United States will have Moïse’s back because ultimately the U.S. government only wants enough stability to keep Haiti profitable for those who seek to use it (not the people who live there). The Trump administration made this clear by parading a series of officials through Haiti in December for photo ops in order to demonstrate their commitment to Moïse.
Which brings us back to the elephant in the hemisphere: U.S. policy. One consistent theme over the last ten years -— really the last 216 years — is the sense of entitlement with which the U.S. government lectures Haitians (really everybody, but I am trying to focus here). It is a bizarre dance whereby the U.S. government intervenes on behalf of a relatively small elite, to keep them in power over the express desire of most Haitians, while keeping the impoverished majority at bay (or at least unrepresented). It was the Obama administration that gifted Martelly and then Moïse to Haiti, after all, in the name of appearances. Then, when things don’t go well, some U.S. policy maker or congressional committee steps up to the mic to critique that same elite for lousy governance. I’m not sure the critique helps so much. What might help? Stepping out of the way so an actual democracy could emerge in Haiti. Then Haitians could hold each other more directly accountable. They would do a much better job I think. They could hardly do worse than the UN/US/Core Group-installed government they’ve been saddled with.
That, at least, is one lesson one might draw from the last ten years.