Haiti needs food, jobs, doctors — and now a president

June 20, 2016
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Tires burn in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, on June 8. The fire was started by disgruntled Haitians who were upset about not receiving payments from the immigration department after a change in the administration. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Last year’s presidential election fell apart amid cries of fraud. An interim government named in February was supposed to organize a new one. Now, no one is sure who is really in charge here.

Political transitions always make for volatile times in Haiti. But the latest political crisis is whittling away whatever is left of the dream that Haiti could come back better and brighter from its devastating 2010 earthquake.

The 120-day mandate of the interim president, Jocelerme Privert, expired at midnight Tuesday. Haiti’s parliament has not extended his tenure, nor appointed another caretaker figure. ­Privert’s opponents say his term has clearly ended; he and his supporters insist he remains Haiti’s de facto president unless lawmakers vote him out. The head of Haiti’s lower house has not been able to get lawmakers to decide on it.

This sort of standoff is the last thing Haiti needs, producing an all-consuming distraction from its many other problems: economic stagnation, a tanking currency, drought, cholera, the Zika virus, food shortages and a three-month-old strike by public-health workers.

Six years after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed 200,000 and left more than a million homeless, the heady talk of rebuilding a stronger Haiti has given way to a sinking sense that the country’s political class is cracked beyond repair.

Foreign governments that largely financed Haiti’s failed elections last year, to the tune of $100 million, are running out of patience but seem to be wary of destabilizing the country any further. They have reluctantly embraced the plan to redo the October presidential vote.

U.S. Ambassador Peter Mulrean in Port-Au-Prince on June 9. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

“Haiti can’t afford to go without its democratically elected leaders, and those democratically elected leaders need to get to work,” U.S. Ambassador Peter Mulrean said in an interview. “For us as a government, it’s not the same thing dealing with a provisional president. We need a full-time partner in the government of Haiti, and that means both a president and a parliament who we can work with to deal with immediate crises and get development off the ground again.”

Since the end of authoritarian rule more than 30 years ago, Haiti has struggled to stage orderly elections, a problem often explained with the observation that politics here is a business. That does not quite capture the nature of the problem.

Politics in Haiti is more like an industry in a country that lacks other ways to make a living. With so few formal jobs, a struggling economy and a seasoned culture of corruption, getting into power and staying there is one of the few ways to secure regular employment and a decent salary.

This makes electoral defeat something that is less likely to be publicly acknowledged than privately negotiated.

Privert’s opponents, led by the Tèt Kale (“Bald Head”) party of former president Michel Martelly, who left office when his term ended Feb. 7, said they will mobilize street protests to force Privert out. The party — which appears to have enough backing in the Chamber of Deputies, Haiti’s lower house, to block an extension of Privert’s mandate — says Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles should be recognized as Haiti’s interim leader.

Ann Valérie Timothée, Martelly’s former chief of staff and now the leader of the Bald Head party, said in an interview that Haiti is not facing a “political crisis” but something far worse.

“A crisis is something that has a beginning and end,” Timothée said. “We have a systemic problem.” Elections, she said, are always contested by the loser.

Timothée said Privert’s attempt to stay in power without an electoral mandate will drag Haiti back into an era of undemocratic rule. “People have died for Haiti to have democracy,” Timothée said.


A vendor pushes past heaps of garbage in downtown Port-Au-Prince on June 10. The area is home to a busy marketplace that was once occupied by brick-and-mortar businesses that were not rebuilt after the earthquake in 2010. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The country is mostly calm for now. Campaign posters and political graffiti blanket the crowded streets of the capital, and recent pro- and anti-Privert demonstrations have been relatively small and peaceful by Port-au-Prince standards. But it is a city with a notoriously short fuse.

On Tuesday, Privert’s supporters from the Fanmi Lavalas party, founded by deposed former ­leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide, marched through the streets calling for Privert to stay. Although Aristide returned to Haiti from exile in 2011, he has remained out of public view. Privert was a key cabinet member in Aristide’s government and spent two years in prison on charges that he was involved in the massacre of government opponents during a 2004 coup while serving as interior minister.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas, with 80 percent of the population living in poverty. U.N. troops patrol the streets in blue helmets and body armor. Foreign doctors and aid groups keep the health system from collapse. Aside from a few apparel plants and agricultural exports, money sent home by Haitians working abroad is what mostly provides a lifeline.

Much of the rubble from the 2010 earthquake has been cleared. But the latest crisis has reinforced the view that the country is stuck in a kind of externally managed poverty, in which foreign governments and aid organizations try to keep a lid on the place and ameliorate the worst suffering.

“There’s no investment. Tourism is dead. The political parties have no plan whatsoever. They may talk about ideology, but the bottom line is power,” said Robert Fatton Jr., a political scientist at the University of Virginia who was born and raised in Haiti.

Fatton said U.S. officials and other foreign donors have grown tired of Haiti’s political class and its seeming inability to work on behalf of Haitians trapped in misery. He said donors have increasingly become resigned to an approach in which two overarching goals are “political stability and no boat people.”


Worn posters from political candidates line a wall that shields a construction site for a church in Port-Au-Prince on June 10. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Many Haitians, for their part, have come to see foreign governments and donors cynically, especially after international observers put a stamp of approval on last year’s disputed presidential election, calling it flawed but essentially fair. The losing candidates did not agree, and their allegations of fraud forced the cancellation of the runoff vote that would have given Haiti a president by now.

Martelly was ineligible for reelection, and when he left office, Privert was appointed as a caretaker president by Haiti’s National Assembly. He formed a commission to investigate what happened during the first round of voting, and its lengthy report concluded that the election — featuring 54 presidential candidates — was so dirty that the results should be tossed out.

The commission has recommended a new election for Oct. 9, with a runoff Jan. 8. Privert would be ineligible to run in that contest, but his opponents do not trust him to organize a fair election. Martelly’s Bald Head party has not accepted the new timeline.

Its candidate, Jovenel Moïse, a farmer nicknamed “Banana Man,”won the highest number of votes in last year’s contest. But second-place finisher Jude Célestin refused to participate in a runoff, because he said the first round was so tainted, and his campaign has welcomed the plans for a do-over.

The new elections for president and a portion of Haiti’s parliament will cost an estimated $60 million more.

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