Haiti’s Structural Crisis

Haiti’s Structural Crisis

The country needs profound, revolutionary change. Daily life is a struggle that is incomprehensible to most outsiders.


The Haitian government started to rig the recent presidential election well before the actual balloting on November 28. Mainstream US press accounts have mistakenly used words like “chaos,” “confusion” and “disorganization” to describe the election, which triggered street uprisings that closed the country down for several days after the falsified results from the first round were announced.

In fact, the strategy to install the unpopular president René Préval’s handpicked successor, Jude Célestin, was well planned. First, the government recognized that the 1.5 million displaced Haitians, most of them still living in tents nearly a year after the killer January earthquake, were naturally the most hostile, due to its inept and corrupt response to the disaster. So it made no serious effort to re-register the tent-dwellers to vote, or even to set up convenient polling stations for them.

On election day, my great friend of fifteen years, Milfort Bruno, guided me through the vast tent city on the Champs Mars, Port-au-Prince’s equivalent of Central Park or the Boston Common, right next to the damaged white presidential palace. We did not find a single person who had been able to vote. We did run into Madame Marie Chavannes, one of Milfort’s former neighbors, a dignified woman in her 70s who is under five feet tall and is still sweltering in one of the tents. She showed us her photo-ID voting card and said with a mixture of disappointment and disgust, “I walked all the way over to the bureau de vote and they said my name was not on the list.”

Another government maneuver was just as sneaky. A few days before the vote a political pollster announced that Célestin was in second place, behind law professor Mirlande Manigat but six points ahead of Michel Martelly, the popular singer. This poll posed a big puzzle: Célestin’s well-financed campaign had pasted up his posters everywhere, but you could hardly find anyone who actually planned to vote for him. Meanwhile, Martelly, known as “Sweet Micky” from his singing days, was drawing gigantic, enthusiastic crowds.

Another Haitian friend, who is close to the centers of power, cleared up the mystery. “They exaggerated Célestin’s support in the poll,” he said the day before the election. “That way, they have a false prediction so they can fix the results.”

The actual vote-counting was done by the Provisional Electoral Council (the French initials are CEP), which many Haitians regard as a government tool. Even before the vote, the International Crisis Group, a prestigious, sober organization headquartered in Brussels, had raised doubts about the CEP’s neutrality and fairness.

Despite dark rumors of these and other machinations, election day itself was peaceful, and full of hope. Vehicular traffic was banned, so groups of people, particularly young Martelly supporters, walked up and down the unusually quiet streets in a celebratory mood, sensing they were part of a widespread and growing movement for change. So that when a week later the election commission tried to claim that Célestin had somehow edged out Sweet Micky and would face Madame Manigat in a January 16 runoff, the explosion of disappointed rage was completely understandable.

For once, the United States was on the right side. Just hours after the announcement, the US Embassy said pointedly it did not believe the results, and other international donors added to the pressure. The Préval government backtracked, offering a partial recount. But the opposition refused to agree. As of December 16, the sullen stalemate continued, although the government would probably have to yield even further.

The Préval government’s descent into corruption and vote-stealing is repugnant, but also a tragic betrayal of once proud hopes. The 2010 election represents the final collapse of the huge reform movement that brought Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the charismatic slum priest, to power twenty years ago. René Préval was Aristide’s right-hand man, succeeding him twice as president. Only five years ago Préval won a convincing and genuine popular victory; his support included all those people who filled the streets to try to stop his effort to steal this latest election.

This time around, neither leading opposition candidate is offering anything like a radical alternative. Madame Manigat seems sincere, and promises good government. Michel Martelly is a vague populist who emphasizes primary education. (Many of his supporters are in fact overlooking his past, when, as a performer, he was close to Haiti’s military rulers.) Either Madame Manigat or Martelly would be better than the government’s candidate. But neither will threaten the Haitian elite’s grip on power in any fundamental way.

Haiti still needs profound, revolutionary change, even if this particular reform movement is exhausted. Daily life for most Haitians is a struggle that is incomprehensible to outsiders. Take water, for instance; most people, even in Port-au-Prince, have no piped water and buy from young women who walk up and down the streets balancing buckets on their heads. Two decades ago, the American professor Simon Fass (his Political Economy in Haiti is a masterpiece) estimated that poor people in Port-au-Prince could only afford slightly more than three gallons per adult per day for all their drinking and washing. (By comparison, a single American toilet flush uses over five gallons.) That figure has probably not improved, which makes the fight against the cholera epidemic that has already killed more than 2,000 people even harder.

