Haiti's Political Crisis: 'Uncertainty Is The Only Thing We Know For Sure'

Political scientist Robert Fatton Jr. explains the deep-rooted challenges Haiti's next leader will face.

13/02/2016 10:00 PM AEDT | Updated 14/02/2016 9:59 AM AEDT

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. In this edition, we speak with Robert Fatton Jr., a political scientist at the University of Virginia, about Haiti's efforts to rebuild in a time of political crisis.

Haiti's controversial president, Michel Martelly, agreed to step down on Feb. 7 amid grisly protests demanding his resignation. 

The celebrity-musician-turned-president, also known as "Sweet Micky," was elected in 2011 as the Caribbean nation reeled from a deadly earthquake. Despite his lack of political experience, Martelly vowed to rebuild the country. His legacy, however, is one of turmoil and instability. He faced accusations of corruption and bribery, and twice postponed votes to elect his successor.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Former Haitian president Michel Martelly stepped down on Feb. 7, without a successor, leaving the nation in a 'power vacuum.'

With Martelly's resignation, Haiti's fragile democracy has returned to a state of uncertainty. Members of the Haitian National Assembly will choose a provisional leader on Sunday, but a new president won't be elected until April 24. Prime Minister Evans Paul will maintain limited power until an interim government is established. 

The power vacuum comes at a time when Haiti is facing tremendous challenges. It remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with three-quarters of the population living on less than $2 per day. The catastrophic earthquake that devastated the nation in 2010 left hundreds of thousands of Haitians dead or injured and forced some 1.3 million to leave their homes.

Efforts to restore the crippled country have been thwarted by new disasters. The world's largest cholera outbreak in recent history has claimed thousands of Haitian lives, while a three-year drought is starving millions more.

Robert Fatton Jr.
Political scientist Robert Fatton Jr. has studied Haitian politics for two decades. He explains the difficulties Haiti's new leader will face in a time of political crisis.

The WorldPost spoke to Robert Fatton Jr., a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has studied Haitian politics for two decades, about Haiti's efforts to rebuild in a time of political crisis.

The deal for President Michel Martelly to leave office has been credited with averting worse violence. Do you think it was an important move for Haiti? 

I don't think the deal has resolved all the issues. My personal feeling is that the deal managed to do two things. One is to compel Mr. Martelly to exit power, which is quite important given the configuration of the political system at this moment. The other thing is that the electoral council, which was a real problem, has also disappeared.

So those two things have been done, but the problems aren't going to stop right now. The departure of Mr. Martelly does not resolve the Haitian crisis. There is serious doubt about the procedures that are currently being discussed about the nomination and ultimately election of a provisional president. The National Assembly doesn't agree with the procedures that were agreed upon with the agreement.

So you have a series of serious problems. Who's going to be the next president? Who's going to be the next prime minister? All of that is supposed to be done on a consensus basis, but there is no consensus. The consensus has to be created, so we are back, to some extent, to the very situation that led to the crisis, minus the presence of President Martelly.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
In the days leading up to Martelly's resignation, protestors in Port-au-Prince violently demanded he step down.

I don't think the deal has resolved some of the key questions. Are we going to have a second round? What would be the substance of that second round? Are the results that were so contested going to be accepted? That's not clear at all.

It may well be that the commission which is supposed to look into the results of the second round and the first election also, could come up and say, "Well, these elections are so bad that they should be cancelled." If that is the case, we don't know where we are going in Haiti, because you would need a completely new set of rules and new presidential candidates. It's a very fluid situation, and uncertainty is the only thing we know for sure. 

What are the risks for the country's fragile democracy in the 'power vacuum' that Martelly left behind?

The situation is very much like it was before. I don't exactly know what will happen. There is a power vacuum, but President Martelly was president for five years, and we never had elections.

This has been a crisis that has been growing for a long time. It is clear that since you do not have any real legitimate authority in the country, the crisis could escalate. There is no president, and the National Assembly itself is a problematic assembly because while it is criticizing the presidential elections, the Assembly is the product of those very elections that were supposedly so bad.

You have a very delicate situation and the political system is in the process of being completely reconfigured. Old alliances may disappear [and] new alliances may reappear. The opposition was united to a large degree on one thing: the departure of Mr. Martelly, and the elimination as it were of the electoral council. That is done. Now the question is: do they have any degree of unity given the current situation? That's extremely difficult to tell at the moment.

Haiti faces a severe food crisis. Are you concerned about the humanitarian impact of the current political issues?

It can't help, obviously. There's a food security emergency, which tells you that the country has not really dealt with its agricultural problem at all. That's an issue that has been exacerbated by the current crisis. [On Thursday] there was a significant rain in the northeast of the country. It is flooded, and it's clear that the government can't do much about it because there is a paralysis at the top.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Prime Minister Evans Paul has limited power until the Haitian National Assembly chooses a transitional leader on Sunday.

The National Assembly has requested that [the] prime minister do something about it, but the prime minister is very worried that he could step out of the agreement and be perceived as being too involved in the day-to-day management of Haitian politics. The food crisis is going to be exacerbated, but it has a very long history.

