As presidential elections near, Haitians are wondering why they should vote when it's not even clear the government is running the country.
- By Pooja BhatiaPooja Bhatia is a journalist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Last week, on Nov. 18, Haiti commemorated the Battle of Vertières, the 1803 campaign that proved the turning point of the Haitian Revolution. Supposedly the French were so awed by the former slaves’ fearlessness, discipline, and fighting skill that they literally applauded them on the battlefield. After Vertières, the French turned tail and surrendered, marking the Western Hemisphere’s only successful slave revolt, and Haiti’s military leaders founded the world’s first black republic in 1804.
The Haitian Revolution was incredible at the time; 206 years later, it’s sometimes hard to believe it ever happened. Today, on the eve of presidential elections, with 1.3 million citizens still living in camps and no apparent plan for their relocation, many Haitians consider their country under occupation. Minustah, the U.N. peacekeeping force that arrived after the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 — the year of Haiti’s bicentennial, coincidentally — is just the most visible face of a diffuse international apparatus that includes development workers, relief agencies, missionary groups, bankers, consultants, contractors, and other blan, or foreigners, all trying to help. By some counts, there were 10,000 NGOs in the country before January’s devastating earthquake, and since then, more would-be do-gooders have arrived by the planeload. NGOs have long provided most of Haiti’s social services, such as healthcare and education; since the earthquake, they’ve provided most of the relief as well. But though many Haitians genuinely appreciate the foreigners’ goodwill and expertise, they’re less certain about the overall benefits of aid.
The latest crisis, of course, is the cholera epidemic that has claimed at least 1,344 people over the past month. (Medical experts believe that number, supplied by the Ministry of Health, understates the breadth of the outbreak.) Cholera is profoundly frightening to Haitians, who, despite intimate acquaintance with many types of diarrheal disease, have never known one that could kill so quickly and grotesquely. Soon after the first cholera cases appeared in the Artibonite Valley, some 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince, reports surfaced that a Nepalese peacekeeping battalion there had improperly dumped waste into the region’s eponymous river. There is not yet conclusive proof that Minustah imported cholera into the country; a spokesperson insists that it would be difficult, and maybe impossible, to determine the source. Still, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence — the strain originated in South Asia, for instance — and many Haitians already take it as an article of faith that peacekeepers brought cholera to their country.
The unrest that surfaced last week in Haiti, first in Cap-Haitien — where at least 1,000 protesters burned tires, blocked the city’s entrances and exits, and set barricades aflame — and then more mildly in Port-au-Prince, was predictably dismissed by a Minustah spokesperson as unrelated to the cholera outbreak. Rather, he said, it was a tactic to "manipulate the population" in advance of an election slated for Nov. 28. This vague assertion discounts not only the protesters’ own statements, but also the long-simmering frustration that many Haitians have felt about Minustah and the entire aid apparatus. "I want Minustah to go because they brought cholera to my home," says Patricia John, a 46-year-old who lives in a tent outside her destroyed house in the once well-to-do neighborhood of Turgeau, in the capital city of Port-au-Prince. "But really, I never saw anything they’ve done that’s benefited the country. They just help the Haitian government exploit the people."
Haitians’ complaints about Minustah range far and wide: The peacekeepers steal goats, solicit prostitutes, live in fancy hotels, cruise the city in tricked-out SUVs, dine at soignée restaurants, and drive around in tanks pointing automatic weapons at defenseless Haitians. They’re turistas. They prop up a corrupt and unresponsive government. They shit in the river. Some of the accusations are true; some of them aren’t. Many apply more to the well-heeled aid workers on per diems and hazard pay than to the soldiers, who usually aren’t paid particularly well and come from poor countries themselves. "They just stress me out," said a young man on the Champs de Mars, the plaza across from the National Palace where tens of thousands of homeless Haitians have been living since January. He was on break from launching rocks and rubble at Minustah vehicles.
But underlying the various complaints about Minustah is a very real sense among Haitians that the country is no longer their own. Protesters in downtown Port-au-Prince told me last week that they didn’t want elections while Minustah was still in the country. "I’ll vote when they leave," said one of them. On the surface, it’s a strange statement: The international community is paying for most of the pricey $29 million election, and without Minustah’s logistical support, including ballot transportation and security, voting wouldn’t even be happening in Haiti.
Then again, it’s a fair point. Why have an election in a country that for all intents and purposes is not sovereign?
"You have to ask, what are the other options?" Edmond Mulet, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in Haiti, told me a few months ago. Forgoing constitutionally mandated elections would entail "going back to the many occasions in the past where Haiti had a provisional government, an interim government, the coups d’etat, the generals," he said. "All of those never produced anything good for the country." Indeed, Haiti’s history with interim governments hasn’t been pretty. The last one, more or less put in place by the "Friends of Haiti" — France, Canada, and the United States — amounted to a cruel national joke. It replaced the government of Aristide, who left the country on a U.S. military plane following an elite-led, U.S.-supported rebellion. His successor, Boniface Alexandre, seemed very effective at repressing his partisans — in several cases by throwing them in jail on laughable charges — but otherwise didn’t do much. And President René Préval, who was briefly Haiti’s prime minister in 1991 and president from 1996 to 2001 before once again winning the top office, is viewed as little better.
These days, though the country is awash in rumors that the election will be postponed in the face of the cholera epidemic and mounting unrest, a delay looks unlikely — and, in practical terms, it would be unwise. An election is now the least-worst option in getting Haiti back on track. The cholera epidemic has yet to peak, and lame-duck governmental officials have lost some of their authority and much of their wherewithal to deal with the crisis, let alone come up with plans for reconstruction. Donors have yet to disburse the majority of the $10 billion in reconstruction funds they pledged to Haiti in the spring; according to government advisors, many are waiting on the results of the election. Investors in Haiti’s local industries, textiles and tourism, are in a similar holding pattern. They’re all hoping for a new government with a broad mandate and wide legitimacy to lead the reconstruction.
They’re unlikely to get it. The presidential race features 19 candidates, none of whom seem to have inspired the population enough to win outright. Even before the cholera outbreak, turnout looked to be low. For the first time in Haiti’s brief, patchy democratic history, there is no front-runner. A runoff is expected and has already been scheduled for Jan. 16.
That’s by no means all the international community’s fault. The Haitian political class has, over the years, played a starring role in the degradation of its citizens’ faith in electoral politics; the government’s lack of response in the wake of the earthquake has only turned the sour into the bitter. "We’re not voting while living under tents," a band of protesters chanted in September near the crumbled National Palace. Their mantra signaled just how difficult it is, in this country, to believe that elections matter. Haitians yearn deeply for chanjman, or wide-ranging, system wide change. It’s just that at this moment, to the disillusioned Haitian electorate, voting doesn’t seem like a good way to achieve it.
The protests this week suggested that Haitians’ biggest political problem is figuring out who is responsible for their continued misery, including cholera. Indeed, who is to blame in a country dominated by peacekeepers and NGOs, helmed by a government too weak — or unwilling — to deal with them? In one sense, the courageous slaves who prevailed against their former masters at Vertières had an advantage over the heirs of their revolution: In 1803, it was easier to figure out the answer.