A benevolent dictatorship?
October 1, 2001
Haiti's worsening economic crisis has prompted many to openly wish for the return of dictatorial rule, negating our gains on the democratic front since 1986, which were acquired at the cost of much blood and suffering. Our most famous dictator, François Duvalier, died in 1971, after 14 years of ruthless rule. He was succeeded by his 19-year old son, Jean-Claude, who stayed in power until pressured to leave the country 15 years later, with his family and a significant portion of the State's liquid assets amounting to tens of millions of dollars, onboard a U.S. military cargo jet, expressly sent to insure his safe exit. A number of military figures rose to fill the vacuum of power in the years preceding Haiti's democratic elections in December 1990 and the three years of the most recent coup d'etat in September 1991, each general vying to be more murderous than the one preceding him. How is it then conceivable that some of Haiti's citizens would feel any amount of nostalgia for those most backward and murderous regimes?
The answer to some is that what they wish for truly is a different form of government, one they designate as "benevolent dictatorship".
Although Haiti has seen many advances on the front of human rights since then, a decisive victory over kleptocracy, public mismanagement, criminal impunity, insecurity, and misery remains as elusive as ever. Jean Dominique most certainly lost his life for consistently pointing this out. Today, the failure of Haiti's judicial system to prevail over differences with other branches of government in a matter so crucial to our confidence as a people, raises some profoundly disturbing questions. I refuse to accept the notion, however, that all of those weaknesses are intrinsic to the "Haitian character". While living in the United States, I have been exposed to elements of kleptocracy, public mismanagement, criminal impunity (of the highest order), and poverty in the American system as well. I hesitate to include "insecurity" in the same breath, not only in deference to the current tragic circumstances, but also because it is absolutely certain that this was above all the one characteristic that made living in the U.S. most desirable.
That security was never perfect, as racist elements within certain U.S. communities, including abusive policemen and insensitive mayors, have made life quite a risky proposition for some targeted ethnicities. Security is peace of mind, and whether one lives in the fear of "zenglendos", "tonton macoutes", or racist cops does not make a heck of a lot of difference.
The main difference between Haiti and the developed world is not so much attributable to differences in national character, but almost entirely to the relative strength of our government institutions. I believe that in the long run a democratic way of government reinforces those institutions while any dictatorship (benevolent or not) tends to seriously undermine them. Democracies are institution-oriented while dictatorships are by definition first-person games (L'Etat, c'est moi!)
So in my view, the real question to be debated is not that of the Haitian character, but that of a true understanding of the historical forces that have made of Haiti what it is today, and how best to counteract them. Belittling the Haitian character is scapegoating of the the worst kind. This perspective certainly does not give anyone the incentive to collaborate with supposedly inferior minds. Given the same set of opportunities, I firmly believe that the Haitian character measures with that of any other in the world.
Generally, when Haitians of all stripes pine for a "benevolent dictator", what they truly wish for is a strong government with the political will to advance democratic priorities (institution-building), over opposition to its agenda (hence the notion of strength). But this is the real dilemma: HOW do you achieve order (and democracy) in a chaotic state without resorting to measures that would be judged anti-democratic? This is not at all comparable to achieving order in nations that have already accepted the rule of law and respect for their Constitution!! Our American and European friends need not feel superior. Let History be our guide...
A compatriot of mine points to Henri Christophe to promote his ideas of the desirability of a benevolent dictatorship. While I am also an admirer of Christophe's VISION for his kingdom, I also deplore some of the means he adopted to achieve his ends. Again, the eternal question is: does the end justify the means? Out of a state of slavery, is a state of virtual slavery the price to pay for progress in the world? As difficult a proposition as that is already, I should also point that in fact, Henri Christophe's legacy was short-lived. He did not win the hearts and minds of the people he ruled over. His monarchy was doomed one way or another. If it were not for the external influence of Pétion, it would be for the internal friction caused by the growing resentment of the people he wished to advance.
This brings up another point. How many Haitian people know something about their history beyond the rudiments they learned in school, or the pages of Dr. Dorsainvil's Histoire d'Haiti, with the distinct influence of the "Frères de l'Instruction Chrétienne (Brothers of Christian Learning)"? History is a poor guide to those who view it only as an instrument to celebrate their political independence, or to glorify/vilify their political leaders. Our educational system has failed to provide our people some truly informed and critical perspectives of our History, notwithstanding some singular efforts from an exceptional teacher in Haiti and from a Haitian History CD author who uncommonly chose to produce his monumental work in Kreyòl (Haiti's National Language, that is the only one understood by virtually all of her citizens).
