(Some historical context: In his first term, ending in early 2001, Préval almost became the first freely elected Haitian president to complete his entire term and hand over power after a credible election. Despite the presence of UN and OAS observers, Préval was reportedly ordered, via threats from Aristide, to call the Electoral Council and demand that it count only the top four candidates for Senate, out of up to two dozen competing in each of nine national districts, in the May 2000 legislative and local elections. By not counting about one-third of the votes cast, Aristide’s Lavalas party would have won all the Senate elections after just one round of voting. This led to a massive boycott of the presidential and other elections, which Aristide won later in 2000. Much of the instability and the revolts which led to Aristide’s premature departure from office can be linked to that May 2000 electoral fraud.)
In the best possible world, these gains under MINUSTAH and Préval would not be lost, and the cautious optimism about “turning matters around” could become something like a self-fulfilling prophecy. This would mean key actors deciding that recovering from this disaster will require them to think and behave differently. It would mean putting the country, rather than narrow or corrupt interests, first. And it would mean changing the U.S. obsession with interdicting Haitian boat people, many of whom are genuine refugees at sea.
Realistically, that is too much to hope for. Still, the catastrophe should have one benefit: extending MINUSTAH’s likely mandate beyond a decade. That should help sustain Haiti’s democratic transition, and extend the amount and duration of foreign aid for rebuilding southern Haiti.
Aid, though, is not going to be enough. Like all countries, Haiti’s economy has to grow on its own. That means the government must generate its own tax revenue by extending the benefits and responsibilities of the rule of law to all. The polarized political class must start to compromise; the ruling and middle classes must start paying taxes to support a state that can offer schools, hospitals, and public safety for all of its citizens.
Instead of ignoring the leaders of the predatory state, the international community should provide enough aid for that government to enforce the law and encourage the gradual development of checks and balances, while also building schools, hospitals, and roads. Were that to happen, Haiti’s stigmatized identity at home and its frightful reputation abroad might also change; were that to happen, tourists and investors might return. Would this immediately change the game in Haiti? Not likely. But it could certainly help to even out the score.