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Haiti's Uncertain Future

By Barrington M. Salmon -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Oct 2, 2019 - 9:12:24 PM

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Foreign intervention and internal conflict plague Black republic

An opposition protester holds out his arms and yells “Kill me” to ruling party Senator Willot Joseph who holds up a gun outside parliament before a scheduled vote on the ratification of Fritz William Michel’s nomination as prime minister in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sept. 23. Opposition members confronted ruling-party senators, and Joseph pulled a pistol when protesters rushed at him and members of his entourage. The vote was cancelled.

WASHINGTON—Gun-wielding lawmakers, a heated political impasse, an embattled prime minister, gas shortages, business shutdowns, a closed airport, and angry street demonstrations are among reports coming out of Haiti in recent days.

But these incidents, including an Associated Press photographer being hit by a bullet fragment from a Haitian senator’s gun and opposition efforts to block approval of a prime minister and force President Jovenel Moise out of office amid charges of corruption and mishandling of the economy, aren’t the whole story.

For at least the past 18 months, the island nation of Haiti has been roiled by protesters whose deep anger at the government has boiled over. They’ve taken to the streets because they’re tired of a government that has ignored their frustration and their disgust with the government’s economic incompetence, indifference and the pervasive corruption of government officials, a noted U.S.-based Haitian economist said.

Some of the most recent protests were sparked by a government announcement of price increases of basic goods. Demonstrators are also outraged following the release of a report of a Senate investigation which implicates at least 14 former and an unknown number of government officials of misusing $3.8 billion under the administration of former President Michel Martelly.

About $2 billion of that amount was supposed to be allocated for infrastructure repairs of buildings and structures damaged or destroyed by the 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 but it appears to have ended up in the pockets and bank accounts of those purported to serve the public.

Angry residents have vowed to continue the demonstrations until President Moise steps down, but he has vowed to stay, said DePaul University professor and economist Dr. Ludovic Comeau, Jr.

He was one of a panel of Haitians and Haiti experts at the recently concluded Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., who discussed at length the thorny issues of Haiti past and present. Haitians, several of the panelists pointed out, have never had extended periods in their history where some outside force, such as the United States, France or the United Nations hasn’t imposed its will on the populace.

That, as well as a succession of corrupt governments, an uncaring elite that has conspired with outside elements to ignore even the most basic needs of ordinary Haitians, and a series of natural disasters such as the devastating earthquake in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 has only worsened the living conditions of many ordinary Haitians.

“What you see is a very heightened period of social and polit instability caused by government incompetence,” said Dr. Comeau, a native of Haiti who holds a law degree, an MBA, and a Masters in Economics and French Literature respectively. “Haiti has been in a state of instability since the 1980s and since then, we were never able to sustain stability. The current bout of political turmoil is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

He said he goes back home five or six times a month, but his most recent visit, he didn’t venture far from home.

“I’ve never seen it like that,” he said. “I stayed for three weeks but stayed hidden. People are treated like animals and, sadly, have become like animals.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings, who represents Florida’s 20th District, hosted the panel discussion to look at new approaches to solving Haiti’s problems. The discussion was cosponsored by the Haitian-American Democratic Caucus of Florida.

As the panel waited for the last member to arrive, the congressman gave the sizable audience a snapshot of Haiti’s history. That included Haiti’s independence in 1804; the internal strife that followed; the 1806 assassination of Jean-Jacques Dessalines; the French king Charles X, who used gunboat diplomacy in 1825, threatening the use of force to compel President Jean-Pierre Boyer to pay what amounts to $21 billion (in today’s dollars) in reparations to French slaveholders who had been run out of Haiti; the U.S. occupation from 1915-34; and the U.S.-backed Duvalier dynasty which wreaked its unique kind of havoc on the Haitian people.

“Francois Duvalier was catastrophic for the Haitian people,” Rep. Hastings said. “There were military coups, contested elections and more coups. In 2010, the United Nations peace mission introduced cholera to Haiti. The country has suffered environmental devastation, including the 2010 earthquake and in 2016, Matthew. So Haitians went to the Bahamas and lived on Abaco in a place called The Mudd (which was decimated by Hurricane Dorian). When I go to heaven, I going to ask God, ‘What did Haitians do to you that they suffer so?’ If you have a problem with that, I don’t give a damn.”

He said the current unrest reflects the people’s burning desire for change.

“The protests are not the least surprising,” he said. “They do not simply want the advancement of one individual or another; what they seek is systemic change,” he said. “They are not despairing, they’re not depressed. They seek a strong, stable Haiti and the strong people in Haiti are speaking truth to power.”

Haiti’s per capital income is $350, about half of the roads are unpaved, unemployment is estimated at about 80 percent, Dr. Comeau said. Other panelists ticked off Haiti’s myriad challenges, including a moribund economy, inadequate health care, droughts, food shortages and an alarmingly high level of violence.

Leslie Jean-Robert Péan, a former senior economist at the World Bank, said most people have what he characterized as a “big misunderstanding about Haiti.”

“The basic problem the country has is that most books from elementary to Catholic schools all say that Haiti was created by Black slaves, they say it was a racial revolution,” he said. “But there were no schools in Haiti and scientific knowledge was controlled by the masters. The freed Africans had no scientific knowledge to build the country … we rejected any know-how from Whites after the U.S. occupation.

