Giving Haiti’s New President a Good Launch

  • Gauging the autonomy of Haitian president-elect Rene Preval.
  • Preval in Washington seeking aid and help in retraining Haiti’s unprofessional police force.
  • Obtaining the immediate release of political prisoners jailed under the rump regime of Gerard Latortue, will be the first test of Preval’s independence and responsiveness to the Haitian people.
  • Preval will have to deconstruct the deplorable legacy of the Latortue regime and seek justice for the interim leader’s illegal actions.
  • The question of Aristide’s return should be on Preval’s agenda, and not Washington’s.
  • For Haiti to be independent, Washington must give up its working assumption that its embassy in Haiti is the U.S. southern White House.
  • Preval already is feeling the pressure from all sides as he begins planning his own course

In the middle of May, after a number of electoral process take place, Rene Preval, the only democratically-elected Haitian president to serve out his full five year presidential term and peacefully hand over power to the succeeding administration, will once again assume the presidential mantle. Haitians are hopeful that a new Preval administration will help to alleviate the gang violence, tame an incompetent and abuse-prone police force, sanitize a completely corrupted judiciary, address questions of past instances unprofessional behavior by the UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH, and confront the extreme polarization of society that has been intensified by the rule of the Interim Government of Haiti (IGH), headed by Gerard Latortue.

But many questions remain regarding just how effective a Preval government can be, and whether or not the international community’s presence in Haiti, as woefully represented by the UN, along with the three nations most culpable for Haiti’s present plight – the U.S., France and Canada – will let Preval chart his own course. There are two central issues that will determine the extent to which the first duly elected government of Haiti after the 2004 coup – one that was legally mandated by Haitian votes and not imposed upon by them by the international community – is truly autonomous and independent.

Releasing Latortue’s Victims
The first major issue that would credential Preval’s insistence that he must be his own man (whether it be in his relations with Aristide or the U.S.) would be the immediate release of those illegally imprisoned by the Latortue regime and legal recourse for those already released. Various human rights groups, including the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission, have estimated that a shifting inmate population of between 700 and 1,000 political prisoners and prisoners of conscience remain in Haitian jails. Included in that number are many whose sole crime was being identified as being a Lavalas party activist or member of the former Aristide government, among them being ex-Prime Minister Yvon Neptune. Regarding those wrongly imprisoned, the likely reason Preval registered for the presidential election on the last day possible, held relatively few rallies, and generally ran a very low key campaign, was that he did not want to become yet another jailbird victim of the Latortue regime. On Latortue’s watch, many who wanted to contest the election on the Lavalas ticket or work for the party were summarily imprisoned, kidnapped and even murdered.

The Council of Sages – an ad-hoc, totally opaque and unaccountable governing committee of the IGH, which was formed after the coup against Aristide in February of 2004 – even went so far as to formally recommend that Lavalas be banned from the elections due to the party’s alleged promotion of violence. Of course, it should be noted that such a ‘recommendation’ was tantamount to informing the overwhelming majority of Haitians that the proposed election was to be a grand affair, save that they would not be permitted to back their favorite candidate because, in the view of IGH, anyone running on the Lavalas ticket was simply unacceptable and was a self-defining villain.

Gousse’s Numberless Delinquencies
Just last July, the IGH imprisoned, on trumped-up charges, the popular and beloved Father Gerard Jean-Juste, who was slated to possibly run as Lavalas’ candidate in the presidential election. This detention followed the outlandish allegations that he was a participant in the murder of a well known journalist. Even a heavily biased State Department, which tends to instinctively take the anti-Lavalas position an all Haiti-related issues, has admitted that the charges against Jean-Juste could not be substantiated. Clearly, the state-sponsored suppression of Lavalas party activists, officials and would-be presidential candidates, belied Latortue’s mendacious declaration that, “this government will not act in favor of anybody or any political candidate [nor will it] work against any candidate who will run.” (italics author)

But Latortue’s patently unlawful regime was not only guilty of illegally imprisoning those it perceives as its political foes, but also of circumventing justice in the cases of those legally found guilty and imprisoned under the Aristide or Preval presidency. In one notorious example, convicted FRAPH death squad leader from the period when the military junta ruled Haiti, Jodel Chamblain, was acquitted of murder charges after the direct intercession of Latortue’s infamous Justice Minister, Bernard Gousse, in August of 2004. Latortue also committed the outrageous act of reconstituting the dreaded Haitian Army and purging the court system of Lavalas sympathizers. Last December, he brazenly fired five members of the Supreme Court and replaced them with his own extra-constitutionally appointed cronies, and pledged that he would spend millions of dollars on compensating the Haitian military that had been disbanded by Aristide.