My friend Milfort Bruno is a 62-year-old guide and small businessman (he owns the Mahogany Craft Shop, just outside the famous Oloffson Hotel). He would be comfortably lower middle class elsewhere, but in Port-au-Prince he buys his family’s water by the bucket, and they are lucky to get electricity three times a week for several-hour stretches. He explained that the national power company rotates supply from one neighborhood to another—but without keeping to a schedule. “You might get power, suddenly, at 2 am,” he explained. “So you jump up and start ironing. Your clothes must look presentable when you go out into the street.”

This kind of deprivation is not an accident. Simon Fass found that the water economy was monopolized by a small group of people, part of the local elite, who controlled the pipes, water trucks and reservoirs, and who could therefore force the majority of poor Port-au-Princians to pay “what may have been the highest urban water prices in the world.”

A few months before the earthquake, Milfort Bruno and I had traveled down to the rugged hills in the south near Cap Rouge, to learn more about another way the Haitian elite exploited the poor and blocked economic growth. I wanted to look into why Haiti’s coffee exports, which had once been significant and high-quality, had collapsed over the past couple of decades.

Alongside a rocky dirt road, we met several members of the Marcelin family, who stood politely in their muddy clothes and rubber boots to answer our questions. One of them, Pierre, who was in his late 40s and wearing a yellow baseball cap, emerged as their informal spokesperson. He talked to us in clear sentences and paragraphs, pausing now and then to glance around the group, inviting them to confirm or add to his explanation.

As recently as 1949, Haiti had been the third-largest coffee exporter in the world, and the beans were the main source of the foreign exchange the country needed to develop. Pierre Marcelin gestured out into the surrounding trees as dusk fell and said: “There are still some coffee bushes out there. But we don’t bother harvesting them anymore.”

The Marcelin family explanation had several elements, but they said one of the most significant was the “rich merchants” in the nearby port of Jacmel. “The merchants gave us a very low price for our coffee, but they got a much better price when they exported,” Pierre explained. “And when we asked the merchants for loans to help buy our inputs, they turned us down.”

The Marcelins started to cut down the coffee bushes—Pierre gestured to the machete hanging from his belt—and instead planted bananas, sweet potatoes and fresh vegetables (“things we can eat”). Also, coffee bushes require shade, but the Marcelins are chopping down their larger trees to make and sell charcoal. Pierre said, with some shame, that they know they are contributing to Haiti’s deforestation crisis, but they have no choice: “It’s the only way we can earn a little money to buy cooking oil, or rice.”

The Marcelin family analysis is confirmed in Haiti: State Against Nation (1990), which is one of the most important books ever written about the country. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, a brilliant Haitian anthropologist who teaches at the University of Chicago, explains that the historic slave revolution of the early 1800s eliminated the French colonial elite that had owned the large plantations. But a new upper class emerged, merchants in the port cities and mostly of mixed racial background, who used their control of the government to tax the coffee exports of the independent small farmers. But over time the merchants grew too greedy, and people like the Marcelins stopped harvesting.

Today Haiti has the highest gap between rich and poor in the entire Western Hemisphere. This intense inequality is often compounded by the international aid effort, as I recognized once again during a brief, telling experience on my way to Haiti earlier this year. Just a few months after the earthquake, my flight had far more white passengers than on my usual visits. In the seat in front of me a young man, 30 or so years old and too formally dressed for Haiti’s climate, was reading a document called “Action Plan for Recovery and Development of Haiti.” He was part of the army of development consultants from the rich world who descended on the country after the earthquake.

His on-flight reading was jaw-dropping, the rough equivalent of leafing through a manual on brain surgery when you should be learning elementary first aid. Even Haitians who have spent their entire lives studying their remarkable nation, whether as distinguished academics or veteran community activists, are not sure exactly what to do next.

Unfortunately, the “Action Plans” devised outside Haiti so far call for more of the same: the same failed economic policies manufactured in Washington that helped sink Haiti into this current mess, and—what may be even worse—relying on the same local elite to help carry these “Plans” out. The Préval government, which has become part of that elite, is desperately clinging to power because it wants to administer the hundreds of millions of dollars in reconstruction aid.

A few of the international agencies, like Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health, are doing vital work, most recently in fighting the cholera epidemic. They are deeply appreciated by the Haitian people. But most of the army of outsiders will never fund the grassroots challenges to the local elite that are indispensable to genuine growth and real human development.

All over Port-au-Prince, you see ordinary Haitian citizens clearing earthquake debris and rebuilding, slowly but steadily, using simple hand tools, purchasing construction materials with financial help from their 1 million relatives in the diaspora. Unless the vast majority of these hardworking Haitians are allowed to participate fully in the recovery, their extraordinary energy and intelligence will be partly wasted. 

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