By Roger F. Noriega – Tribune News Service
Haiti is at a crossroads, and this is no time for the United States or the international community to stop caring where that country is headed.
More to the point, rather than merely treating the impoverished nation’s symptoms, those who genuinely care about Haitians should challenge them to build stronger political institutions that will sustain stability and root out corruption to incentivize investment and create decent jobs.
The country is in the midst of a series of parliamentary and presidential elections to re-establish a functioning legislative body that will govern alongside a new president.
However, Haiti’s politics is more atomized and incoherent than ever. Although there are only a handful of what might be regarded as functioning political parties, nearly one hundred registered political groups fielded more than 1,850 candidates for just 130 seats in the first round of parliamentary elections in August.
No fewer than 54 candidates appeared on the ballot for president on October 25; and nearly two weeks will pass before Haitians know the two top finishers, who will face each other in a December 27 runoff.
President Michel Martelly was elected in 2011 and is set to leave office next February. For most of his term, he met expectations by running an accountable and results-oriented government.
Particularly under Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, the government adopted a coherent strategy for attracting job-generating foreign investment by tamping down lawlessness and official corruption.
Whether Martelly and his entourage are willing to leave behind power and privilege will determine his legacy. However, reverting to Haiti’s personalized political culture, Martelly is backing a political newcomer, banana entrepreneur Jovenel Moise, to succeed him.
Moise is one of several candidates who observers say could advance to a second round; another is Jude Celestin, who Martelly edged out in 2011.
Security also is in play these days. Haiti has been fairly stable in the last decade, thanks in large measure to the UN security mission known as MINUSTAH; that military and civilian police contingent, now about 4,400-strong, is expected to be withdrawn next October.
The Haitian National Police (HNP) will be built to a fairly small force of 15,000 by then.
Although Haitian nationalism has always chafed under the presence of foreign troops, the UN mission has played a de facto role in backing up the HNP as it brought street gangs and kidnapping rings under control.
The HNP receives better training and equipment than a decade ago, but some question whether it can keep order if political violence or organized crime flares up again.
A nation of 10.5 million with the lowest per capita gross domestic product by far in the Americas, Haitians have shown their remarkable resilience since a January 2010 earthquake inflicted damage of biblical proportions. As I wrote soon after the great quake, “Before the hurricanes, flooding, mudslides and earthquakes that have befallen Haiti in the last decade came the man-made disaster. … One cannot pay a worker in this hemisphere less than you can pay a Haitian for an honest day’s work.
“But you do not see capital rushing into Haiti — because corruption and an ineffective state make it extraordinarily difficult to do business there.”
Hard work and determination are survival skills in Haiti. It’s no surprise that outside of Haiti, these proud people prosper.
What they need and deserve at home is a government that meets them halfway, that enforces the rules of commerce without fear or favor, that reforms politics and government to build coherent political movements based on cohesive visions for a more inclusive and successful democratic society.
Will Haiti head down that path based on the recent elections? It is hard to tell. But chances are greater if the United States and a host of interested neighbors challenge Haitian leaders to put their people first.
Noriega is a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. He is now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.