What is going on in Haiti? Anyone hoping to follow its political twists and turns from abroad may be forgiven for feeling confused: the politics of the Caribbean republic of more than ten million—the western hemisphere’s poorest nation, and the only one in the Americas patrolled by U.N. peacekeepers—are both fiendishly complex and almost wholly dysfunctional.
After an entire week in which Haiti had no President, the country’s lawmakers held a special session that dragged on for twelve hours and ended, early Sunday morning, with sixty-two-year-old Jocelerme Privert, a former Senate leader and opponent of former President Michel Martelly, being chosen to fill the role on an interim basis. Privert will govern until April 24th, when new Presidential elections are to be held. If all goes according to plan—which is not at all certain—the winner will assume office three weeks later.
Haiti’s latest crisis came to a head on February 7th, when President Michel Martelly left office after serving five rocky years at its helm. In his leave-taking ceremony, he said: “I now declare Haiti officially to have a power vacuum.” It was a characteristically blunt quip from a man who, throughout his Presidency, spoke his mind, and invariably caused offense. Before his own turn in politics, Martelly was best known asSweet Micky, a ribald performer of a lively brand of dance music known as compas. He won office in disputed elections held after the devastating January, 2010, earthquake, which killed over two hundred thousand Haitians and destroyed thousands of buildings in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Coming out of a long history of dictatorships, Haiti’s current constitution prohibits its Presidents from serving more than one consecutive term, and so, although he certainly did not wish to, Martelly was obliged to step down. In the first electoral runoff, last October, his anointed successor, Jovenal Moïse, a banana exporter who campaigned as the Banana Man, came out ahead. A second round of voting was postponed twice, and finally scheduled for January 24th, but Moïse’s chief rival, a veteran Martelly opponent named Jude Célestin, vociferously denounced the October polls as having been rigged and demanded that new elections be held.
Célestin gained the support of several other parties’ candidates, and their followers began holding angry street demonstrations to voice his demands. Thanks to the mounting threats of violence on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Célestin’s gambit to thwart the second round was, in the end, successful. Two days before polls were to open, Haiti’s electoral commission called it off indefinitely. (Somewhat ironically, Célestin lost his place in the second round of the 2011 election to Martelly, after inspectors from the Organization of American States determined that many of Célestin’s first-round votes had been fraudulently obtained.)
A few days before the second round was due to take place, Martelly, whom I profiled recently for the magazine, called to talk about his hopes and fears. He was clearly worried about the political confrontation brewing with Célestin. He denied the accusations of fraud and vote rigging, and said that the opposition politicians were trying to force the cancellation of the second round so that an interim government, one that they could control, would be installed. He said that their plan would “bring chaos to Haiti,” and that was an outcome that had to be avoided at all costs. He saw it as his job, he said, to “reassure everyone and keep the country safe.”
Things didn’t go as Martelly wished. On February 7th, there was no new President to succeed him, and he was forced to strike a last-minute deal with Haiti’s parlimentary leaders to form an interim government pending new elections—precisely the scenario he said he feared.
Martelly, a clever man who appeared to have learned how to game the Haitian system, seems to have been outfoxed by his opponents. His critics accused him of all manner of nefariousness—from protecting traffickers to enriching himself with bribes and kickbacks—and even his staunchest defenders, which included American officials, conceded privately that some of the charges might be true. In fact, very few Haitians involved in politics are free of allegations of criminal behavior. Widespread public suspicion of malfeasance on the part of Haiti’s public servants has become the norm. With Martelly’s exit from power, on the thirtieth anniversary of the end of the Duvalier family dictatorship, Haiti remains a deeply corrupt and unequal place.
As for Martelly himself, not only was he denied the chance to exit gracefully, with a successor in place (“If there is continuity, I can come back,” he told me before the election), but Haiti’s annual Carnival was postponed because of the crisis, and he was unable to end his Presidency by joining in the festivities, and to “boom it out,” as he said he wished to do.
Even before leaving office, however, Martelly signalled his return to his old persona of Sweet Micky by releasing a new song, with salacious lyrics that taunted some of his media critics, including a prominent Haitian radio journalist and human-rights activist, Liliane Pierre-Paul. The song is called “Give them the Banana.”
At Jocelerme Privert’s swearing-in ceremony on Sunday, few of Martelly’s allies were on hand. Instead, the celebrating crowd was dominated by his rivals in Fanmi Lavalas (“The Flood”), a left-wing party that was founded by Haiti’s two-time former President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Privert’s political mentor. Whatever else he is, Privert is certainly a change in style from Martelly, who so despised Aristide that he once famously offered to “kill [him] and stick a dick up his ass.” At his inauguration, Privert struck a dutifully conciliatory tone: “We should welcome the peaceful and inclusive nature of this new step in resolving the crisis. Our patience has been severely tested this past few days, but our tolerance has been reinforced,” he said. My Presidency should be part of the logic of the need to return to constitutional normality.”
If only the Presidential election were the end of Haiti’s problems. Last week, the U.N. World Food Program (W.F.P.) warned that 1.5 million Haitians are at risk from severe malnutrition; the number has doubled since September, due to a combination of prolonged drought, the climate phenomenon known as El Niño—and, of course, the conditions of extreme poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives. It is Haiti’s worst food crisis in fifteen years. In some parts of the countryside, farmers have experienced crop failures of as much as seventy per cent, and in one of the worst affected areas scores of children have starved to death. The W.F.P. has launched an appeal for eighty-four million dollars to help stave off the crisis.
If the past is anything to go on, the U.N. will only manage to raise part of that money. After the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, foreign governments and international donor agencies made pledges of over thirteen billion dollars, of which less than six hundred and fifty millionreached the Haitian government. Even before the earthquake and the inadequate aid allocations, however, Haiti was in a state of chaos, and in so many ways that it had become difficult, even for relief experts, to see how to fix it. Whoever becomes the nation’s next President will become, in effect, the caretaker of a large slum.
During our several encounters in Port-au-Prince, Martelly was rueful about his own lack of achievements. He had decided, however, that the ultimate solution to Haiti was an ambitious program to educate its people. Nearly half of all Haitians are illiterate, and that, he said, had to change. “We need to have another Haiti in twenty years. Look at Cuba, it’s got all those qualified people. We’re living the opposite experience.”
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