More than 18 months have passed since René Préval was overwhelmingly elected president of Haiti in what many regional analysts considered one of the country’s most crucial elections in decades. Within a period of only six years, Haitians had experienced a number of tumultuous events. It started with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s chaotic second term, in which international aid was suspended mainly due to accusations of election fraud surrounding his 2000 victory. Shortly thereafter, the 2004 coup d’état designed to oust Aristide and his government led to two wasted years under the unstable government of Interim-Prime Minister Gérard Latortue and President Boniface Alexandre, whose accomplishments were meager at best. In short, Haiti was in desperate need of an effective and democratically elected leader who would govern fairly and help inch the poverty-stricken state out of its traditional despair. Expectations were large, and it was Préval, in his second stint as president, who was expected to deliver on some, if not all, of those expectations beginning in February 2006.
Eight days after the 2006 election, international observers almost unanimously validated Préval as president and the elections as free and fair. It was hoped that the unblemished manner in which Préval won—through an entirely monitored democratic process that upheld the Haitian constitution—would establish a mindset for his rule. Whether that democratic process would be the hallmark of Préval’s time in office or just an early and later erasable blip on the screen would be essential to know in evaluating the effectiveness of his presidency. Now, more than a year and a half following what must have been Haiti’s fairest election in decades, it is time to take a look at what has transpired on the island in the intervening period. Was democracy as practiced by Préval to be just a calling card for international respectability, or was it intended as a constant thread of President Préval’s time in office? Following the period under Aristide defined by its endemic corruption and the equally rocky interim period under Alexandre when hundreds—if not thousands—of opposition party members were murdered, only a true, stable democracy, it was believed, would be able to start a long and difficult healing process.
Past and Present
Six years ago, President Aristide appeared to have given up hope of ruling the country with intense energy, constitutional devotion, or a tireless commitment to building democratic institutions. Perhaps due to the attempted coup in late 2001—or, just as likely, his own insensitivity to inclusive rule—Aristide seemed to manifest a show of lassitude to the rule of law as well as indifference to democratic institution building. He encouraged citizens to use violence when needed to fight the nation’s armed opposition, and civil liberties and political/human rights were in short supply. For all intents and purposes, there was a constitution in name only, something which newly elected President Préval, whom, it should be noted, was a close friend and political comrade of Aristide, promised to change.
At the time of Préval’s inauguration, the situation on the ground did not look entirely different than it did in 2001. But within a few months, some significant steps were taken in order to implement a series of necessary changes geared toward getting closer to the ideal of creating a democratic, law-abiding society and a fair-minded administration. The most important step taken was the first one—the implementation of free and open balloting, whose results no one contested. As much as that might be scoffed at due to Préval’s overwhelming popularity—he won with 51% of the vote, while runner-up Leslie Manigat obtained only 12% of the vote—it was an important signature that put Haiti back on track to democracy. Most importantly for average Haitians, this meant the reestablishment of much of the international aid that had been cut off during Aristide’s time in office; Préval’s government was earmarked to receive an additional $750 million in assistance from donor nations to be dispensed to Haiti’s population, indicating a major vote of confidence in his government by the world community.
Baby Steps for Democracy
With Préval’s decisive victory in the election, many analysts expected his Lespwa (Front of Hope) Party to also carry the day in the two legislative bodies, the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies (or lower house). Lespwa’s opponents shocked Préval and his backers, as his party was able to win only 13 out of 30 Senate seats and elect 23 out of 99 representatives in the Chamber of Deputies. Thus, Préval was thrown a curveball at the outset of his administration. Whereas the margin of his personal victory in the presidential race might have been enough to give him a mandate to rule as a strong leader, the disappointing results of the parliamentary elections were a stark reminder to him that, even if he wanted to introduce dramatic reforms, he would face major obstacles and likely would have to reach a variety of compromises with the Haitian parliamentary opposition. In addition, while Préval has gone some length to shape the legislature to cooperate with his agenda, he was unable to generate a working majority on day-to-day voting.
Préval’s Powers Are Less Than Monarchic
As a result of this early check on Préval’s power, few major pieces of legislation have been passed as of yet. In addition, since no other party held more seats than Lespwa, coalition building was, during much of the period following the election, a slow and laborious process, as in each instance Lespwa’s elected members tried, with little success, to achieve a working majority coalition. To a large extent, this was another important sign that, although legislative accomplishments might be slow in coming due to the lack of a working majority, the process would, at least, be democratic.
In 2000, Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party had “won” 26 of 27 senate seats and 73 of 83 seats in the Chamber of Deputies, leading to distrust of both the president and his agenda inside and outside the country. On the other hand, in 2006 and early 2007, individual Haitian political thinkers and international observers alike expressed their confidence that Préval, after he was elected, would have no choice but to govern democratically. While political developments and the policies that he wanted to push through the National Assembly have been slow in coming, the respect that he attracted and his acknowledgement of constitutional guarantees, which he freely offered to respect (unlike both authoritarian and professed democratic chief executives), were attributes that had been ignored for decades.
A closer look at how the National Assembly has functioned will help shed a little light on the status of democracy in the country. Its first—and, in many ways, most important—function was to approve Préval’s cabinet choices. Due to the nature of the competing political factions, this became a somewhat complex process. In the end, however, a cabinet that included members of six political parties was approved in a near unanimous vote; this was considered by both Préval’s supporters and opponents alike to be a vote of confidence for Préval’s rule. This process protected Haiti from the one-sided rule that had dominated the country for so long, and, most importantly, it demonstrated Préval’s willingness to strive for consensus and govern in a democratic fashion.
