On January 19th, when Haitian president René Préval was asked by Juliana Ruhfus of Al Jazeera who was in charge of Haiti, he sarcastically replied, “the President of this country, if I remember correctly, his name is René Préval, and he is standing in front of you.”
One week following the devastating earthquake that destroyed most of the country’s government buildings and brought the already dysfunctional capital city, Port-au-Prince, to its knees, Préval gave the impression of a leader in control. Flanked by imposing figures, including representatives from the United Nations Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH), he appeared a world away from the chaos that was materializing in his own backyard. At that very moment, protesters were gathering outside of a police station where the government had temporarily set up camp.
In truth, Préval is not in control. Haiti is now undergoing a governmental makeover under the supervision of the United Nations -a de facto occupation that aims to stabilize the country. As a result of the country’s storied post-revolutionary past, including economic and political chastisement from the international community, a lack of foresight and institutional coherence by its own political actors, and the exploits of its various dictators, it must now bow before the international community for funding and continue to have its efforts buttressed by the United Nations security forces.
In past weeks, the nation has been afflicted with an injurious cholera epidemic that ironically is rumored to have been introduced to the country by the Nepalese contingent of MINUSTAH. In many Third World countries, cholera is perpetuated through unsanitary water and faulty waste disposal mechanisms. Although Haiti had not seen evidence of the bacteria in its waters for over 50 years, the nation’s difficulty in controlling its proliferation is testament to the failings of the government in providing for the basic needs of its citizens. “The people in Haiti are suffering. …and they are asking legitimate questions” United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The effect of the pandemic is not only biological; it is also economical with a visible political impact. On the terrain de facto occupation, where an emphasis is still on the murky electoral process not on the much-needed reconstruction, Haitians are/were baffled by the selections in the time of cholera.
As mandated by the United Nations and international donors, Haiti had to have elections so that power could be “democratically” handed over through stable and continuous governance. However, given the weaknesses and lack of institutional preparedness of most of the candidates, what hope is there for the country?
The 2010 election was a democratic charade and Haitians had to place their faith in the promise of inexperienced candidates who tinkered with hope and not much else. This is not new, but the quality of choices is a new low. Haiti has had a history of poor management by its leaders, and Haitians have been severely exploited by the bourgeoisie. A viable middle-class has yet to be created to generate stable national income and tax revenues, while the poor are relegated to subhuman conditions and general mistreatment. Even basic services like clean water, basic sanitation, and adequate nutrition are lacking.
No matter whom the successful selected candidate might be following these transparently fraudulent elections, Haiti’s weak institutional structure will likely prevent any substantive changes to the status quo. Unfortunately, the only stabilizing force is MINUSTAH - the occupying force. MINUSTAH, with 8,940 troops and a 3, 711 member police force has the mandate and the power to stabilize Haiti. However, Haitians will again have to shoulder the blame of never having fostered a cohesive national identity that is based on trust and the wellbeing of the overall population.
Ban Ki-Moon recently declared, “[W]hile some violence and disruptions on Election Day are not exceptional in Haiti, the irregularities now seem more serious than initially thought.” By this he means that, the ineptitude displayed in the fraudulent electoral scheme could not be masked by further fraud. The Secretary-General went on to say, “all involved must respect, and be seen to be respecting, the legal framework. Political leaders must put the national interest ahead of personal and partisan ambitions” (UN SG/SM/13294). Given the corruptibility of politics in Haiti and the distrust of Haitians through negative governance and given the destruction caused by the earthquake, new leaders should have sought to gain office through a valid procedure—campaigning and capturing the trust of people through concrete vision of nation building and not electoral politricking. In order for Haiti to finally achieve the dream that it envisioned in 1804, where all Haitians might be free to live in a democratic republic that inspired universal rights and dignity to all, it must reconfigure its approach to governance and nation building. Haitians must learn that the vulnerability of one Haitian is a vulnerability to all.
Patrick Sylvain is an Instructor of Haitian Laguage and Culture at Brown University.