To a large degree, the food crisis is the product of certain policies that were implemented in the late 1980s and 1990s, with the complete lifting of tariffs, for instance, on the production of rice, which contributed to a real disaster. [Haiti] used to be more or less independent in terms of its food production, in particular, rice, which is so fundamental to the Haitian diet. Well, that is no longer the case. The new policies that have been implemented have really undermined food production. 

What are the main factors behind the country's struggles to establish a functioning democracy in the three decades since the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier?

First there is the nature of the political system itself, that is the political class. Secondly, there is the significant resistance of the traditional economic elite in Haiti, who control to some extent the financial banking sector. They are totally reluctant to see any fundamental change in the distribution of power and the distribution of wealth.

You have this bloc that is very much opposed to any fundamental transformation of the Haitian economy or Haitian political system. Whether you're on the left or on the right in the political class, there is that reality of taking power, and as we say in Haiti, of eating power, and growing fat on power, at the expense of the general population.

Then you have the international community, which has been interfering in Haitian affairs for a very, very long time, without really generating any type of positive success. The economic plans that have been elaborated are plans, in my mind, that can only contribute to the exacerbation of the political crisis. We have an open economy. What that means is that local production is literally destroyed.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images
An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 people were massacred during the Duvalier dictatorship era -- led first by François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, then by his son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

What we do is basically export certain things, mangoes and coffee, and whatever investments we have in the country tend to be rooted in ultra-cheap labor areas. That was the model under Duvalier. It led to an acute crisis and I don't see why this model, which is the same, would lead to anything but an acute crisis.

What lessons can Haiti learn form Martelly's time in office as the country prepares to elect a new leader?

The election of Mr. Martelly was very controversial. There was a first round where Mr. Martelly didn't come in the second position, and then the U.S. and the Organization of American States essentially forced the issue and compelled the then-president [René] Préval to accept some sort of a deal whereby his handpicked candidate, Jude Célestin, should step down from his second position. 

The election in 2010 in the first round stopped literally after five hours. All the candidates except Jude Célestin declared that the elections were so fraudulent that they should be cancelled.

And yet, the international community intervened and told Mirlande Manigat and Mr. Martelly that the results would probably be such that they would be number one and number two. So after saying that the elections should be cancelled, 24 hours afterwards, both of them said, "Oh the elections were not that bad." And then we know the rest of the story, so that election was really farcical. What we've had in the last few months is more or less of the same vein.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images
Calls for Martelly's resignation followed accusations of corruption and bribery, which have been ongoing since his 2011 presidential victory. 

If you're going to have elections, do have good elections, at least that are perceived as legitimate. This is not the case. The second thing is, clearly, on the one hand, the international community, which I think has really continuously interfered in the Haitian political process with very significantly negative consequences, wants to be in solidarity with the Haitian people. That's fine, but the perception in Haiti is that when it takes charge of the electoral process itself on who should be the president of Haiti, that leads to significant problems.

The other problem is the Haitian political class. It's not just the international community. The Haitian political class is totally interested in its corporate interests, period. There is such a thing as the absolute desire on the part of that political class to keep power, and not to relinquish power. That cuts across the political spectrum. It's part of the right wing and the left wing. We have a problem about the very nature of politics in Haiti.

Most politicians are people coming from the middle classes, and the middle classes have been in fact disappearing in Haiti because of the economic crisis. That means that if you want to acquire some amount of wealth, politics becomes a business. Once you get in a position of power, you are not going to want to relinquish that power because it's a source of wealth -- corrupt wealth -- but nonetheless, it allows you to improve not only yourself, but also your family and extended family to improve your financial lot. 

What are some of the most pressing challenges Haiti's new leader will have to address upon taking office?

If the elections are perceived by the vast majority of Haitians as legitimate and fair, the first thing the leader has to do is try to consolidate whatever we have in terms of institutions. Whether it's a legislative branch or an executive branch or a judicial branch, they are really in agony. There's no other way of putting it.

Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press
A three-year drought has devastated Haiti's agricultural sector, leaving more than one million Haitians severely food insecure.

From an economic perspective, this is where the issue of foreign economic dependence comes in. If you really want to change the nature of the Haitian system, I think that you need to concentrate on agricultural production and on food production. This is clearly not the model that the international community wants to see in Haiti. There is a real constraint on whoever becomes president of Haiti to move in that direction.

The other aspect is really, how do you manage the conflicts in Haiti? Haiti is extremely poor, and there is an absolute division between a very small elite, which is doing very well, and the vast majority of Haitians, who are doing extremely poorly. How do you in some ways build the bridge between those two sectors?

That is probably beyond the capacity of any one individual. It would require compromise on the part of the business community -- compromises that have never really [been] contemplated -- and that would require assistance from the international community to push the business community in that direction, which is also a very difficult thing to see.

Haiti is really facing a Catch-22 situation. I'm not quite sure how to extricate the country from its predicament, but whoever [becomes] president, it's clear that that person will have a really amazingly complicated task. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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