Haiti (March 1999)
by Charles Arthur, Haiti Support Group, London March 1999

A political crisis, simmering for the best part of two years, finally boiled over in January and Haiti is once again headline news.

The continuing power struggle between supporters and opponents of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide caused the cancellation of partial parliamentary elections in 1997 and 1998, and has left the government without a prime minister since June 1997. In an attempt to break through the stalemate current president Rene Preval declared, in early January 1999, that according to a 1995 electoral law the terms of most remaining members of parliament and other elected local officials had expired. In a televised address Preval said that in the absence of a functioning parliament he himself would appoint a prime minister and would rule by decree pending fresh elections. His action prompted critics, in Haiti and the US, to charge that he had staged a coup and was preparing the way for a return to dictatorship.

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News of Preval’s action and the outcry it provoked has raised doubts about the country’s prospects for stability and economic development. Both the UN Security Council and the EU presidency issued declarations deploring the conflict between the executive and legislature and offering to assist with preparations for immediate parliamentary elections.

This political crisis reflects the deepening divisions between former allies from the Lavalas coalition, which won a landslide victory in the 1995 general election. The coalition began to splinter in late 1996 when former president Aristide formed a new populist party, Fanmi Lavalas, in an attempt to distance himself from the government dominated by erstwhile allies, the social democratic Organisation of People in Struggle (OPL). A major source of contention was the government’s commitment to a structural adjustment programme.

A quick solution to the collapsing state of Haitian democracy seems unlikely. On the one hand the three years of OPL-dominated government have failed to improve the standard of living of the average Haitian, despite the provision of millions of dollars in international aid. The 1998 UNDP Human Development Report, which ranks countries on the basis of a human development index, put Haiti 159th out of 174 countries – a drop of 32 places since 1992. The report estimated that only 60 per cent of Haitians have access to healthcare, and 70 per cent of the workforce is unemployed. Further gloomy social indicators were provided by the World Bank’s 1998 Poverty Assessment Report. This states that only a quarter of the population has access to safe drinking water, more than half of adults are illiterate, and 80 per cent of the two-thirds of the population living in rural areas exist in conditions of abject poverty.

On the other hand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas offers little in the way of alternative policies, and it is hard to see how any government could function without aid from the Bretton Woods institutions and the US which, together with the EU and other bilateral donors, effectively bankroll the country. Although most observers believe that Fanmi Lavalas would win a majority of seats in elections for a new parliament, widespread disenchantment with electoral politics suggest it would be achieved on the basis of a very low level of voter participation.

This political crisis leaves Haiti poorly placed to address a whole host of social and economic problems. Already deeply depressed, the domestic economy is still reeling from the after-effects of last September’s Hurricane Georges, which destroyed almost all the rice harvest in the country’s main rice-growing region and left over 200,000 homeless. On the human rights front the judiciary is still plagued by corrupt magistrates, and a rookie police force, still chaperoned by UN trainers and monitors, is struggling to cope with an increase in violent urban crime and in the trafficking of cocaine from Colombia through Haiti to the US.

Future prospects for stable government are far from certain. In addition, as the social and economic plight of the poor majority continues to worsen the strategies of both multi- and bi-lateral donors for interventions in support of medium- to long-term development, carried out in conjunction with national and local government institutions, may prove unrealisable. In this case, Haitian society, rather than making the anticipated progress away from a situation marked by the recent phases of humanitarian relief and rehabilitation, will require a continued and even extended role for local grassroots organisations and national and international NGOs.

A new book, Libète! A Haiti Anthology, edited by Charles Arthur and Michael Dash and covering many aspects of Haitian politics, economics, history and culture, will be published by the Latin America Bureau (UK) and Marcus Weiner (US) in April. Email: haitisupport@gn.apc.org

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