Is Haiti’s Earthquake a “Game-Changer”?

Probably not in the way that some pundits think

In the days after Haiti’s earthquake, several observers have expressed hope that the disaster could, ultimately, be a game-changer for the country. Robert Maguire, head of the Haiti program at Trinity University in Washington, D.C., has noted, “There’s a potential silver-lining in a deep, dark cloud.” And New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “Far more than most other impoverished countries — particularly those in Africa — Haiti could plausibly turn itself around.” Port-au-Prince could be rebuilt with solid construction, replacing the slums destroyed by the earthquake. The capital’s population could then be reduced to humane levels, and people could live in the conditions to which former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide aspired: “poverty with dignity, instead of misery.”

I have also heard friends and commentators suggest that this terrible moment might finally and belatedly galvanize both the international community and the Haitian political elite to promote sustainable and humane development—despite all the obstacles. Robert Fatton, one of the most prominent Haitian intellectuals and the Julia A. Cooper Professor of Government and Foreign Affairs at the University of Virginia, commented, “Could it lead to a very new way that Haitians look at each other, talk to each other, treat each other,” and at the same time rebuild their nation? “I can’t think of a better moment than this moment.”

Oh, if it were only so! I fear that such statements reflect wishful thinking (to be fair, Fatton is not making a prediction). Haiti’s political class has been polarized too long to expect any immediate, fundamental shift in its outlook. And the symptoms of the country’s distorted politics are far-reaching. For example, the Haitian government still does not pay for free, universal public schooling. Only about 20 percent of children can attend public primary schools, while families with meager resources scrimp to send their children to private ones. Yet the rich can send their children to state medical and law schools for free.

Still, against this backdrop, Haiti had been making progress until last week. It was a long, slow move, akin to an aircraft carrier changing direction, but the trend was real.

The key factor was the presence of the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). After beginning its work in 2004, MINUSTAH immediately encountered an interim government dedicated to marginalizing the party of the exiled Aristide. At the same time, the mission was confronted with the sudden and unexpected emergence of urban gangs from the worst slums in Port-au-Prince. But eventually, MINUSTAH learned how to attack and arrest the gangs, and also how to minimize civilian casualties by relying on better-trained forces. By 2007, the urban gangs were largely demobilized and their leaders apprehended.

There were also signs in recent years of an improving formal economy—and, more importantly, political stability. Since the end of the twenty-nine-year Duvalier dictatorship in 1986, Haiti’s progress toward democracy had been interrupted some two dozen times in what Robert Fatton has called “the unending transition.” Each time, the country had to start over with plans for a new election. But the four years since René Préval was elected president in 2006, though marked by food riots and other dissent, had been the longest period of quasi-democratic stability in Haiti’s history.

Most importantly, President René Préval, who was elected in the 2006 elections supervised by MINUSTAH, has calmly respected the rule of law—both by observing the complicated Gaullist, semi-presidential constitution, with both separate heads of state and government, and in containing volatile and violent elements, both allies and enemies. His presidency has produced, to be sure, turbulent executive-legislative moments. But despite these tribulations, the trajectory of governance and stability is upward. Préval is scheduled to finish out his term early next year and hand over power, hopefully based on credible elections, currently scheduled for later this year.

(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.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Henry (Chip) Carey is associate professor of political science at Georgia State University. His forthcoming books are Dilemmas of NGO Peacebuilding (Palgrave) and Reaping what You Sow: A Comparative Study of Torture Reform (Praeger).