By: Sam Aman, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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After years of delays and political deadlock, Haiti is finally preparing to hold its long-overdue general elections, leaving international observers to breathe a sigh of relief. But within the small Caribbean nation’s borders, the atmosphere is one of heavy skepticism. Years of brutal dictatorship and multiple coups buttressed by extensive foreign intervention have left their mark on the country’s political infrastructure, and Haitians are more wary than ever of what they see as empty promises. Growing popular unrest, a cholera epidemic, and the all-too-visible impacts of the 2010 earthquake mean this year’s elections carry heavy implications for the country’s future, but the current state of affairs has some worried that they could prove a logistical nightmare.
Historical Context and Today’s Situation
Since the fall of the dictatorial dynasty of François “Papa Doc” and Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986, politics in Haiti has been largely characterized by contention, mistrust, and instability. Having experienced no fewer than 33 coups d’état in its two centuries of sovereignty, the country is struggling today to incubate true democratic governance. Recurrent political vacuums have served as wellsprings for personalistic leadership, enabling impressively high levels of corruption to be shrouded in populist rhetoric.
Haiti’s current president, Michel Martelly, embodies almost too perfectly this paradigm. A former pop singer, Martelly—known to his fans as “Sweet Micky”—has an undeniable talent for entertainment. His vocal control is superb, seamlessly switching octaves at the drop of a hat and maintaining a remarkably even timbre throughout the passagio. Even more enthralling is his stage presence, with his often raunchy, profanity-laced live performances captivating even the most listless of crowds.
A far cry from his former life of provocative dancing and regular crack-cocaine use, Martelly now runs a country. Though he lacked political experience, Sweet Micky spent ample time before taking office rubbing elbows with Haiti’s elite. Around the beginning of his music career, he ran a Port-au-Prince nightclub called Le Garage, popular with high-ranking military officials and supporters of the brutally repressive Duvalier dictatorship. An outspoken supporter of the 1991 coup that ousted Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Martelly spent the next three years building close relationships with leaders of the violent military junta that followed.
These relationships paved the way for Martelly’s ascension to the Haitian political scene a decade later, after a 2004 coup once again ousted Aristide, who had since returned from exile and been elected to a second term. Following the coup, Gérard Latortue, a personal friend of Martelly’s, was named interim Prime Minister, and Sweet Micky, who had been living in Miami at the time, saw an unprecedented opportunity in Port-au-Prince.
A stranger to formal politics, Martelly decided to run for president in 2010 in a highly controversial election. After coming in third in the first round of voting, behind former First Lady Mirlande Manigat and the staunchly leftist Jude Célestin, Martelly joined other candidates in denouncing the elections as fraudulent, accusing then-President René Préval of rigging the vote to install Célestin as his successor. The Organization of American States (OAS) then sent a commission to Port-au-Prince to inspect the results of the election and, in a widely criticized decision, announced that Manigat and Martelly should proceed to runoff voting.
Jonathan Katz, a journalist and the only full-time American correspondent in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake, told U.S. News and World Report that Washington’s firm support of the OAS decision had little to do with principles of electoral transparency and more to do with Célestin’s markedly critical stance toward the United States. Martelly, on the other hand, was more in line with Washington’s vision for reconstruction in Haiti and was seen as the most strategic choice in the country’s first post-earthquake elections. Ricardo Seitenfus, a Brazilian professor of international relations and then-OAS Ambassador to Haiti, explained in an interview with Dissent Magazine that the international community’s actions in 2010 were reflective of a wider paradigm of excessive intervention in the country. “It would be the foreigners, and them exclusively, who were to define the will of the Haitian voter,” he lamented.
Martelly’s presidency has since devolved into a familiar mélange of corruption allegations, ad hominem attacks, and political deadlock. Legislative elections scheduled for 2011 and 2013 were delayed by the government’s inability to cooperate and establish an electoral council—a body sanctioned by the country’s constitution as a prerequisite for all elections. Martelly’s attempts at forming electoral councils have been contentious, with opposition members rejecting the president’s appointments over noncompliance with constitutional criteria. The resulting impasse has impeded two full election cycles, leaving Parliament to dissolve on January 15, 2015, when the terms of all 99 members of the Chamber of Deputies and 20 members of the 30-member Senate expired. With only ten MPs left in office, Parliament is unable to obtain quorum, and, in accordance with Haitian constitutional law, Sweet Micky now rules by decree.
