Haiti's hope and search for a president

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Reading the political situation in Haiti is not unlike trying to figure out which came first, the chicken or the egg. One line of thinking says that no matter which candidate wins the troubled Haitian elections, the new administration will fail because the country is infested with corruption, criminal activity, and an inept security force. The other believes that the only way to stabilize Haiti is to install a legitimate government dedicated to providing security in defiance of political and economic pressure to keep the status quo.

Thirty-five presidential hopefuls have lined up to take on this Herculean task of righting a country that has seen nearly a dozen governments in the past 20 years. But the one candidate who has pulled away from the pack of politicians, alleged drug traffickers, ex-military officers, honest well-wishers, and government officials is former president René Préval. The agronomist is the country's only president to be democratically elected and to have completed his five-year tenure, sandwiched between the two truncated terms of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Mr. Préval's popularity can in part be attributed to leaving office without alienating large sectors - not the wealthy ruling class, the peasants, urban and rural poor, or the de facto security forces. And his bookkeeping is clean. Since 2000, he has lived in his small hometown of Marmalade, where he runs agricultural development projects, a wind instrument music project, and provides communal cybernet access. Once considered a close associate of the deposed Mr. Aristide, Préval is now running as an independent and leading the polls, although there is concern that he is still connected to armed groups that supported Aristide.

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But it will take more than popular support for Préval to neutralize forces that have made Haiti one of the most corrupt countries in the world. To be fair, the entire nation is not paralyzed by criminal activity, though nearly everyone suffers from the paltry $300 annual average household income, 50 percent illiteracy rate, dearth of roads, a nonexistent healthcare system, and all but inoperable public schools.

The main source of Haiti's problems is concentrated in the capital, a sprawling metropolis of more than 2 million people who live with extended blackouts, sporadic and often violent demonstrations, and constant shooting. Despite the presence of several thousand United Nations troops, Port-au-Prince is also saddled with a proliferation of kidnappings, which average 10 a day. No one is immune. Everyone is fair game, in any part of town, and for any price. Even a presidential candidate was kidnapped; ransoms range from less than a hundred dollars to tens of thousands. And the UN, whose mission is peacekeeping and not peacemaking, has done little to neutralize gang warfare. Instead its presence has stirred resentment toward its armored vehicles, bulletproof vests, and point-and-shoot cameras with which they snap photos during patrol.

The new government will also have to drain the poison from the 6,000-strong Haitian National Police. Even Police Chief Mario Andersol says his institution is a failure. Since he took office several months ago, the youthful-looking Mr. Andersol has arrested dozens of officers and linked dozens more to criminal activity, but he's worried that when this interim government leaves, the criminals he has arrested will break free.

Several thousand prisoners escaped with the 2004 departure of Aristide, and only 100 were recaptured. Haiti's judicial system operates on bribes and payoffs, and until there is an end to impunity, prosecution is of no concern to the perpetrators. Without an intense crackdown on guns and drugs smuggled across the porous border, and the unprotected shoreline, or recycled through the former military, there's little chance of peace.

In a country where anomaly is as prolific as presidential candidates, Préval is unique in his reticence to campaign. His strategists say his record stands for itself, but those who might lose a grip on their fiefdom will not go down willingly. Some candidates have vowed to support each other in the event of a runoff, but Préval is not part of that group. To govern with any credibility and effectiveness whoever is elected must unite key groups which have traditionally worked to undermine one another: politicians, business leaders, the elite, the poor, former military, and the international community.

Somehow the new government must institutionalize the rule of law, cleaning up a system that has held hostage the majority of an otherwise peace-loving country. For too long 6 million residents outside the nation's capital have barely managed to make do without any real form of representation.

Kathie Klarreich, author of 'Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti,' a memoir on Haiti, has lived in and covered Haiti for nearly 20 years.

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