The corollary to releasing those unjustly imprisoned and making the legal case that would rebut Latortue’s assault on the judicial system, is the need to seek justice against those who committed state-sponsored crimes under the Latortue regime. We have yet to hear how Preval will deal with this thorny issue; whether he will press charges against Gousse and those who served him while he was Justice Minister, or whether he will appoint a truth and reconciliation commission, or issue a carte blanche amnesty for those charged with the wanton murder and mistreatment of Lavalas supporters, as well as those guilty of the calculated murder of political enemies, in the spirit of what is best for the country.

Aristide’s Return?
After dealing with the issue of prisoners jailed by Gousse in an entirely expeditious manner, Preval’s administration should be able to make a decision regarding Aristide’s possible return to Haiti under the best of conditions for all concerned. It is a near certainty that the Bush administration will put every obstacle in the way in order to prevent this return. The question then becomes, will Preval push for his return anyway, in spite of U.S. opposition? Recently, at a State Department news briefing, Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli contributed this piece of punditry: “Our understanding is that the government of Haiti is looking forward, not looking back. They’ve got a democracy to build, and the future is not in the past. Aristide is from the past.” Brushing aside the broader issue of why the State Department believes it should have any say regarding Aristide’s possible return, the matter of immediate concern is how Preval will deal with this potentially incendiary matter. The new president will have to balance his dependence on U.S. economic assistance and political support, with his need to show his nation that he is his own man and that Haiti will not be submissive to Washington under his rule and that all the sacrifices made by the citizenry were somehow justified.

Whatever Preval’s relationship with Aristide may be today, he was Aristide’s long loyal political confederate, his former prime minister and is actively connected to many in Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party. It’s also true that although Preval ran under the banner of his own newly minted party, Lespwa (Hope), the major base of his support overwhelmingly comes from the pro-Aristide slums. That noted, Preval never ran as a mere stand-in for Aristide, and he must harbor some resentment over the fact that the latter had purged much of his cabinet and aborted many of his reforms after again winning the presidency following the end of Preval’s term in 2001.

Notwithstanding Preval’s current personal opinion of Aristide, the state of their relationship, or even Preval’s feelings regarding the wisdom of an Aristide return, the new president sees it as Aristide’s call on the matter of his return. Whether the incoming president’s decision on Aristide is respected – or not – by the U.S. will not only be of keen interest to observers of Haitian politics, but will be seen as a key determinant of Preval’s readiness, if need be, to stand his ground against Washington, and for that matter, Aristide.

Preval Feels the Heat
The new president will undoubtedly be pressured from all sides. The pro-Lavalas side, including the armed gangs in the slums (many of whom are indeed guilty of committing acts of violence, though not with any official documented sanction from Aristide or any identifiable senior Lavalas party official) will likely press their demands for Aristide’s return. In their view, it was the Lavalas base that won the election for Preval, so it’s only logical that Aristide be tempted to exercise his constitutional right of return.

At the same time, Preval will most likely have to face a different kind of pressure from the pro-business community, Washington and the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince. All of those forces inevitably will be opposing the Lavalas agenda at every turn and they can be counted on to be pushing Preval to apply the Bush administration’s neoliberal agenda as a prescription for improving Haiti’s economy. The conservative business community of course will find Aristide’s return intolerable, with such hard-line figures like Andy Apaid and his somewhat notorious Group of 184 already making it clear that their intention is to submit Preval to their own desiderata. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Haitian business magnate Lionel Delatour didn’t mince words about him when he stated that, “If he does try to bring Aristide back, Preval will not finish his presidency. I think Mr. Preval is smart enough [not] to do that.”

The former anti-Aristide American ambassador to Haiti, Timothy M. Carney, has said that he believes the U.S. “can work with” President Preval. But if past is prologue, “working with” Port-au-Prince will mean opposing – and even undermining – the new government, should Preval show any inclination to blaze a political path independent of Washington’s.

Can Washington give up its organic conviction that its embassy in Haiti is nothing more than its southern White House? Washington’s regional agenda clearly flies in the face of some of the aspirations of Preval’s own political base, as well as in the growing rejection of the once celebrated but now repudiated Washington Consensus throughout the region. Successfully juggling these polarities – defined in terms of satisfying his Lavalas base – while not tempting Washington’s own chimères (gangs) to once again engage in coup-making, is the monumental challenge now facing Haiti’s soon to be inaugurated president.