Préval goes it alone, but what about Aristide?
by Larry Birns --- Council on Hemispheric Affairs
http://www.thepanamanews.com/pn/v_13/is ... on_05.html
More than 18 months have passed since René Préval was decisively elected president of Haiti in what many regional analysts considered one of the country's most crucial elections. Within scarcely a handful of years, Haitians had experienced a number of tumultuous events. It started with President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's chaotic second term, in which the international community cancelled its aid to the country based on a pretext elaborated by Washington, involving exaggerated accusations of election fraud on Aristide's part involving his party's 2000 victory in legislative and presidential ballots. Shortly thereafter, the 2004 de facto coup d'état designed to oust Aristide and his government led to two wasted years under the appalling US-imposed rule of Interim-Prime Minister Gérard Latortue and President Boniface Alexandre, whose pathetic accomplishments were meager at best. In short, after Latortue's essentially lawless stint, Haiti was in desperate need of an effective and democratically elected leader who would carry on the work of a bushwhacked Aristide presidency which has been undermined by a malevolent US strategy aimed at undermining the country's constitutional leader rather than providing his administration with the resources and collaboration it needed to survive. The hope was that Préval would govern fairly and help inch the poverty-stricken state out of its traditional rutted despair. When Préval began his second tenure as president in February 2006, he was expected to bring about change.
The Préval presidency begins
After the 2006 election, international observers almost unanimously validated Préval as president and that the elections were entirely free and fair. It was hoped that the unblemished manner in which Préval won --- through an outside 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 excisable irrelevancy will have to be known before evaluating the effectiveness of his presidency. Now, more than a year and a half following what could have been Haiti's fairest election ever, 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 to serve as a constant thread of what would be President Préval's entire time in office? And then there was the legacy of the Aristide Presidency. While there was little dispute over the fact that the last year of Aristide rule was defined by spreading corruption and ineffectuality, was this not the predictable result of the cordon sanitaire thrown around by a Washington who saw the man as a Caribbean pariah, a would-be Fidel Castro, and a permanent irritant to productive ties between Port-au-Prince and Washington. The question is, could anyone provide effective rule under such conditions (a corrupt treasury, no security force loyal to him, and a cut-off of almost all outside funds)? After the State Department successfully manipulated Aristide into fleeing the island, the wasteland under the supine Alexandre and the villainous Latortue ensued when scores of Aristide sympathizers were murdered. Only a true, stable democracy, it was believed, would be able to revive growth and development on the island. By this point, only Préval could do the job.
Past and present
While Aristide was still president, his critics accused him of running the country without energy, devotion to the constitution, or a tireless commitment to building democratic institutions. His defenders, on the other hand, said his active accomplishments surpassed those of everyone else who had tried in decades. Perhaps due to the several attempts to force him out of office, together with his own insensitivity to inclusive rule, Aristide, in the end, seemed to manifest a lack of vigilance when it came to the rule of law as well as only qualified fidelity to democratic political engagement. While in the past this could have been true, he is likely to explain that he tolerated the use of citizen violence when it was needed to fight the nation's now armed opposition (probably equipped and guided by US intelligence services), if only because the police were not loyal to him and he had no other reliable force at his disposal. During this period, 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, has been a close friend and political comrade of Aristide --- has promised to change.
At the time of Préval's inauguration, the dismal situation on the ground did not look that much different than it did in 2001. But within a few months, some significant steps were being 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 and effective administration which was responsive to its citizens. The most important step taken by Préval during this period was the first one --- implementation of free and open balloting, whose results no one contested. As much as that might be minimized due to Préval's overwhelming popularity --- he won with 51 percent of the vote, while runner-up Leslie Manigat obtained only 12 percent --- it was an important signature event that put Haiti back on track to a functioning democratic course. Most importantly for average Haitians, this meant the restoration of much of the international aid that had been vindictively and unjustifiably cut off during Aristide's time in office. All told, Préval's government was earmarked to receive $750 million in assistance from donor nations, indicating a major vote of confidence by the international community for his government.
Baby steps toward democracy
With Préval's decisive election victory, 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. Lespwa's opponents shocked Préval and his backers, as the party was able to take only 13 out of 30 Senate seats and to elect no more than 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 normally might have been enough to give him a mandate to rule as a strong leader, the disappointing results of the parliamentary vote were a stark reminder that, even if he wanted to introduce dramatic progressive reforms, he would have to face major obstacles and likely would have to reach ad hoc compromises with the parliamentary opposition on major legislation. In addition, while Préval has gone some length to shape the legislature to cooperate with his agenda, he has been unable to automatically generate a working majority on a day-to-day basis.
Préval augments his authority one step at a time
As a result of this early check on Préval's power, few major pieces of legislation on Préval's wish list have managed to make it through the legislature. In addition, since no other party held more seats than Lespwa, coalition building was, during much of the post-election period, an exceedingly slow and laborious process, as in each instance, Lespwa's elected members tried, with little success, to establish a predictable working majority coalition. To a large extent, this was just 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, carry with it no surprises.
