Election brings hope to Haiti, but fears for its future linger

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / February 12, 2006

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- The national election in Haiti last week, hailed by US and European officials as a democratic turning point in the nation's violent and politically unstable history, will do little to heal the deep institutional and social problems facing the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, according to Haiti specialists across the political spectrum.

The sight of millions of Haitians -- some of whom awoke at 3 a.m. Tuesday to walk hours to the polls and stood in mile-long lines to cast their ballots -- was a historic display of a popular determination for progress, Haiti analysts say. And the relatively peaceful elections in a nation with a long history of coups, military rule, and dictatorships could mean a new political beginning.

But a credible election won't on its own fix the primary problems crippling Haiti, these analysts say: The Caribbean nation still suffers from a lack of functioning institutions, poor education and health care, and an economy highly dependent on donations from foreign nations and money sent back by Haitian family members working abroad.

Haiti ''has had elections before," with little to show for it in terms of an improvement in the standard of living, said US Senator Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican with a long-time interest in Haitian affairs.

Without continued foreign involvement, Haiti is at risk of deteriorating further, creating both a humanitarian crisis and a problem for the United States if more Haitians show up on Florida's shores, he said.

''The international community has to stay involved," DeWine said. ''The US has to stay involved. If we don't, and if progress is not made, the US is just going to have to have troops back there again."

Haitians last week voted heavily for René Préval, an agronomist and one-time ally of exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, as their new president, according to early results, and the nation is waiting to see if Préval got the absolute majority he needs to avoid a runoff.

The new president and national legislature will replace an interim government -- widely derided as ineffective by poor and wealthy people alike here -- which was installed after Aristide fled to South Africa in 2004.

Aristide was driven from power after armed rebels threatened to remove him by force, and many Aristide supporters contend that the Bush administration encouraged his departure even though he was the legitimately elected president.

Some say that increases the moral burden on the United States to help the next government succeed.

Préval does not draw the same passionate devotion once accorded to Aristide, but supporters say Préval's first administration as president from 1996-2001 brought some critically needed infrastructure improvements, such as roads and schools.

''Préval is a very capable person. He is what Aristide never was, which is a day-to-day administrator," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. During his 1996-2001 rule, Préval did a lot of constructive things."

But Haiti-watchers say the election, while a positive sign of political stability, would merely be one small step toward progress in a nation troubled by chronic unemployment, an unskilled work force, and serious ecological problems that impede farming.

Some analysts and US lawmakers worry that the Bush administration and congressional leaders will lessen the US commitment to Haitian affairs, using the democratic elections here as proof that the nation is ready to go it alone.

Many Haitians here and in the United States fear that US officials will turn away from Haiti, hoping other allies will pick up the burden, because they are impatient with its lack of political and economic development despite hundreds of millions of dollars in aid over the years.

''There is no doubt that Washington has outsourced Haiti to a couple of key players: Canada, Brazil, and the UN," said Lionel Delatour, a Haitian consultant and political observer. ''I believe that for Haiti to unite on a road toward stability, growth, and the alleviation of poverty, Washington cannot return to benign neglect."

Beyond its severe poverty, Haiti lacks basic institutions. It has no army, and its justice system and police force are not trusted by many Haitians.

''So far, Haiti isn't much better off than it was when Aristide left, which is not a good sign," said Steve Johnson, a Latin American specialist with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think-tank. ''Haiti needs a lot of help."

Timothy Carney, the acting US ambassador to Haiti, called the election a ''seismic change" in Haiti's checkered history. A former French colony, Haiti has endured slavery and a series of corrupt, incompetent, and repressive regimes since it declared its independence in 1804.

An elected government will be held accountable, Carney said, unlike the appointed interim government. ``People are going to require that the government actually make things better," he said.

Key to Haiti's development is economic reform, including giving Haitians the title to their own property so they can get collateral for loans, he said.

International development banks will also need to be involved in promoting development here, he said.

But Carney said Washington was not going to abandon Haiti, noting that there would be ''a huge US involvement" in training the Haitian police force.

''We're here. Americans want to see their neighbor prosper," he said. The United States also has an ''enlightened self-interest" in Haiti's development to keep Haitian refugees from getting on boats and attempting to enter the United States, he added.

US Representative William Delahunt, a Quincy Democrat who served as an observer in Haiti's 2000 elections, noted that the Bush administration has put a heavy premium on democratic elections as an agent for broader change, claiming success in Ukraine and Georgia.

But that support for democracy also has had some unanticipated consequences such as the radical group Hamas's victory in Palestinian elections, Delahunt said, and he fears the Bush administration is now also worried about prospects for Haitian democracy.

''What this election [in Haiti] is about right now is a rationale for us to disengage" in the troubled nation, Delahunt said. ''We have been unable in any significant way to meet the challenges of the failed state."

Haiti, which is 600 miles off the coast of Florida, does not have a democratic tradition to guide it after being led by a series of unelected leaders, noted Lawrence Harrison, a former USAID official in Haiti who is now a senior research associate at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

Aristide, while democratically elected, was ousted from power before his term was complete.

''The basic problem of Haiti is that as in Iraq, you can't make democracy work if you don't have democrats," Harrison said. ''It's a lesson the Bush administration has totally ignored."

Delahunt said Haiti might need to be an international protectorate until some basic institutions were in place to lead the nation to genuine economic and political dependence.

Carney was more optimistic about Haiti's move last week toward democratic rule, but said the nation's transition would take 10 or 15 years.

''We have to stay involved. We cannot take this attitude that Haiti is going to get fixed in a year, and that if it doesn't get fixed, we're going to walk away," DeWine said. Unless the country builds an economy and political system to bring stability to Haiti, US troops will invariably be back, he said. ''It's pay me now, or pay me later."