Not having the ability to persuasively refer to instances of progressive government within our own History, a surprising number of Haitians point to the relatively recent example of Trujillo in the Domican Republic, for having had in heart and in deed the development of his country, and so in spite of his dictatorial ways and his abominable trashing of Haitian nationals. Alternatively, they point to Castro as THE example per excellence, of a benevolent dictatorship. As they point out, benevolent is not equivalent of saintly. I assume that what they mean when they talk of a "benevolent dictatorship", is a form of government which is dedicated to the global improvement of a country's social structures, even if this is to be accomplished by means not unfamiliar to regimes of a brutal nature, with no perception of any sort of benevolence whatsoever.
This line of argumentation is persistent, and it is not at all hard to understand why. Who could deny the structural advantages our Dominican neighbors enjoy compared to the ever nascent or debilitated Haitian infrastructure? Who could deny that the Cuban population is much healthier and better educated under the Castro regime than previously was the case, and so in spite of an ill-advised and most dictatorial embargo enforced against the people of the island? On the international front, today Haiti is in the position of receiving structural help only from one country, and that is Cuba! In those circumstances, one should well understand the desire for a "benevolent dictatorship" versus a democracy of "blah... blah... blah".
A "benevolent dictatorship" conceivably might work if Haiti retreated in complete isolation. Could we do away with the meddling of the United States government, do away with the meddling of the "European Union"? Could we do away with all internal and external dissent? Could we do away with the likelihood of an American invasion of our shores to protect THEIR national interests?
Could we do away with the pressures of our external debt? Consider its genesis:
1) France's imposition, under Boyer, of a debt equivalent to 150,000,000 francs or five times her national budget for reparations related to her losses during our war of independence;
2) the National City Bank of New York's takeover of Haiti's finances including all of her gold reserves just prior and during the American Occupation of 1915-1934;
3) the hundreds of millions of dollars stolen by U.S. backed Haitian dictators and the extreme urgency to get in even greater debt to satisfy the needs of our debt-soaked citizenry as well as the needs of our donors.
It all works on a computer-controlled political chessboard, or in a board game of Diplomacy, but what of Haiti in the real world today? Don't forget that a leader with "an iron fist with good will" would have to be impervious to the formidable weight of our collective administrative malpractice and the surrounding all-pervasive corruption. Such people are harder to find than a needle in a haystack in the first place, and an oligarchy of such honest men through the imposition of a dictatorial or totalitarian regime is just a pie in the sky.
Strong institutions make all the difference, and the Haitian people have got to come to terms with the notion. The United States are no heaven, serious wrongs are committed against its people, such as the theft of the recent Presidential elections by the unlawful nullification of thousands of minority votes, but I do believe that most everyone was relieved not to see burning tires on the streets or highways of U.S. cities. What made the difference? The U.S. Supreme Court (as wrong headed it may have been). In spite of this historical wrong, there was no talk of civil war. The Organization of the American States had nothing to say. Most Human Rights organizations that home in on Haiti had nothing to say, and world leaders raced to send in their congratulations to the selected president. In
Haiti, by contrast, there is a leak of a judge's intention to serve an indictment against a senator in a criminal matter prior to his election, and what do we see in the streets? Burning tires. Is this because Haitians are "savage rebels"? That may be anyone's interpretation, but I foresee the burning of tires, the assassinations, the senseless destruction of public and private properties abating with the advent of civic education for everyone.
I argue for patience and a learned respect of our laws, and civic activism to change the laws and our constitution when need be, and a decentralization of power (a shift of focus away from Port-au-Prince and our morbid preoccupation with politicking), regional development, and a renewed and overwhelming emphasis on practical education dealing with trades, farming, and health. We have to break the back of our administrative history of corruption and selfishness. This can be accomplished through civic education, not through the reinvention of a good dictator.
We need to learn to dialogue in a respectful manner. Let us think of how to implement civic education on a wide scale, to form ever more progressive leaders. We are capable of such. Our very existence is testimony to our strength and resiliency.
People are not robots, people are not chess pawns. They have not been programmed by nature like social bees and ants. We do have an innate sense of our mortality and well-being, but with respect to the collectivity, we simply need to get educated. Haitian people are capable of incomparable sacrifices on behalf of their immediate and, at times, even extended families. The problem is in extending the notion of family to that of an entire community or even a nation. Can this be accomplished by brute force even if well-intentioned? I seriously doubt it.
There will be no great sorcerer for the Haitian people. We'll have to do it together, and think for ourselves together, and unleash our internal creativity to solve our community problems rather than trust a benevolent oligarchy or "Papa Fix-It" to think for the entire collectivity. I greatly believe in the capacity of the Haitian people to do just that, provided a chance for them to determine their own future.
We need to see the fruits of democracy, or it will ultimately be rejected altogether. In today's world, this calls not for isolation but for international cooperation. Haiti has a noose around her neck. We cannot, with any probability of success, continue to tell her to behave while we at once continue to tighten the stranglehold.
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