Haiti in turmoil

Perry World House Visiting Fellow Henri-Paul Normandin, former Canadian ambassador to Haiti, reflects on the current situation and where Haiti goes from here.

Aerial view of Cap Haitien, showing colorful, run down concrete buildings, shacks and palm trees
View of the streets of Cap-Haitien, the hometown of slain Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

The assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, earlier this month has sent the nation into deeper turmoil, raising fears of escalating political violence and uncertainty for the future. The Caribbean nation has a long history of strife in the 200 years since its enslaved people staged a revolt and established their own country. Since then, it has struggled under United States occupation in the early 20th century and a string of dictatorships and coups, to the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Penn Today spoke with Perry World House Visiting Fellow Henri-Paul Normandin, former Canadian ambassador to Haiti, to get his take on the situation and thoughts on where Haiti goes from here.

Some pundits have said the assassination of Jovenel Moïse is the culmination of years of political instability. What are your thoughts? 

I would not use the word culmination to describe the recent events. There certainly was political instability under the presidency of Jovenel Moïse, but it did not have to end this way, with his assassination. What happened was very bizarre, and we’re just beginning to understand how the assassination took place. We’re still in the dark, however, about who sponsored this and why. Everybody was stunned by the assassination.

During a decade, roughly from 2005 to 2015, there was a period of relative political stability in Haiti. In 2005, René Préval took office through democratic elections, and he went through his entire mandate. At the end of his term there was another election, and, while contested, it led to a relative peaceful transfer of power from Préval to the opposition candidate, Michel Martelly. That was an accomplishment in itself. There was another transition of power in 2017 to Moïse. So, in this period, we've seen two relatively democratic and peaceful transitions of power. I use the word ‘relative’ because the elections were chaotic and subject to controversy, accompanied by some violence in the streets.

This constitutional continuity and relative democratic stability were welcome, following the previous decades of dictatorship of the Duvaliers, father and son, and the chaotic years of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Now, with the assassination of Moïse, that all comes to an end.

Man wearing suit and tie smiles at the camera
Henri-Paul Normandin, the former Canadian Ambassador to Haiti and current Perry World House Visiting Fellow.

What led to political instability during Moïse’s presidency?

First of all, when Jovenel Moïse took office he was unknown and unexperienced. He was handpicked by his predecessor Martelly, came to power through a controversial election, and was in fact inaugurated a year late. That was not a good start. During his tenure, Moïse did not perform well and, over time, isolated himself. He weakened the institutions so that today Haiti has no sitting parliament, a decimated judiciary, and a police force undermined by internal divisions and deficient operational capabilities.

Further, many held the view that his constitutional term was over and his government thus deprived of legitimacy.

Finally, in addition to his autocratic tendencies, he was suspected of having links with criminal gangs, which now rule many neighborhoods and pose a significant security threat to citizens and the country alike.

It is no surprise that under these circumstances, Haiti’s situation went from bad to worse and the living conditions of the people continued to deteriorate.

Why has Haiti struggled to emerge from these cycles of coups and dictatorships?

From my point of view, it boils down to three core interrelated problems that mostly revolve around the political culture in Haiti, partly inherited from colonization and the history of divisions that characterized the republic ever since its inception. 

First, the political ecosystem in Haiti is very fragmented. Forging enduring alliances and developing a national consensus have always proven difficult. That's reflected in the fact that there are no meaningful political parties in Haiti. Instead, we see an ad-hoc coalition of people working together one day and divided and working against each other the next day.

The second element to point out is that institutions have historically been weak, a plight common to many developing countries. Governance tends to rely more on people at the top than on institutions.

Third, the political class tends to cater to its own interests as well as special interest groups, hence a lot of corruption.

All this seriously undermines Haiti’s governance, stability, and development.

Why didn’t the humanitarian aid that poured in after the 2010 earthquake help Haiti rebuild?

Many people are very critical of the assistance that was provided to Haiti after the earthquake and opine that the funds were wasted and had no impact. I beg to differ.

The emergency humanitarian assistance that was provided to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake saved lives and relieved the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people. Clean water, food, health services, and temporary housing were provided. All this had an immediate impact. That was a meaningful accomplishment, even if imperfect.

It gets more complicated with the reconstruction effort that came later, after the crisis. Despite shortcomings, this assistance had an impact; for instance, schools and clinics were rebuilt, small enterprises refurbished and refinanced, and so on. We witnessed some degree of reconstruction and reboot of the economy.

Was all this as effective as it could have been? I will not pretend as much. More could and should have been accomplished.

While the international community needs to examine what it did right and what it did not do right, we also have to look again at Haiti’s governance. Many hoped that the shock of the earthquake would provoke a ‘reset’ of Haiti’s politics, for the better, and that Haiti’s political class would start working differently, in the interests of the country. That did not happen, to the detriment of Haiti’s development.

The international community can provide assistance to a country, but at the end of the day it is the people of that country who will chart the course. That holds true whether it’s Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, or any other country.

What has the international community’s role been since the assassination and what should it be?

I’ll start with ‘what should be’ the role of the international community.

In an ideal world: none.

What I mean by that is that ideally Haitians would take charge, find political solutions themselves, restore security, and hold elections.

But the reality is that it is difficult for Haitians to come to a consensus on the way forward.  

So, in these current circumstances, the role of the international community should be to do the minimum necessary to accompany Haitians to restore stability and security and to move along with democratic elections and together to avoid the worst. Neither Haitians nor the international community want Haiti to fall into a spiral of violence. 

However, once you’ve said that, the international community can easily get drawn into the intricacies of day-to-day politics. That is not a healthy situation, but that’s the situation the international community has often found itself into. I have experienced it myself. And that is a risk again today.

If the Haitian political community and civil society could develop a consensus on the way forward, that would be best. But such past attempts have not often been successful.

The international community should accompany and support Haitians in a process but not make decisions for Haitians.

Looking more specifically at what course Haiti could take at this time, it is clear that Haitians should decide through democratic elections who will be their next president. Everyone agrees on that. The question is how to get there and when. There are two tracks possible.

One is to take a pause, rethink some of the fundamentals of Haiti’s governance, implement reforms, and only then proceed with elections for the presidency and parliament. To allow time to do that, it is necessary to put in place a transitional government. Potentially, that might allow the country to restart on a more solid governance basis. But it comes with risks. The process may prove endless and unsuccessful.

The other course of action is to organize elections as soon as possible to swear in a new president and move along. This makes sense in principle. But in the current political and security context it will prove very difficult, in the short-term, to organize credible elections that would empower a legitimate president.

It appears that the international community is opting for the second path, absent a consensus amongst Haitians. We’ll see where that leads.

What is the most important thing for people to understand about what is happening in Haiti right now?

We’re all focused on the political crisis. The security situation is also a serious concern. But let’s not forget the living conditions of the people, which are extremely difficult. There is food insecurity, hardly any source of income. The hurricane season is coming, and we’re not out of the pandemic.

This being said, this is a country which has a lot of potential. It possesses resources, it has an industrious people, and it can count on a tremendous amount of good will around the world.

If only Haiti could get its governance act together, it could realize its potential. Haitians have been looking for that moment for a long time. It, unfortunately, has not come yet. 

Finally, Haiti also holds strength in its rich culture. This is a dimension of Haiti which is overlooked. Yet, it’s the essence of day-to-day life, and Haiti throbs through its literature, visual arts, spirituality, music, and other forms of expression.

Like Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferriere said after the earthquake: ‘When it all falls apart, we still have culture.’