Soon after the cabinet was formed, the Assembly began taking a few of the necessary baby steps to effect political changes of its own. Many of the elected officials in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies have begun to craft pieces of legislation that would help curb corruption in the courts. Although the National Assembly has been far from entirely successful, it is still trying to push legislation through in a democratic manner is an encouraging sign. This is something for which, in a recent visit to Port-au-Prince, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was moved to praise the National Assembly, as he encouraged lawmakers to adopt legislation reinforcing—if not establishing for the first time—the rule of law in the country. In previous years, the combination of corrupt, strongman presidents and the powerful influence of neighborhood gangs and association of elites has made doing so all but impossible. However, as the UN secretary general’s confidence in the National Assembly suggests, Haiti has a unique opportunity to change course. This is an opportunity that cannot be squandered, a fact which is recognized by both Préval and the opposition members of the legislative branch. When, in 2008, one-third of the Senate seats will be contested, the continued strengthening of the legislative process likely will be at the forefront of many candidates’ platforms.
Many Problems Remain on the Road to Democracy
Although the current state of president-assembly relations might suggest that all is well with democracy in Haiti, there are still significant problems that remain, suggesting that the island’s political process has traveled only a few miles on the long road to democracy. With the lack of a standing military force and the systemically problematic Haitian National Police, Haitians who oppose the government or voice thoroughly popular opinions defaming the police force often find that the law has not always been there to protect them.
Even when the law does come into play, its inefficiencies and unreliability usually don’t allow it to do much public good. The court system is weak, outdated, and, just like the tainted police and other fouled Haitian organizations, corrupt. Prisons themselves are old and unspeakably bleak. Prisoners live in overcrowded jails with only scraps of food; according to an Amnesty International report, more than 2000 prisoners are being held in Haitian jails without ever having been charged. At least 100 of those detained are said to be political prisoners. Furthermore, because there is a lack of resources to properly train personnel and provide decent conditions for the inmates, a significant turn of events would be necessary to allow for a truly democratic judicial and penal system to emerge.
The old-fashioned, poorly managed, and chronically corrupt judicial system is not the only aspect of Haitian society that suggests that Préval and his legislative associates have a long way to go if they are intent on ensuring the establishment of a long-lasting, genuinely democratic state. Labor conditions in Haiti continue to reflect a disdain for human rights and general democratic principles. For example, Haitian authorities have done little to change the old Haitian tradition of restavec, in which young Haitian children are sent away from their parents to work, for all intents and purposes, as domestic slaves for wealthier families in often far-off communities.
Although one can very well make the case that cultural traditions and values should be upheld whenever they can, such archaic practices do little to boost Haiti’s quest for a genuine democracy or a caring society. Meanwhile, along Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic, little has been done to reinforce border security, with the illegal trafficking of Haitian laborers continuing to be a chronic problem with which the Port-au-Prince government has ineffectively dealt. To date, Haiti has done little to project its demands to implement border reforms with its neighbor. This may prove to be a significant challenge in the next few years, given the troubled history that the Haitians have had with the Dominicans, as well as the array of problems that Haitian refugees have brought upon their neighbors, including fighting for access to the resources that can be found there.
In recent years, Haiti’s gangs have posed serious problems for the country’s political leadership, and Préval, too, has not escaped from this problem. However, instead of choosing to let them dominate various street corners of Port-au-Prince and elsewhere in Haiti, Préval recently decided that he would take the matter into his own hands, something that Aristide (who chose to negotiate with the gang leaders) never did. Due to the lack of an efficient police force, Préval has had to rely on the current contingent of 7500 U.N. troops stationed in Haiti to do his bidding. Although this has brought about some success, the impaired state of the country’s judicial system means that many of the gangsters who have been arrested might not ever face justice. This series of recent actions concerning gangs raises a number of important questions that are likely to be resolved only after significant time has elapsed. Certainly, negotiating with the heads of brutal and power-hungry gangs has not advanced a society hoping to be orderly, exemplified by the ineffective results in Aristide’s dealings with the Cite Solei gangs. However, with corruption abounding in the courts, with the gang leaders’ pockets running deep, and with the jails already overflowing with citizens who haven’t even faced a trial, Préval’s does not have a wide range of choices.
A Long Road Ahead
Faced with the aforementioned gang problems, the acceleration of drug-related issues, and the ongoing practice of media self-censorship, Préval and the National Assembly have much work to do in shaping how the first elected government following Aristide’s ouster will ultimately be perceived by the public. However, if the recent is any indication, there is some ground for hope. Certainly, the government has quite a bit on its plate—passing legislation that might lead to an improvement next year of the country’s last-place finish in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index might not be a bad place to start. But at least the Préval government is doing things democratically. In both the executive and legislative branches, the signs are there: there is a growing respect for the law and the democratic process that were first spelled out in the country’s nearly 20-year-old constitution but never really honored until now. Democracy is not a word that should ever be toyed with, and we should not expect Haiti to turn into a shining model of democracy overnight. What we can expect, however, is that the country’s modernization and humanization will continue and that Préval and the Assembly will be respected as they try to repair the nation.
This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Michael Glenwick