Is Haiti's Democracy A 30-Year-Old Failure? Sure Feels That Way This Week
Thirty years ago this week, Haiti had no president.
The country’s chubby churl of a dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, had just been ousted and flown into exile with his Cruella de Vil wife. He left a power vacuum, but in those heady days hope ruled Haiti – a faith that democracy would emerge in his blood-stained wake.
But this week, Haiti has no president.
On Feb. 7 – 30 years to the day after Baby Doc bolted the country – President Michel Martelly finished his constitutional term (by law he may not run for another) and hung up his sash. Problem is, there was no successor waiting to be sworn in. Haiti’s presidential runoff election has been postponed twice since December, and it’s anyone’s guess when the vote will be held this year. Or next.
That limbo has been met by violent street protests – and now the United Nations is warning that drought is causing famine for millions of Haitians.
It’s a tragic, but tragically unsurprising, way for Haiti to observe the 30th anniversary of its democracy. Its failed democracy.
That’s the only honest way to describe where Haiti finds itself more than a generation after Baby Doc’s exit. Since 1986, and certainly for the 17 years I’ve covered the country, the chaotic stop-gap government we're seeing yet again in Haiti has been the chronic norm.
Every time hard-working Haitians feel their impoverished country inching forward a bit, their feckless political leaders drive them into a constitutional ditch.
We can, and should, note the triumphs – like the fact that Martelly’s 2011 inauguration marked the first time in Haiti’s history that an incumbent president transferred power to an elected member of the opposition.
And we can, and certainly should, cut the country ample slack given the more than ample hardships it’s faced – from international bigotry in the 19th century, to U.S. interventions in the 20th, to a biblical earthquake six years ago that killed more than 200,000 people.
But it’s time to admit that the way Haiti has been run post-Duvalier amounts to little more than a three-decade-long disaster.
Every time hard-working Haitians feel their impoverished country inching forward a bit, their feckless political leaders drive them into a constitutional ditch. A coup, a government implosion or, in the current case, a presidential election suspended amid accusations that Martelly has rigged it in favor of his candidate.
Thursday, according to the deal struck last weekend that led to Martelly leaving office, Haiti’s parliament is supposed to choose an interim president. He or she will run things until the presidential runoff can be held, maybe in April, and the winner sworn in, maybe in May.
And that's Haiti’s democracy in a nutshell.
There’s a very good chance fraud did help Martelly’s man, JovenelMoïse, win the presidential election's first round back in October. And it’s not as if we’d be surprised if it did: Martelly, a former carnival singer known as “Sweet Micky,” has built a reputation for corrupt and authoritarian governance – the president who’ll be best remembered for sophomoric misogyny and obstructing parliamentary elections.
But the opposition politicians crying fraud the loudest aren’t exactly saints, either. The runoff is being boycotted by the other candidate, Jude Célestin – who in 2011 was himself the government-backed candidate but was ultimately forced off the runoff ballot because he too was accused of benefiting from vote-rigging.
So where to start the fix? A core cause of all the dysfunction is Haiti’s dysfunctional electoral process – and the international community’s attitude that bad elections in Haiti are better than no elections at all.
It’s not a matter of resources: Between Haitian and foreign funding, the election had a $38 million budget.
Even so, a commission Martelly appointed after the October vote has concluded that almost two-thirds of Haiti’s election workers don’t have the training or materials to do their jobs properly. As a result, more than 90 percent of the October vote-tally documents had what the commission called “grave irregularities,” including deceased "zombie" voters. Many were destroyed.
The utter unreliability of the electoral apparatus is a big reason fewer than a fifth of Haiti’s eligible voters even bothered to turn up at the polls. That broken axle not only keeps forcing their democracy off the road – for 30 years it’s kept good government from ever getting on the road in Haiti.
Repairing that linchpin has to be the priority. Because all we’re getting in Haiti now isn’t just bad elections. We’re getting no elections at all.
Tim Padgett covers the Americas for WLRN. You can read more here.