Haiti: The Post Duvalier Era, from transition to dysfunction

Ask any Haitian if they remember what they were doing on February 7, 1986 and you will get a story.

For me, it is the sad story of missed opportunities.  I remember the euphoria that seized many, both in Haiti and in the Haitian communities abroad.  Even foreigners with very limited knowledge of the island nation had heard of the Duvalier regime, father and son.  The 1980s were an era marked by the fall of dictatorships as were the 1960s a big era of decolonization. For many this was a day to rejoice for others a day to hide, to flee and to fear.  It was the beginning of retaliation, vengeance, “dechoukaj” (widespread ransacking of properties including looting and rioting) and “pe lebrun” (name given to the burning tire, sentence reserved for those who had been collaborators of the regime or had been perceived as such).  The witch hunt began instantly, people were burned alive in the streets with children looking on; homes and businesses were destroyed and some burned to the ground.  The persecuted had become the persecutors, the tortured had been turned into torturers and the army looked passively at the slow descent into hell.  Haiti did not find its Nelson Mandela…We are still waiting.

As a totalitarian government (Duvalier the father)  and later an authoritarian form (Duvalier the son) this regime for nearly 30 years denied basic Human Rights, functioned as a single party system and in essence promoted the implementation of a system based on fear and in which political power did not change hands and neither did the means of  production.   It was a right wing dictatorship supported by the US in exchange for the guarantee that Haiti would not be a breathing ground for Leftist movements.

When the regime fell, the army took over.  The military institution, a remnant of the American occupation of the early 1900s, had been subdued by Francois Duvalier and made the subordinate of the very feared and infamous VSN, “Volontaires de la Securite Nationale” (volunteers for national security) or, as you probably know them, the “tonton makoutes”.  Letting the angry mobs go after the members of that paramilitary corp was essentially payback and would reestablish the Haitian military as the only legitimate arm bearing troops.

In 1986, the demands were great and the expectations were greater.  This country had the arduous task of organizing elections and taking steps to usher in the democratic process.  It was easier said than done.

In the rest of the Western world, the democratic process was not a well defined, well thought of and well organized series of events.  It was rather a case of great economic changes and revolutions in technology, thoughts and education that kept motivating societies that they should take part in the affairs of their countries and should pay close attention to the people they voted into office.  The great economic boom of the post WWII era gave people the standard of living they had not previously enjoyed.  In order to safeguard this new status, they had to elect people whose responsibilities would include promoting peace and stability in order for economic growth to continue.

In the years that followed 1986, Haiti faced great many challenges, among them:

1- A low literacy rate

2-  A high unemployment rate

3- A non existing party system

4- Institutions that were very weak in the knowledge of the democratic process

5- A very large rich-poor gap

6- Millions of people who had been denied basic freedoms and who now perceived any sort of order as a return to dictatorship.

The so-called “Democratic Sector” took the press by storm and established the acceptable language, demeanor and profile of the future Haitian Leaders.  Anyone whose name had been linked to the past 30 years deserved the Guillotine.  There were no exceptions, no attenuating circumstances and no one remembered that thousands of people had worked for the state and the government and had been peaceful law-abiding citizens.  Those were times of extremes and no one realized that they were becoming guilty of the same crimes against which they had fought.

As I said earlier, this is the time I label “missed opportunities”.  In 1986, began a transition that transformed itself into a dysfunctional system where institutions are either very weak or non existing and where violations of Human Rights (perhaps not at the same rate) still go on.  Between 1986 and 2004, there were 6 or 7 coups.  This much sought after democracy remains a dream and 28 years later there has been tremendous growth in population but very little in progress and production.  The unemployment rate remains very high, there are more parties than we care to have, the literacy rate has slightly increased, the institutions are weaker than ever before and the Haitian state, now a ward of the International community, has been under UN tutelage since 2004.

What’s next? This is the billion dollar question.  Is the Haitian society ready and able to move past petty differences to build a just system? I wonder. Before we can ponder the great philosophical questions, bellies have to be full and heads have to be educated.  Investments have to be made and jobs have to be created.  The rural sector(so hardworking and so capable), ignored by every government  needs attention and education in the modern techniques of agriculture in order to produce enough for this growing population’s needs.  History has shown us that it is the economics that have forced nations to redefine their politics.  In Haiti we seem to be more concerned with the political outcome and voters put their hopes and aspirations into incapable and clueless hands of people who,though animated by the best intentions, are always the prisoners  and the victims of a dysfunctional system.

Cassandra Honorat