On March 2, amidst street protests and calls for his resignation, Martelly officially issued a decree calling for presidential, legislative, and municipal elections to be held by the end of the year. Elections for 20 Senate seats and all 118 seats of the newly expanded Chamber of Deputies will be held on August 9, presidential and municipal elections and legislative runoff elections on October 25, and presidential runoff elections on December 27. Four years of delays mean that a staggering 6,000 posts are now being contested, with 56 approved candidates vying for the presidency, 1,515 for seats in Parliament, and over 41,000 pre-registered for municipal elections. With all of this set to occur over the course of three polling days, Haiti, with its young, feeble political infrastructure, will soon be given a Goliathan test of democratic wherewithal.
On May 24, the Conseil Électoral Provisoire (Provisional Electoral Council; CEP) published a list of approved legislative candidates from 98 different parties, including, for the first time since the 2004 coup, Aristide’s party, Fanmi Lavalas, which has been barred from elections ever since his ouster. With 99 candidates receiving authorization from the CEP, Lavalas now has the third largest presence in the legislative race; former President Préval’s new Vérité party comes in first, with 115.
In second place, with 110 approved candidates, is Michel Martelly’s new party, PHTK, whose very name serves as a salient testament to the cult of personality forming around Sweet Micky. The ultra-right Parti Haïtien Tèt Kale (“Haitian Bald Head Party” in Creole), named in endearing reference to Martelly’s shiny dome, was formed in 2012 and has since grown to become one of the largest political parties in the country. Such alarmingly blatant personalization of power harks back to the Duvalier years, when François “Papa Doc” would make extensive use of voodoo rhetoric to present himself as a sort of semidivine embodiment of Haiti itself, famously declaring in a 1963 speech to the public, “Je suis un être immatériel” (I am an intangible being).
The legislative race so far has been shrouded in controversy, to which Martelly’s party is far from immune. On June 2, the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (National Human Rights Defense Network), Haiti’s largest human rights organization, released a list of 35 legislative candidates approved by the CEP who have been implicated in cases of serious crimes, including homicide, rape, and kidnapping. The PHTK leads this list with six candidates.
But with Haiti’s turbulent history of one-man rule and despotic leaders circumventing the legislature, eyes both within the country and abroad are fixed on this year’s big-ticket item: the presidency. The 56 contenders represent a wide spectrum of constituencies and political ideologies, ensuring an interesting race. Among these 56, three candidates, in particular, stand out in their apparent potential to become Haiti’s next head of state.
Running as the PHTK presidential candidate is Jovenel Moïse, a prominent businessman and personal friend of Martelly’s. As CEO of the agricultural enterprise Agritrans S.A., Moïse oversaw the establishment of the first Agricultural Free Zone in Haiti, devoting 1,000 hectares in the northeast of the country toward the cultivation of bananas. The project stipulates that 70 percent of the production in the zone be for exportation and confers upon its participants special tax and customs charge exemptions. A loyal friend of the market, Moïse was welcomed with open arms within the PHTK and is likely to appease the foreign entities with an all too palpable presence in the country.
Moïse’s candidacy has since been formally contested in the Bureau du Contentieux Électoral Départemental (Departmental Electoral Office of Litigation; BCED) on the grounds of misuse of public funds. The submitted dossier accuses the candidate of engaging in collusive negotiations to obtain $6 million USD in government funding for the Agritrans project, with provisions for an additional $15 million. The document goes on to declare that Moïse used a portion of the Agritrans grant to finance his electoral campaign, a direct violation of Article 125 of Martelly’s March 2 Electoral Decree.
In what was hardly a surprise decision, Sweet Micky’s CEP rejected the challenge and maintained its authorization of Moïse as the PHTK candidate, raising concerns over the president’s capacity to influence the elections. Opposition members now fear that Moïse, with his complete lack of political experience and worryingly early involvement in shady dealings, could effectively serve as another Martelly.
One of the PHTK’s primary opponents in the election comes in the form of Dr. Maryse Narcisse of Fanmi Lavalas. Acting as the party’s national coordinator, Narcisse, a medical doctor by vocation, has made a name for herself as a human rights activist and advocate for democratic governance. A close ally of Aristide’s, she spent two years in exile in Miami after his overthrow in 2004, where she became the international voice for the Lavalas movement. In October 2007, shortly after returning to Haiti, Narcisse was kidnapped at gunpoint in front of her home and held for ransom; she was released three days later. Hers came just three months after the abduction of fellow high-profile Lavalas member Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, a human rights advocate who remains missing to this day.
Narcisse stands as living defiance of the ruling coalition’s attempts to dismantle Fanmi Lavalas, and with the party now allowed to participate in the elections, she represents a formidable thorn in the PHTK’s side. Still, her candidacy has not been without controversy, with some voices within Lavalas warning that the presidential hopeful holds a vision for Haiti that no longer aligns with the party’s original ideals. Narcisse came under fire for levying sanctions on party members Moïse Jean-Charles and Arnel Bélizaire after they organized marches around the country demanding the resignation of Martelly and the withdrawal of UN troops from Haitian soil.
