The large scale demonstrations and roadblocks that had shut Haiti down for several months last fall are over — for now. Parliament is no longer in session. Absent elections, there are not enough members for a quorum. As a result, President Moïse is ruling by decree. He shows no signs of resigning, and continues to hold out a process of dialogue with opposition political leaders as a way out of the crisis. Negotiations have taken place, but continue to be stalled on the question of Moïse’s tenure in office. From the Miami Herald:
During two rounds of negotiations in mid-December 2019 and late January with moderate members of the opposition, Moïse representatives and members of his political PHTK party, [United Nations Representative] La Lime said a consensus emerged on the contours of a political agreement based on four elements: the criteria for forming a government; the contents of a reform agenda; a constitutional reform process; and the establishment of an electoral calendar.
“Despite progress regarding the nature of the reforms to be undertaken, including that of the Constitution, political actors have yet to settle on a formula that would lead to the designation by President Moïse of a consensual Prime Minister and the formation of a new government,” she said. “The lack of agreement on this matter, as well as on the remaining length of President Moïse’s term, threatens to needlessly prolong a situation that has already lasted too long.”
The United States and other members of the international community continue the mantra that somehow new elections for Parliament will solve the impasse. Elections may be necessary for any number of reasons in the short-term, but will not, in and of themselves, solve anything in the long run. Indeed, there is no way to get to elections without a substantive compromise on reform first.
Kelly Craft, the United States representative to the United Nations said, with no sense of historical irony (i.e., absent reference to U.S.-backed coups against democratically-elected governments in Haiti and elsewhere): “The Haitian people must have a voice in selecting its leaders. And further, while constitutional reforms are necessary and welcomed, they must not become a pretext to delay elections.” Craft demonstrates once again, that when in doubt, the strategic deployment of platitudes can always stand in for a U.S. policy.
Meanwhile, the political stalemate has created a crisis in daily governance in Haiti unlike anything most people can remember. Kidnappings are on the rise, while police protest the lack of pay by burning carnival bleachers. Food insecurity is spiking - nearly one-third of the country faces hunger on a daily basis and is need of immediate assistance, according to the UN’s World Food Program.
Despite the magnitude of a crisis that is not just imminent, but basically has already arrived, the World Food Program has only been able to raise $15 million of the $72 million it says it needs to address hunger. Meanwhile, government revenue has fallen 25% since 2018 as the economy has contracted. Inflation, tied in part to the collapse in the exchange rate, continues to sap what meager earnings most people can assemble. There is quite literally a lack of cash in the economy, making it difficult to get paid and purchase goods, especially in more rural communities. The cost of borrowing has sky-rocketed. Bond rates are up to 22% from 10% a year ago, meaning that even if the country can find investors, the increase to long-term debt would be unsustainable. The International Monetary Fund recently completed its Article IV Review of Haiti, and while offering plenty of advice on the need for political reform and restructuring of the energy sector, it offers little else.
Explicitly and implicitly, news accounts and policy makers blame all of this on bad governing by Haiti’s leaders. To be sure, Haiti’s leadership, especially since 2011, has not been very responsive to the needs of its people, and has facilitated, and probably profited directly, from corruption. The same could be said of Donald Trump.
So it may be that the real issues with leadership in Haiti are related to a structural collapse in the capacity of the government to do much of anything, good or bad. That is a process that has been facilitated over 30 years by international actors, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the governments of the United States, Canada and France. Local allies have done well for themselves, to be sure. But what makes Haiti’s leaders stand out is the backdrop of poverty, not the fact of corruption, which is a universal feature of liberal democracy in a capitalist world system.
Consider this historical footnote in a Reuters article on the hunger crisis:
It wasn’t always like this. Haiti was largely food self-sufficient until the 1980s, when at the encouragement of the United States the country started loosening restrictions on crop imports and lowered tariffs, then imported surplus U.S. crops, a decision that put Haitian farmers out of business and contributed to investment tailing off.
“Encouragement” is an interesting term. What happened was more like blackmail. The people of Haiti have been the victims of an international Ponzi scheme, as financial institutions like the World Bank issued loans to the Duvaliers, and then demanded repayment even after Baby Doc split with a bunch of the money. Indeed, a significant amount of Haiti’s current debt is tied to those old loans to Duvalier, as well as more recent loans to other unelected governments in 2004-2006. As international institutions have drained Haiti, this has forced Haiti’s governments to request new loans (dependency by design), and with these loans, conditions have set in: Haiti must lower tariffs, float exchange rates, cut subsidies for fuel, cut social services, cut education budgets, cut health budgets, and so on. After thirty years of this, Haiti has cut everything there is to cut.
The lowest tariffs in the Caribbean have translated into the dismantling of local agriculture and dependency on imported food. Cutting social services has left 80% of Haiti’s school children in private schools, and even those in public schools are forced to pay fees that keep many out. Haiti has almost no functioning public health system, and what limited access exists is dependent on support from the non-profit sector in the form of joint programs to survive. So, yes, against this backdrop, people pocketing a few billion dollars in PetroCaribe funds is infuriating. I just wish we were collectively as infuriated with the policies that generated this context.
History lessons are not much help to the people in the streets going hungry today — and they know the history better than us anyway. But as Haiti’s fate gets debated across mahogany desks and computer terminals in other capitals of the world, we must not forget that the international community shares responsibility for the debacle the people are facing. Any request for further intervention that ignores this history should be tossed. International actors have a role; they can write off Haiti’s international debt, for example. They could offer better terms of trade. Some (U.S., France, Canada) should certainly pay reparations for decades of theft of Haiti’s natural resources. There are ways to help.
But power doesn't work that way. Discipline is the international language of the day.
Unfortunately people can't eat that either.