By Themba Mkhize
Many Caribbean nationals have been following closely the contentious political and legal developments in the United States, but far fewer have kept abreast of a crisis of democracy occurring closer to home.
For a nation so close by, and for a nation so frequently in turmoil, the state of affairs in Haiti seems to receive little attention from members of the contemporary regional community. This is both relative to the United States, and generally.
Intuitively, there are a number of reasons why this is not unexpected. Though Haiti is physically closer, cultural barriers – particularly language and perceptions on religious practice – estrange Haiti from many citizens in other Caribbean countries. Haiti speaks French, whereas the majority of independent countries in the region speak either English or Spanish. And despite Christianity being stated as the primary religion of the majority of Haitians, the historical relationship between Haitian society, Haitian politics and voodoo would naturally cause some discomfort in the minds of many traditional conservative Christian Caribbean citizens.
These factors appear to neutralize the effects of geographic closeness and shared membership to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), though those with an appreciation for Caribbean history would easily look beyond these cultural barriers.
Beyond that, though, we are confronted with the relative value (in contemporary socioeconomic terms) of the relationship between Haiti and the wider Caribbean, compared to the relationship between the wider Caribbean and the United States. Caribbean countries have a large diaspora in the United States, and the United States is also the region’s primary trade partner, and the world’s most influential democracy. The socioeconomic and socio-political ties amplify the ripples of America’s domestic politics and policies. Put simply, in today’s world, the state of affairs in the United States is seen as being of greater consequence to the Caribbean, and so commands greater interest.
But with recent reports from the Associated Press and the Jamaica Gleaner of developing tensions in Haiti, with the possibility of renewed protests, the question of what we can do to help bring sustainability to the Haitian state props up.
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2021 depicted a Haiti combatting “violence, lawlessness and instability” from abusive members of the national security forces, and politically affiliated gangs. The results of a serious breakdown in the rule of law include families being burnt out of their homes and the death of more than 200 Haitians since 2018, including civilians, protestors, Haitian police, journalists, and even the president of the Port-au-Prince Bar Association, who uncannily met his demise shortly after calling for constitutional reform.
Haiti’s President, Jovenel Moïse, has publicly asserted that the upheaval is a result of his anti-corruption campaign against Haitian oligarchs. In a 2020 interview with Al Jazeera, President Moïse explained that these oligarchs have been able to entrap the Haitian state and act as a debilitating force in Haiti’s developmental path. Naturally, as oligarchs, they benefit from rampant public corruption, and have made themselves very powerful, and are very much interested in preserving the status quo and retaining their seat of privilege. In this endeavour, they are accused of illegally enriching themselves with state funds, paying protestors to destabilize Haiti under Moïse, forming paramilitary groups and criminal gangs, and killing their opposition.
Haiti has been ruled by fifteen presidents during tumultuous spurts of governance since the end of the Duvaliers’ dictatorial dynasty in 1986. This is an extremely high turnover rate. Moïse himself has been called on to resign in protests. He has ruled by decree for over a year, since the expiration of tenure of Haiti’s parliamentarians as a result of parliamentary deadlock which obstructed the same parliament’s ability to pass election laws. He has admittedly taken this as an opportunity to operate with a free hand, at his own liberty, with doubtful constitutionality in a number of instances.
Because of how convoluted the situation is on the ground, CARICOM has been hesitant to comment or act on the issue without doing proper due diligence. A “fact-finding mission” was launched in February 2020, but news on the outcome of this mission doesn’t appear to be readily accessible.
Ambassador Ronald Saunders has been vocal on the matter for a number of years, challenging CARICOM to step up and do more to assist Haiti. In the spirit of the CARICOM Charter of Civil Society, the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, he argues that the same vigilance and outspokenness characteristic of regional responses to Guyana’s electoral debacle should be employed in treating with Haiti and its irregular state of governance.
While I appreciate the importance of sovereignty and self-determination, and the historical impact which foreign influence and intervention have had on the Haitian state, it is not hard to share the Ambassador’s opinion. If we are serious about strengthening our regional partnerships and bringing about sustainable development, Haiti cannot be left behind. If we are serious about this ambition to grow together, our movement would be well served if we challenged ourselves as a region to identify and tailor solutions for our challenges, starting with Haiti.
Imagine what a success it would be for the regional movement if CARICOM were to help make a model democracy of Haiti. This would first require a clear statement of CARICOM’s understanding of the facts, and its position as a bloc, followed by consultation with domestic stakeholders, possibly acting as an arbiter, recommending referenda and supporting efforts for constitutional reform in accordance with the spirit of the Haitian people (as directed by rulings from the Supreme Court).
I take the deal signed last week by President Moïse and President Luis Abinader from the Dominican Republic, as a sign that the Dominican Republic is willing to commit to Haiti’s development as a partner. This is a befitting role, considering that the Dominican Republic is Haiti’s closest neighbour, and, though not a member of CARICOM, is a member of CARIFORUM (which is literally CARICOM plus the Dominican Republic) and so there is some synergy, which can be built upon.
In concluding, I would like to point out that Haiti is one of the region’s earliest and most important symbols of black nationhood. However, the Haitian state has been crippled since its infancy, and, has never recovered totally. The impacts of a string of catastrophic disasters have been exacerbated by resource scarcity, poor infrastructure, corruption, mismanagement and inefficient international intervention programmes.
As the first Caribbean country to throw off the shackles of slavery and the chokehold of colonialism, gaining independence before the rest of the Americas (excluding the United States) and being governed by the formerly enslaved African descended people, Haiti was a symbol of hope for other enslaved groups. This is the exact reason for which Haiti was persecuted during its years as a young state – to ensure that the Haitian state failed and so would not inspire further revolt.
What a success story it would be for the region to restore the Pearl of the Antilles to its status, molding a competitive modern state and in the process writing a story of resurrection for a martyred state that is at conflict with itself.
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