Haiti is once again in crisis. Its parliament dissolved on January 12 after the terms of all but ten of its lawmakers expired. National and municipal elections would have prevented the disaster. But they had been postponed for the last three years as the parliament and President Michel Martelly battled over an electoral bill—one that required a rewrite of the constitution before elections could take place and included an amendment that would allow Martelly to extend his rule by another decade. Not surprisingly, parliament rejected the bill and Martelly continued to delay elections.

Martelly, a duvalierist, or an heir to the François (Papa Doc) and Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) dictatorships, is now ruling by decree, an unconstitutional situation that harks back to Haiti’s long tradition of violent, authoritarian rule. In mid-December, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe resigned, and on Christmas day, in an attempt to salvage his presidency, Martelly appointed Evans Paul, a well-respected and moderate senior statesman, to be the next prime minister. Evans has since formed a new government, but he cannot be confirmed in the absence of parliament.

Meanwhile, the more radical among the opposition parties took to the streets with almost daily demonstrations in Port-au-Prince and provincial cities. They recently vowed to resume their protests. A number of human rights organizations have alleged that several political factions, such as Fanmi Lavalas and Martelly’s Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale have re-grouped and re-armed the militias that were dismantled in previous years. Further, some politicians—for example, a few senior advisers to the president, some members of parliament who support the president, and leaders of the opposition—continue to use and recruit criminal gangs to intimidate and sometimes violently attack their adversaries. In fact, Oriel Jean, the former security chief under president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was shot to death by gang members only three days ago. Some hardline opposition politicians, inspired by Jean Jacques Dessalines, the country’s first ruler after independence, are calling for the violent overthrow of Martelly. They are also advocating for black power—code words for killing mulattos, whites, and moderate blacks—a call to arms that is eerily reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide 21 years ago. Haiti is at risk of returning to a dangerous cycle of coups and conflict unless the country and the international community work together to tackle the root of the instability: bad governance, corruption, widespread poverty, and inept foreign intervention. 


The volatility that characterizes Haiti today can be traced back to its independence in 1804. Since then, to gain and remain in control, a small minority of political and economic leaders have monopolized power, and as a result, devastated the state and the economy. In fact, 12,000 or so wealthy individuals and their businesses have been awarded tax-free status, according to the IMF. (A senior advisor at the Haitian Ministry of Economy and Finance says the number is closer to 15,000.) Meanwhile, the majority of Haitians do not even have access to the most basic public services. In the words of Michèle Pierre-Louis, the President of FOKAL, the Open Society Foundation in Haiti, and a former prime minister, “All the elites—the mulatto elites, the university elites, the union elites, the peasant elites—are like a huge elephant sitting on this country and you cannot move it, because there is no political class, because there are no political parties, and everyone becomes corrupt and perverted.”

To date, the three branches of government have been trapped in very public and relentless infighting. The country’s political tradition gives precedence to the president and the executive branch, and parliament has never been able to keep that branch in check or pass legislation in a timely manner. There is no independent judiciary. The Haitian National Police is plagued by political patronage and crime, with a third of its officers engaging in illicit activities such as drug trafficking and kidnappings, as explained to me by Antony Mémé, a United Nations human rights lawyer. In the absence of a functioning state and security force, Haitian and regional drug cartels have now established operational bases in Haiti, where they enjoy some government protection, and hampered economic growth.

To address these ills, Haiti has received billions in international aid. But rather than channel the money to Haitians, the Martelly and Lamothe administration has built bloated and inefficient bureaucracies. Moreover, funding has gone to local and international NGOs and contractors that were often beholden to Haitian politicians or private interests. The painful reality is that during the past 50 years, the $30 billion spent on foreign assistance to Haiti rarely reached its intended beneficiaries. Ambassador Ricardo Seitenfus, a former special representative of the Organization of American States to Haiti pointedly said, “Charity cannot be the engine of international relations.” Thousands of Haitian families remain poor, hungry, and destitute, not because of the absence of food, but because of the absence of jobs and sufficient income.


Over the next few weeks, the most urgent task for Martelly and Paul will be to prevent further violence and preserve the fragile peace—with the help of national and international organizations to mediate the process—and select the members of an inclusive unity government that represents all parties, even Fanmi Lavalas, the party of former President Jean Bertrand Aristide. They will need to establish a credible agenda for all elections—presidential, legislative, and local—to be held at a future date, possibly in 2015, or later if the country remains unstable and conditions for open, credible, and transparent elections are not met. In order to reach this goal, once a government of national unity has been formed, it is critical to establish: a credible electoral council acceptable to all parties, an agreement renouncing violence during and after the electoral period, an agreement on the electoral agenda, and a formal declaration by the Core Group—a body of advisors to Haiti that includes the United States, Canada, France, Brazil, Spain, the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the United Nations—vowing that it will not interfere in the electoral process.

Over the long term, Haiti has to engage in political reform, starting with a peace agreement between all political parties and their supporters among civil society to put an end to the low-intensity conflict that has gone on for far too long. This accord has to be followed by consensus on a new political arrangement based on a national dialogue, a power sharing agreement during a period of transition, a process of national reconciliation, and a new constitution that is better suited to legitimize the democratic institutions that the country needs. All politicians must also make economic development a priority by promoting and ensuring economic freedom for all Haitians and creating political consensus around economic growth. In every case, Haitians must be the ones in charge and the ones debating and deciding their future.

The international community, particularly the United States, has a role to play to help stabilize Haiti. As a start, Washington cannot continue to outsource its foreign policy toward Haiti to the United Nations. It is true that outsourcing did work under the UN Mission in Haiti in 1993, which helped restore democracy in 1994, led to successful elections the following year, and ushered in Haiti’s first peaceful democratic presidential transition. However, since then, the results have been mixed mainly because Haiti’s tradition of authoritarian leaders, as well as its divided society and weak institutions, cannot be fixed entirely by the United Nations. The current UN mission to Haiti is the seventh since 1990. Clearly, this approach has failed not for lack of effort but because the UN has acted reactively, under Chapter VII of its charter when there was no clear threat to peace. In the short term, the United States—now one hundred years after its occupation of Haiti—should consider sending troops to reinforce the UN mission and prevent an increase in the current violence.

The Core Group must also revise its policies with the goal of helping Haitians steer local politics toward genuine reform and away from the populism that has dominated the landscape over the past 28 years. The Core Group can help the national unity government “clean up” the country by using national, regional, and international courts to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption, drug trafficking, common crimes, and crimes committed in the name of the state by all administrations since the Duvaliers. Finally, the Core Group must seek to overhaul the international donor system because the dire situation in Haiti calls for an expedited and streamlined procurement process. Beginning immediately, and over the next ten years, international aid should prioritize job creation. The country needs thousands of jobs in order for any peace deal to have a chance to work. These jobs have to be in production, such as in infrastructure, agriculture, manufacturing, and the service industry. Eventually, the goal is to replace aid with thousands of new small- to medium-sized businesses, private joint ventures between Haitian firms and regional and international enterprises, and corporations funded by domestic and foreign direct investments. 

Peaceful change is still possible, but it requires admitting to decades of failed policies and a change from the status quo—both on the domestic and international fronts. Despite their differences, politicians, civil society, and the donor community must come together to prevent the conflict in Haiti from escalating into civil war.

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  • HERVÉ RAKOTO RAZAFIMBAHINY has over 20 years of experience in international development including 15 years managing U.S. government-funded projects in the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and North America. In 2014, he moved to the private sector and founded RARA TECHNOLOGIES, a U.S.-based Internet start-up.
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