Is Haiti Backsliding Into Dictatorship?

With President Michel Martelly now ruling by decree, the political crisis in Port-au-Prince has reached a zenith. Can democracy survive in the Western hemisphere's poorest country?

Protesters flee tear gas fired by Haitian Police during clashes in a march against the government of Haitian President Michel Martelly in Port-au-Prince on January 17, 2015. Protesters marched through the streets calling for the resignation of the Haitian leader. AFP PHOTO/Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Dozens of janitors, security guards, and legislative staffers milled about in the makeshift courtyard, a patch of brown-green grass in the middle of a collection of portable buildings that house Haiti’s Parliament but look more like stacked shipping cans. In the middle, Haiti’s red-and-blue flag flapped at half-staff. The original Parliament had collapsed exactly five years earlier, on Jan. 12, 2010, when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the country, killing more than 200,000 people and displacing millions more. This time, the disaster was man-made.

While the staff showed up, few lawmakers bothered. Nobody lingering around the Parliament grounds knew whether the legislative branch had dissolved at midnight the night before, as the constitution dictated, or whether there was still half a day left to broker a deal — between a skeptical opposition and a president newly disposed to compromise — that might save Haiti from the political brink.

The agreement never materialized. Now Haiti, a country with a history of political violence, coups d’état, and dictatorships, is left with a president ruling by decree. At the heart of the political standoff has been a fight over how and when elections will be held. But that’s helped to hollow out the government entirely. Political institutions wobble: The Senate is unable to reach quorum because two-thirds of its members’ terms have expired. The lower house of Parliament is completely empty. The prime minister, former Port-au-Prince mayor Evans Paul, has not been confirmed by Parliament, nor was the new cabinet he announced late on the night of Jan. 18. The top court lacks a chief justice, after the most recent resigned two weeks ago on the recommendation of a presidential commission as a way to end the political standoff and pave the way for an electoral law.

After three years of fighting and delayed elections, the president and opposition members of the Senate blew the final deadline despite at least 10 months of warning, leaving President Michel Martelly ruling without any checks and balances. The opposition, meanwhile, continues its favorite tactic: sending thousands of angry protesters into the streets.

It’s unclear how Martelly will proceed. He failed to organize parliamentary elections in 2011 and 2013 because he and the opposition couldn’t agree on the makeup of an electoral council. With his new powers, he could unilaterally decree an electoral law, as he’s repeatedly promised, paving the way for overdue parliamentary and municipal elections. Or, as his opponents fear, Martelly could simply dictate new laws and put his cronies in power. At an earthquake memorial on Jan. 12, the president asked the country for calm. “Let’s give the country a chance, in the name of all these victims.”

The opposition boldly promised hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in the streets across the country, from Cap-Haitien to Port-au-Prince, if the Parliament was allowed to expire and Martelly assumed complete power. So far, they have delivered. In the capital on Saturday, Jan. 17, a few thousand protesters doused tires with gasoline and rum. They marched through traffic downtown, one of the few parts of town with lingering earthquake rubble. Police hurled canisters of tear gas to disperse the crowds. One demonstrator was shot in the leg.

“The majority of the people are not happy. We are not happy with Evans Paul. Evans Paul doesn’t make a consensus government,” said former Senator Gérald Gilles, an official with the opposition political party Fanmi Lavalas, headed by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Gilles said his party, which calls protests through radio and TV, as well as word of mouth, would only recognize a government that includes Lavalas members.

But the opposition’s demands may be bigger than a unity government. Many Martelly opponents hope the people in the streets will weaken the president enough that he’ll be forced to resign. “He’s corrupt and he must go. If I could throw him out of office I would,” said Senator Jean-Baptiste Bien Aimé, one of six opposition senators who abstained from a vote on an electoral law that would have allowed elections to take place and avert the current crisis.

People in the country and outside observers alike are worried about what will happen next. International leaders pushed Martelly to hold elections on Oct. 26, but he was unable to because of the lack of an electoral law. Representatives from the United Nations Security Council will visit Haiti this weekend to press for elections.

The economy could be among the biggest casualties of the ongoing feud between Martelly and the opposition. “We don’t get into politics, but political instability is really bad for investment,” said Mary Barton-Dock, the World Bank’s special envoy to Haiti. In recent years, Haiti’s economy has been growing and rates of extreme poverty have declined. Economic productivity has risen for the past four years, though last year’s growth rate is down from 4 percent to 2.8 percent.

The political crisis is already taking a toll, according to some in Port-au-Prince. “Sales were down 50 percent in December already,” Jimmy Ordvil, a merchant who sells knockoff jeans, said inside his cramped stall in the Croix-des-Bossales market across the street from the Parliament’s headquarters. “If there are protests, people from the countryside may not come to Port-au-Prince to buy clothes.” Ordvil and others at the market say they are not just angry with Martelly or the opposition, but with everyone in power.

“We’re already living in chaos, and nothing will change” after elections, said Adeline Pierre, another clothing merchant, who said she never supported Martelly because he’s “never had a plan.”

Martelly previously said he’d prefer to hold elections in the first third of 2015, but that’s nearly impossible now. A presidential advisory commission that was convened in November to help find a path out of the crisis recommended consolidating legislative elections with the presidential election that is scheduled for October. That could mean there are no legislative restrictions on the president until that vote is counted and legislators are seated, which could be up to a year from now.

That doesn’t mean Martelly will necessarily act like a dictator. In a solemn address on Jan. 16, the president took responsibility for the crisis and promised to form a consensus government. “I reaffirm my commitment to make every effort for the realization of honest, credible, and participatory elections” he said to an audience of U.N. officials, foreign ambassadors, and parliamentary allies.

But the outreach to the opposition did nothing to stop protests over the weekend. And the names of the new cabinet ministers, who normally would need to be certified by Parliament, were released late Sunday night and sworn in Monday. Many are fresh faces, but there are also holdovers from the former government of Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. Florence Guillaume, who will again lead the Ministry of Public Health and Population, served as the interim prime minister after Lamothe was sacked last month.

The era of dictators in Haiti “has gone and past,” said Carl Alexandre, the deputy special representative for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. He noted that Martelly impressed the U.N. and major donor countries by making concessions to the opposition. Firing his prime minister in December was a particularly surprising move. Tapping Paul, who has said publicly that he did not vote for Martelly in the 2012 election, was seen as another nod to the opposition, though it failed to placate them.

More and more clashes between police and thousands of angry protestors could make life even harder in the capital. For many people, politics is just one more thing to worry about. Many don’t even bother paying attention anymore. “They’re fighting. They’re fighting,” said Marmuda Estad, a woman leaving an earthquake memorial service near the grounds of the teetering Port-au-Prince Cathedral. “And I still don’t know how I’ll pay my rent.”

But for now, life in Port-au-Prince continues: The exhaust-spewing pickup trucks that serve as Haiti’s mass transit system burst with people. Children walk to school. Women sell produce hauled in from the provinces. But the threat of potentially large and violent protests hangs overhead. Political graffiti has popped up all over town, much of it claiming there are two Haitis — one Haiti for the children of the poor, another Haiti for the children of the wealthy. Some graffiti says, “Down with Martelly” one day, only to be crossed out to read, “Up with Martelly” the next.


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