Why is Haiti so difficult to govern?
The ASSASSINATION of President Jovenel Moïse, and the ensuing power vacuum, mark another chapter in the long history of autocrats, violence and coups that are Haitian politics. Although the country’s problems worsened under him, many of them predate “Banana Man,” as the former plantation manager was known. Why is good government so elusive in Haiti?
Haiti’s history has been marked by instability and foreign interference since slaves revolted against France and established the first free black republic in 1804. Two years later, the country split up in two, 14 years passed before reunification. Soon after, the French returned, demanding reparations in return for recognition of independence (and as a bribe not to start a war of reconquest). The last time a Haitian president was assassinated, in 1915, the United States Marine Corps invaded him and remained for almost 20 years. Thereafter, presidencies tended to end in coups, until the rise of “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier, the dictatorial father-son dynasty that ruled between 1957 and 1986. Democracy returned and was quickly dismantled again by the armed forces, only to be re-imposed following another US intervention in 1994. But while the government of Haiti is perpetually unstable, its problems are more enduring.
After the murder of Mr. Moïse, the most immediate need is public order. Gangs – some with ties to politicians and other powerful elites, including, according to critics, Mr. Moïse – murder and kidnap with impunity and have taken over neighborhoods in some cities. The army, which was disbanded in 1995 and which Mr. Moïse had started to bring back, lacks the power to fight gangs. The police too. And both have been accused of violence against ordinary people. Corruption is rife. Accusations that Mr. Moïse’s government squandered or stole millions of dollars from PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan aid program, took angry protesters to the streets in 2018. More recently, the government was accused of ” embezzling money intended for its covid-19 response. Such a transplant is endemic and permeates local society. Many of Mr. Moïse’s predecessors and their relatives have faced similar accusations (which they deny).
Haitian leaders have further eroded the country’s institutions to maintain their grip on power. The lack of elections resulted in the dissolution of parliament over a year ago, meaning Mr Moïse ruled by decree. He also crippled the judiciary and allowed an election commission deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court to hold a referendum on constitutional reform. His predecessor, Martin Martelly, also ruled by decree for a time. In both cases, comparisons were made with the Duvaliers. Mr. Moïse may have been correct that the political system needed an overhaul, but given a history of autocratic rulers, it is not clear who could do it with any legitimacy.
With economic weakness comes broken politics. Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and among the most unequal. The country’s GDP fell by 1.7% in 2019, then by 3.3% in 2020. Inflation has continued to rise, which, combined with a dependence on food imports, has led to the hunger of 4.4 million of its 11 million inhabitants, according to the UN. Foreign aid money, including that injected into Haiti after an earthquake in 2010, has mostly been funneled through NGOs rather than the government, undermining its capacity (and accountability). Reconstruction efforts after 2010 remain incomplete and Haiti is prone to natural disasters. Heavily subsidizing the energy sector empties government coffers, but reforming the sector would be politically difficult. And tax revenues are pitiful, making it impossible to finance the strong institutions the country needs.
The country is in crisis as to whether Mr. Moïse was still legitimately in office: his opponents allege that his mandate expired in February of this year; he said he runs until February 2022. The United States, the United Nations and the Organization of American States want the elections to take place as soon as possible (they were to take place in September). But elections will not necessarily resolve the political impasse. People don’t trust them. Attendance has declined dramatically over the years. Mr. Moïse was elected in 2016 with the support of around 10% of registered voters. Many have long given up on the idea that politics can help them.