By Fulton Armstrong
Haiti is stumbling, again, from one crisis into another, but the timing of this ongoing mess puts the United States and other international partners in a particularly bad position. The country’s political institutions are dysfunctional, without an elected executive nor fully legitimate legislature, and efforts to rebuild them continue to be haphazard. Under Interim President Jocelerme Privert (formerly leader of the Senate), the government has missed another deadline for resolving disputes over the first round of presidential elections held last October and re-running them or scheduling the second round. Instead, Privert, who assumed the Presidency in February, on 28 April formed a five-member “verification panel” to take yet another look at allegations of first-round fraud and determine which candidates should participate in the runoff, with a 30-day deadline. The deadline for Privert to step down passed on 14 May.
- The move coincides with growing perceptions that Privert is enjoying the perquisites of the job and may be dragging things out on purpose. Both sides to the contested elections – supporters of Jovenel Moïse, former President Martelly’s hand-picked successor, and the opposition party’s Jude Célestin – are mobilizing crowds, some numbering thousands, for almost-daily protests. Calls for Privert to resign are growing intense as suspicions of his own ambitions and imputed bias for or against one of the candidates surge. Several dozen gunmen, allegedly directed by an enemy of Privert, shot up a police station in the southern city of Les Cayes earlier this week, resulting in six dead.
- International reactions to Privert’s delays have been mixed but predictably of frustration. The former leader of an official OAS mission to Haiti in early April supported the verification process, and OAS Secretary General Almagro said recently that elections “shouldn’t be rushed.” But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month condemned “this process of delay” and urged Haiti’s “so-called leaders” to act. His Special Coordinator for Haiti Affairs, veteran diplomat Kenneth Merten, called the new verification process a “black box” and said it was “opaque and non-democratic.”
The political mess coincides with other serious challenges.
- The World Food Program (WFP) is increasingly concerned about hunger caused by a three-year drought, aggravated by El Niño, and the country’s economic situation. Some 3.6 million Haitians (one third of the population) face “food insecurity,” including 1.5 million who are “severely food insecure.” A U.S. program to send Haiti surplus peanuts, which is one of Haitian farmers’ most successful crops, has deflated prices and further hurt local food production.
- Shortages of medical supplies, worsened by corruption, have prompted doctors to conduct strikes. High-profile cases, including the death of a bleeding pregnant woman at the entrance of the Port-au-Prince General Hospital, have led to dramatic demonstrations, on at least one occasion parading around a victim’s corpse.
- Fear of spread of the Zika virus is rampant. The University of Florida recently confirmed that Zika was present in Haiti before the outbreak in Brazil last year. (Carried by the same mosquito, Aedes aegypti, it was mistakenly identified as chikungunya, which has almost identical symptoms except microencephaly.) Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has killed 9,200 people since 2010, continues to claim about 50 lives a month, according to some estimates.
The usual threats by the United States and Haiti’s other international partners to suspend aid if the government doesn’t resolve the political impasse have been muted presumably because they’re unlikely to be credible while such major threats to Haitian citizens’ wellbeing loom large. Haiti’s political and economic elites assume that the outsiders will care for the Haitian people and continue bailing the country out while they pursue their internecine struggles. Former President Martelly, who is not free from blame for the elections impasse, has been in Miami these days to promote his autobiography ($50 a copy) and reestablish himself as a naughty boy Kompa musician. The international community is, once again, in a lose-lose situation. A previous caretaker government, headed by Gérard Latortue, lasted two years (2004-2006). The United States and others can ill afford a deeper humanitarian disaster, so while Haitian elites fiddle, outsiders will try to put out the fires.
May 19, 2016