The move prompted accusations from some Lavalas members that Narcisse has grown sympathetic to the Martelly administration and foreign entities, departing from the party’s original raison d’être. Following his condemnation, an irate Jean-Charles publicly expressed these qualms, telling Haïti Liberté, “Maryse Narcisse used to work for USAID alongside [U.S. Ambassador] Pamela White and [First Lady] Sophia Martelly. It is no wonder she today adopts the positions she does.” Internal criticism continued after Narcisse issued a statement calling for Martelly not to resign, but to instead finish his term and guarantee elections in 2015.
Though Lavalas hardliners contend that such an attitude reflects an attenuation of her progressive ideology, Narcisse has, in fact, proven herself to be a much-needed potential intermediary in the Haitian political sphere. In an executive capacity, Aristide’s protégée could be capable of reconciling an avant-garde policy agenda with the institutional limitations integral to true democracy.
Sauveur Pierre Étienne
Running for the centrist Organisation du Peuple en Lutte (Organization of Struggling People; OPL) is Sauveur Pierre Étienne. A former Haitian Communist Party militant, Pierre Étienne was a particularly active member of the opposition during the reign of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, whose father oversaw the exile and assassination of several of the young dissident’s relatives. In the years following Duvalier’s ouster, the OPL emerged as a leftist, Aristide-backed coalition—indeed, the acronym originally stood for Organisation Politique Lavalas (Lavalas Political Organization). Through the course of the political tumult of the 1990s, a noticeable ideological fissure began to develop within the OPL, culminating in 1997, when Aristide officially founded Fanmi Lavalas. Wanting to maintain the acronym while distancing themselves from the Lavalas label, Pierre Étienne and other party leaders bestowed upon the organization its current name.
Following an assassination attempt in 1997, Pierre Étienne went into auto-exile, returning to Haiti ten years later. He has since become an enigmatic figure in the country, and like those of his party, his true political convictions are currently a topic of much debate. Claiming to maintain a moderate Marxist ideology, Pierre Étienne penned several books in the 1990s, including Haiti: The Invasion of NGOs, in which he offers a skeptical evaluation of NGOs as mechanisms through which the core implements foreign policy agendas in the periphery. Indeed, he has traditionally presented himself as opposition to Martelly and critical of the right’s resolute espousal of neoliberal policy reforms.
But in recent years, Pierre Étienne and his party have instead positioned themselves increasingly firmly against Fanmi Lavalas. OPL legislators have spearheaded privatization campaigns and IMF-sanctioned structural adjustments, sparking accusations of political opportunism, with some claiming that the party is attempting to simultaneously exist as opposition to and allies of the ruling coalition. Since the OPL’s split from Lavalas, antagonism to Aristide’s faction has become a more and more integral aspect of the party’s ethos. Pierre Étienne, in keeping with this stance, has contradictorily conferred upon Martelly’s PHTK a degree of legitimacy, describing it in an interview with Radio Tout Haïti as “the lesser of two evils” vis-à-vis Fanmi Lavalas.
Though he sports an impressive résumé as a professor of political science and author of several distinguished publications on international development, Pierre Étienne has recently displayed a level of ideological inconsistency that leaves doubts over his capacity to govern with coherence. With the extensive role that foreign entities maintain in the Haitian political scene, an administration characterized by ambiguity could leave the country even more susceptible to outside interference and exploitation.
This year has been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, a trying one for Haiti. The events of the past few months and the resulting political scramble have created a substantial crisis of legitimacy in the hemisphere’s poorest country. Campaigns and electoral proceedings are marred by public distrust, and many Haitians still worry that the 2015 elections will fail to materialize. However, though the current situation is dire, the sheer magnitude and fervor of participation in this year’s electoral process is an indication that the Haitian people’s democratic spirit is alive and well.
For a country whose geographic location makes it particularly prone to natural disasters, whose colonial history has left a palpable legacy of socio-economic strife, and whose sovereignty continues to be undermined by excessive foreign intervention, few things are destined to come easily. But logistical concerns notwithstanding, Haiti has a vital opportunity this year to experience a peaceful, democratic transition of power. In the coming months, domestic and international observers will wait to see if principles of transparency and integrity are upheld, bringing the Haitian people closer to the governance they deserve. But even amidst all the uncertainty, it is clear that this year’s elections have the potential to serve as a huge step in the right direction.
By: Sam Aman, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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Featured Photo: Haitians voting in the 2006 elections. From: Marcello Casal Jr./ABr.