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 both skepticism and frustration on the part of his opposition both inside and outside the country. In fact, the integrity of most aspects of that election was beyond dispute and only a handful of senate elections were actively challenged (and of these, Aristide eventually voided all of them). On the other hand, in 2006 and early 2007, Haitian political figures and international observers alike expressed their confidence that Préval, after he was elected, would be sure to govern democratically because that is what he was all about. While political developments and the policies that he wanted to push through the National Assembly have been slow in falling into place, the respect that he has attracted and his acknowledgement of the constitutional guarantees, which he freely offered to honor and the pledges that those around him knew would be his guide were attributes that he has possessed for decades.
Préval's style of government
A closer look at how the National Assembly has functioned could help shed some light on the status of democracy in the country. Its first task --- and, in many ways its most important one --- 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 his opponents as akin to a vote of confidence in him. This process could protect Haiti from the one-sided rule that had dominated the country for so long, and, almost as important, it demonstrated Préval's instinct to strive for consensus and to govern in a democratic habit.
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 legislation that would help curb corruption in the courts. Although the National Assembly has been far from entirely successful in this mission, it is still trying to push legislation through in a parliamentary manner, which has to be considered an encouraging improvement. 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 systematic and predictable rule of law in the country. In previous years, the combination of corrupt, hands off or hands on strongman presidents and the powerful influence of neighborhood gangs and associations of self-favoring 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, an opportunity that cannot be squandered, a fact which is recognized by both Préval and some of the more responsible 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 of the candidates' platforms.
Potholes 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 a significant number of problems that remain, suggesting that the island's political process has traveled only a few blocks on the long road to a functioning democracy. With the welcomed lack of a standing military force and the endemic rotten stain affecting the Haitian National Police, Haitians who oppose the government or voice thoroughly validated opinions denouncing the police force, often find that the law isn't always there to protect them.
Even when the law does come into play, its inefficiencies and lack of reliability usually don't allow it to do much for the public good. The court system is weak, outdated, and, just like the tainted police and other fouled Haitian institutions, corrupt. Prisons themselves are old and unspeakably bleak, as is the criminal justice system. Prisoners live in overcrowded jails with only scraps of food; according to an Amnesty International report, more than 2000 prisoners (some of them high profile) 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 as of now 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 professional judicial and penal system to emerge with any assurance that justice will be served.
The old-fashioned, poorly managed, and chronically corrupt judicial system is not the only aspect of Haitian society that must gain the attention and concern of Préval and his legislative confederates if they are to ensure the establishment of a long-lasting, genuinely democratic state. Labor conditions in Haiti continue to reflect a disdain for human rights and democratic principles. For example, Haitian authorities have done little to change the old colonial 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, like the restavec, do little to boost Haiti's quest for 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 invariably has ineffectively dealt. To date, Haiti authorities have done little to implement border reforms with the neighboring Dominican Republic. This may prove to be a significant challenge to Préval in the next few years, given the troubled history that the Haitians have had with the Dominicans, as well as the array of problems and tensions that the Haitian refugee issue has brought upon their neighbors, including fighting for access to the limited 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, will not be escapable to 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 often chose to negotiate with the gang leaders) seldom did.
Due to the lack of an efficient police force, Préval has had to rely on the current contingent of 7,500 UN troops stationed in Haiti to do his bidding. Although this has brought about some successes, the impaired state of the country's judicial system means that many of the gangsters who have been arrested might not ever face timely justice. This series of recent actions concerning gang outrages raises a number of important questions that are likely to be resolved only after significant time and a good deal of effort has been invested on a presidential level. Certainly, negotiating with the heads of often brutal and power-hungry political and common-crime motivated gangs, often involved in the drug trade, has not advanced a society hoping to be orderly and more representative of the Haitian populace. This was exemplified by the mainly ineffective results flowing from Aristides's dealings with the Cite Solei gangs. However, with corruption abounding in the courts and with the gang leaders' pockets running deep, along with the jails already overflowing with detainees who haven't even faced formal charges, let alone a trial, Préval does not have a wide range of choices available for him to make.
A long road ahead
Faced with the aforementioned gang problems, the acceleration of drug-related issues, and the ongoing practice of media self-censorship as an act of prudence, Préval and the National Assembly have much work to do in shaping how the first elected government following Aristide's arrested ouster will ultimately be perceived by the public. However, if recent events give any indication, there are some grounds for hope. Certainly, Port-au-Prince has quite a bit on its plate, but 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 fully honored until now. Democracy is not a concept that should be toyed with, and we should not expect Haiti to turn into a shining model of it overnight. What we can expect, however, is that the country's modernization and humanization will continue and that Préval and the Assembly will be respectful as they try to repair the nation and its basic institutions, as well as honor Aristide for his undeniable contribution towards helping build a good society, as Haiti moves on to better days.