Haiti After February 7th: Moving Beyond Dictatorship
For the past 212 years since Haiti emerged from the devastation left by France's effort to subjugate its people, we have been struggling to build a democracy. Serial leaders have rallied popular support with the promise of building democratic institutions, but few have succeeded. Like the vast majority of world leaders at the time, the first Haitian rulers were not democratically elected, however they did help to build a state where the people enjoyed more rights than those in other states.
Dessalines' 1805 Constitution recognized all people as created equal. Christophe's Rural Code has been widely recognized as offering laborers more protection than any other code of the time. However, as the world around Haiti became more democratic, leaders within Haiti, have continued their autocratic rule, often with the collaboration of foreign powers who have helped to undermine popular movements for democracy. Under US occupation in 1915-1934, the US dissolved parliament, disqualified popular leaders from elections, restricted free speech, closed some newspapers, and centralized power in Port-au-Prince.
Despite many roadblocks, we have made steady progress towards the popular vote. The 1950's saw Haitian women gain the right to vote like their male counterparts, and the right to vote for the president was extended beyond the Senate to include the entire population. Voters exercised these rights in the 1957 election that brought Francois Duvalier to power. Aided by the United States which decades earlier had neutralized the provinces and centralized power in Port-au-Prince, Duvalier ruled without any regional leaders to challenge his excesses. He weakened Haitian institutions and treated the people no differently and perhaps worse than under the US occupation. The devastation Duvalier brought upon the press, the congress, the supreme court, universities, labor unions, religious groups, set the modern stage for a country whose people would crave democracy but whose institutions would be too debilitated to limit the abuses of Duvalier and succeeding presidents.
After nearly three decades in power, the Duvalier dictatorship ended on February 7th, 1986. That date has become symbolic of the break with the dictatorial past. To take advantage of the general public hope for a better future with lasting democracy, the Haitian Constitution of 1987 codified February 7th as the date that all future governments would hand over power following a 5 year term.
In 1990, Jean Bertrand Aristide came to power in what was considered the first democratic election following the Duvalier years. Despite Aristide's widespread popularity, the charismatic ex-priest ruled in an autocratic manner, at times encouraging supporters to threaten his opponents with Pè Lebrun. While in office, Aristide failed to strengthen the impaired system with strong democratic institutions. Instead, he further weakened the state by filling parliament and other state offices with cronies. Aristide's opponents also failed to respect Haiti's Constitution by financing coup d'etats to remove him from office before he could reach the end of his 5 year terms.
In 2010, Michel Martelly, a recognized Duvalierist, came to power with the assistance of international actors including the U.S. Secretary of State, and the Organization of American States (OAS). Many other Duvalierists returned to government positions. To endear himself with international supporters, Martelly declared Haiti open for business. This translated into some of Haiti's islands being decreed as zones for tourist development. As local residents organized to resist dispossession, Martelly took advantage of the country's weak institutions to impose taxes on the diaspora for which he never reported how much was collected, nor how the money was spent.
In 2015, with the US Ambassador cheering in support, Martelly further eroded democratic institutions by proceeding to rule by decree after he failed to organize parliamentary elections. Before he organized the recent presidential elections which have been widely criticized as rigged, Martelly asked the population to vote for the person that he would rest his hands on, an imagery borrowed from Duvalier's photograph where he rested his hands on the shoulders of his 19-year-old son, Jean Claude, to whom he transmitted power.
Martelly has made many more transgressions in the past five years. Most recently, he attacked two journalists, Liliane Pierre Paul and Jean Monard Mettelus, for criticizing his excesses. In a merengue prepared for Carnival, Martelly mocks the journalists as he sings “Ba l bannann nan” (Give them the banana), a double edged message that encourages rape and sexual violence against opponents, while promoting the candidate Martelly has chosen to be his replacement.
Ever since the days of Duvalier, when the US was content to bolster the dictator as long as he prevented communism from spreading, Haiti has had no independent institution to organize elections. As a result, every 5 years since Duvalier's fall, there has been discord in the country around election time. Although the 1987 Constitution called for the creation of an independent body to organize elections, this commission was never created. An independent electoral commission would diminish the influence of the presidency over subsequent elections, and so each president has found a way to avoid building this independent institution. Instead, each government has practiced the art of making their own provisional electoral commission so that they can better control the outcome of elections when the international community forces them to hold elections. The art of selecting a crony through a selection process has been dubbed the “ti pas kout”, meaning a short pass to a loyal replacement so that the incumbent president can remain at the epicenter of power.
Elections in Haiti have been highly contentious ventures and the odds of winning usually favor the incumbent government controlling the electoral process. Departure from this pattern occurred only 3 times in the last 30 years. The first time was in 1990, when the overwhelming majority elected Aristide. The second time was in 2010, when Martelly was named president after foreign intervention in the electoral process eliminated the incumbent candidate. The third time was in the most recent elections, when voters revolted against widely reported fraud and irregularities that favored the incumbent candidate backed by Martelly, the US, and the international community that financed the elections.
Haiti is now at a standstill with February 7th approaching and no one chosen to receive the “ti pas kout” as president. In an effort to maintain international backing, Martelly has called upon the Organization of American States to help negotiate a solution, but many political actors are wary of the OAS because it was its intervention in 2010 which contributed to selecting Martelly as president in the first place. Responding to the invitation, the OAS stated:
“Despite the critical situation Haiti is facing, it is absolutely necessary we contribute to mold a democratic solution out of this conundrum. In that regard, a representative and plural transition government with a pre-established exit date should be constituted. The legitimacy and sustainability of this transition government will be guaranteed with the participation and commitment of all major political and social stakeholders. One of the immediate purposes of this transition government is to restore political and social stability to the country and to build minimum trust between political actors….”
If such a transitional government can win popular support, then Haiti can avoid extending this election crisis beyond February 7th. Initially, Martelly had stated that he was duty bound to remain in power beyond February 7th so that he can hand over power to an elected president. That argument would have carried weight had Martelly not appointed new officials to replace elected mayors whose terms had expired because of the government's failure to hold municipal elections.
Presidents in Haiti are so accustomed to manipulating to extend their term, that February 7th must be treated as a hard stop. It is time for the country to move beyond the remnants of its dictatorial past. Like many OAS member states, Haiti must strenghten its ability to limit the power of its presidents. Haitians must begin the process of strengthening our institutions, and perhaps we ought to begin with the institution for organizing elections.
For more than five centuries, we have been fighting for human rights, for the right to vote, for the right to participate, for the right to determine our future. Perhaps this year will be the culmination of centuries of efforts towards creating a democratic state. 2016 marks 225 years since the Revolutionary leaders of Bwa Kayiman called for the population to "koupe tèt" injustice and to "boule kay" corruption to establish moral order. 2016 also marks 200 years since Haiti's first president, Alexandre Petion, provided the great liberator, Simon Bolivar, moral and logistical support to liberate the lands of the Americas from colonial rule and slavery. Today, two centuries later, we hope that the role of our neighbors in the Americas will not be to thwart our efforts towards self-determination, but to march alongside us on the path towards justice and democracy.