Right now is a particularly interesting time for Haiti. In addition to the earthquake of January 2010, and in many ways because of it, a famous Haitian pop musician named Michel Martelly was elected among a plethora of unpopular candidates in their latest national elections. This marks a shift from earlier trends in Haitian politics, where I gather that a political elite (largely black) has held sway, in contrast to the business elite (largely mulatto), which controls the import-export and owns much of the land in the country. Due to the mass emigration and brain drain, there is an ever-diminishing pool of qualified governmental officials, and as a result they tend to be recycled with changing administrations. Cabinets and ministries endure a subsequent reshuffling process… Therefore “change you can believe in” is as sorely desired in Haiti (if not more so) than in the United States. Haiti’s government could really use more than a reshuffle, considering the inefficiencies (to put it mildly).
To briefly recap the general elections… The first round of elections were fairly contentious – not as bad as some in Haiti’s past, mind you. But they were originally scheduled for February 2010. When the earthquake hit, the entire country was in complete disarray and they postponed them to last November (2010). Keep in mind that the quake struck at the heart of this highly centralized country, and demolished nearly all of the government buildings. Many key officials were killed, and many records were lost. In a blog that the post-earthquake engineering firm Miyamoto had published (but which I sadly can no longer find), they described how Kit Miyamoto climbed into the Ministry of Finance and rescued the two hard drives containing the national budget of Haiti. The building has since collapsed completely.
I came to Haiti for the first time two days after the first round of national elections, when they were counting the ballots, and there were already rumours of election fraud. One of the Haitian urban planners who we were working with to develop the plan for downtown Port-au-Prince was describing how his wife, a registered voter, had been turned away from the voting center with no clear explanation of why she could not vote. The radio told of many similar anecdotes. The two candidates who had risen to the top of the heap were Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestin. Mirlande is the wife of Leslie Manigat, who had been president for 5 months in 1988 before being overthrown in a military coup by his predecessor Henri Namphy. Jude Celestin was the “dauphin,” i.e. the designated successor of the Inite (“unity” in Creole) party of the Préval administration. He spoke little. But he had a reputation of not being particularly bright, and I heard that he was already basically being invited into the room when important political decisions were being made.
Martelly, nicknamed “tèt kale” (“square head” in Creole, because of the shape of his bald head) came third in the first round with 21.84% of the votes, less than a point behind Celestin who had 22.48%. Manigat had come first with 31.37%. The results were so close, and the elections so disorganized, that many Haitians believed there had been fraud and there were virulent protests and calls for a recount. A protest in Haiti means hundreds of people out in the streets, tires being burned, the arrival of UN military forces called MINUSTAH with tear gas… Ultimately it was determined that the Organization of American States (OAS) should lead an investigation to determine whether the results were fair. They found that Martelly had actually won more votes than Celestin, and after a long period of arguing, they scheduled the second round in March 2011 between Manigat and Martelly. Martelly won.
What is interesting about this? Well first off, Martelly is not from the established political elite. If you had to put him in a box it would be with the business elite, which is very closely tied with the Haitian diaspora. In fact, Martelly campaigned in Miami as well as in Haiti due to the high number of Haitians living there. So this is new and has caused many to be hopeful. Another sign of hope was (and I should emphasize was) his choice of prime minister, Daniel Rouzier. He’s smart and successful, and also not from the entrenched political class. With the two of them at the helm, the government could have begun to show some real signs of change. However the Parliament, which still has a majority of Inite members (remember Inite was Préval’s party?) rejected Rouzier just 4 days ago (see CNN). So now Martelly is struggling to find another candidate. Selecting a prime minister is the first step to forming the rest of his government and advancing his agenda of rebuilding the country.
As an aside, there is speculation all around as to why Rouzier was turned down. All I know is from hearsay, so take it with a grain of salt. But on one hand, Rouzier is on the whiter side of the mulatto spectrum, and Martelly is already mulatto. For a country that is mostly black, and where race and the history of what it means to be Haitian are so closely wrapped up together, it is not impossible that his whiteness could have been a major factor in the Parliament not choosing him. Furthermore, the party Inite is very powerful in Haiti. Their stated reason for rejecting him was that Martelly had not consulted with them on his choice. The party feels that it should be represented in the choice of PM. Finally, I have also heard that there are some business deals, from which many politicians would have benefited, that Rouzier had stated he would not support. This could have also played a role.
At the end of the day, whatever the reasons, these politicians have again postponed the day when Haiti will have real leadership. It is very difficult to get any initiative approved by the government, or to work with the government, when the latter is in such a state of upheaval. With hundreds of thousands of people still living in camps under tents, it is tremendously short-sighted of the Parliament to choose their own petty fights, political or historic symbolism, or financial gains, over the quick establishment of a functioning government. Welcome to Haiti.