“If you don’t know how to read and write, you cannot progress. There was a group of Whites and some former masters who wanted to bring scientific knowledge to the growth of sugar cane but that didn’t happen. The result was a decrease in transportation and productivity.”

Mr. Péan said a number of talented enslaved Africans left with their masters and moved to Cuba, which left those leaders and people trying to build a country severely hobbled and with no foundation on which to sustain themselves or build a viable future.

“That’s basically what the Haitian situation was,” he said.

Many of Haiti’s leaders and the elite have used ignorance as a tool to run the country, Mr. Pean argued.

“This is a major mechanism to control the rest of the population,” he said. “(Francois) Duvalier used UNESCO to get rid of teachers and educators. They were seen as his main opposition, so they got 105 visas and were sent to the Congo, Senegal, the Gambia and the Ivory Coast. Secondary schools in the provinces couldn’t function because there were no teachers. The migration of teachers was a great drawback.”

Mr. Péan asserted that the international community and its policies are complicit in keeping Haiti trapped in a place where an island with so much potential can neither grow nor flourish. In essence, he said, “And they have used a Faustian method ‘of seeking a better future while holding the hands of the worst people.’ ”

Moderator Dr. Jean-Phillipe Austin—whose almost ruthless efficiency in cutting off long-winded answers drew laughter from panelist and audience alike—injected the personal cost of living under a dictatorship and in a society where life seems sometimes to have little value. He spoke of a boy growing up in Haiti and at five years old being left behind as his parents, fearing death, fl ed the Duvalier regime, leaving him to be raised by his uncles.

“His uncles were arrested and put in Fort Dimanche (prison), tortured and killed,” he said softly. “But that child grew to become a radiologist. That was me. At an intimate level, politics matters. Politicians have the disproportionate ability to do crap. But we can’t give up.”

“We come from a people able to fight with arms and hands to get rid of Napoleon but what have we done with that legacy? We have inadequate health care, unemployment at just under 90 percent. But there is the one percent. I blamed them my entire life because the elite is responsible for the country and its future. But over the last 10 years, I’ve realized that the Haitian Diaspora is equally responsible because we’ve abandoned the field, abdicated our responsibility.”

Dr. Comeau agreed, saying that Haiti was and is unable to sustain its children so they are scattered all over the world. But he said Haitians in the Diaspora hold a key.

“We have to come up with a team of competent Haitians who have integrity, love of country and compassion for the people,” he said. “The current leadership has no compassion for them. Integrity, integrity, integrity. How do you get that? It takes good people to stop talking and form a group. It’s been going on for 35 years of people who are worried, but I believe it will happen. People will realize that some things must change.

“Traditional Haitian society has reached a point of decomposition after 200 years. From this decomposition, something new will emerge. People must live decently and differently.”

Both Mr. Péan and Dr. Comeau agree strongly that foreign actors need to step back and allow Haitians to determine their own destiny.

“We get help from the international community and Big Brother, but we want them to stop meddling,” Dr. Comeau said. “If they want to help us to do what other countries have done, they can help by making a bunch of little changes which if sustained will lead to profound change. We would see a quantitative leap forward similar to what China experienced when the government pulled 900 million people out of poverty.”

He added that the Haitian government and its partners need to create 100,000 jobs a year for 10 years to significantly change the face of poverty and need in his country.

“It’s been done elsewhere. That can be done,” he said.

Mr. Péan said that will be very difficult if Haitians don’t confront the elephant in the room.

“We refuse to systematically look at the psychological impact (of the Duvalier regime and the subsequent turmoil) but we are completely messed up,” said Mr. Péan, who served as a UN economic consultant. “We try to legitimize killers and those who destroyed our psyche.”

Dr. Comeau concurred, saying that throughout Haitian history, there have been efforts to put down the people as punishment and to make Haiti an example. Consequently, there are psychological complexes Haitians in general still haven’t overcome. He added that Haitians are a little xenophobic and very reluctant to accept foreigners.

Haiti has never had a policy of inviting foreigners to invest in the economy, and because of a mélange of challenges, Haiti’s gross domestic product is eight times smaller than its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, said Dr. Austin, the former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Dr. Comeau said Haiti would be profoundly affected if corruption was dramatically curtailed.

“About 2 and a half months after the earthquake, we had a big donor conference. The donors pledged $11 billion but about half of it came which was controlled by (former presidents) Bill Clinton and George Bush,” he said. “All of the donor money was given to NGOs. The bitter taste that Haitians have is that nothing durable occurred, there was no rebuilding whatsoever. I’d be hard-pressed to find any progress since the earthquake.”

Dr. Comeau cited the case of former President Martelly. “We had an election when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. In 2011, he came in fourth but was declared president and a few years later, the executive director of the election commission said he was pressured to choose Martelly. But they’re smart, they left no fingerprints. He was bankrupt but today he’s a multimillionaire. He just built a beach house worth $9 million (U.S.). He also managed to put a crony of his, Moise, in power and he’s totally inept.”

“Corrupt has been elevated to the status of sustained impunity. Corruption is everywhere—it’s pandemic. The problem is impunity and because of that, it has become a free-for-all. Meanwhile, poor people are living in dirt, a bunch of young people living in the dirt … .”