Liberated Haiti: thirty years after Duvalier

Thirty years after the Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti, the Caribbean island country has been plagued by political upheaval, autocracy, and corruption. Now, though, after yet another electoral debacle, the international community has a rare opportunity to support the Haitian people, rather than an imperfect, temporary way out of a crisis.


February 7, 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the ouster of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier as President of Haiti, ending the 29 year Duvalier family dictatorship. When Baby Doc fled the country in 1986 for exile in France, massive street celebrations burst out, calling his departure Haiti’s second independence.   In the weeks that followed, it seemed as if almost everyone wore a tee shirt proclaiming “Haiti Libérée.” Optimism reigned that the misgoverned country would transition in relatively short order from dictatorship to democracy and that life would improve for all, particularly the more than 75 percent of the country’s population surviving on an average of $2.00 a day or less.

Today, that optimism, and the political transition and socio-economic improvements that would accompany it, are, for the vast majority of Haitians, distant memories of dreams deferred. Haiti remains a country of bone-crushing poverty, inequality and lack of opportunity. Its dreams of democracy have flowed and ebbed, alternating between periods of fitful or peaceful governance and the nightmare of overthrown governments accompanied by violence and death. Dysfunction of political process, national institutions, and leadership has come to characterize what has become an endless transition to democracy. For 18 of the last 30 years Haiti has been occupied by UN peacekeeping missions, including one present today, MINUSTAH, that arrived in 2004 following the forced departure of an elected president that ushered in several years of political and gang-driven violence. For nine of those 30 years Haiti was ruled either by its army, defunct since 1995, or by interim regimes. Although Jean-Claude Duvalier, who returned to Haiti in 2011, never regained formal office and died there in 2014, the specter of Duvalierism continues to haunt Haiti, as the country continues to struggle to liberate itself of one-man rule and non-democratic practice.

At this writing, the Caribbean nation is about to governed once again by an interim government. This time it’s due to the failure of its most recent President, Michel Martelly, to support democratic processes throughout his five years in office and to shepherd a viable election process to determine his successor. Martelly vaulted to the presidency in 2011 following controversial elections in which about only one in four eligible voters cast their ballots. Characterized by lack of transparency, street protests and strong-armed international interference aimed at picking a winner malleable enough to satisfy international interests, those 2011 elections seemed more an accomplishment foisted on Haiti than an exercise embraced by Haiti’s people.

International interests, in addition to checking off an ‘elections done’ box, are largely defined by controlling emigration, maintaining stability, and managing poverty. The latter is approached either through the creation of low wage factory jobs or by channeling toward Haiti vast sums of international aid most of which are captured by national or international elites, with next to nothing ‘trickling down’ to those who really need it. As a result, the root causes of poverty are not being addressed, and inequality continues to plague Haiti’s citizens as lives once full of promise are wasted. These unfortunate traits of development assistance have been particularly evident in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas and that famously resulted in pledges of some $9 billion in aid to rebuild Haiti. That promised sum has yielded few tangible and lasting results apparent to Haitians who remain mired in sub-standard housing with little, if any, access to adequate health care, clean water and sanitation, and opportunities to develop their talents through education, entrepreneurship, or meaningful employment.


No democracy and little change

Sadly, Martelly has served more as an obstacle to Haiti’s liberation from the past than as a force toward a better future. During his five year term, which ends on the same day as the 30th anniversary of Duvalier’s ouster, he ruled with arrogance, incompetence and, for a year, by decree. His government assigned positions of access and privilege to the sons and daughters of the Duvalier dictatorship and subsequent military governments, revitalizing rampant cronyism and dreams of one-man rule. Significant amounts of the unfettered international assistance Martelly had access to, largely from loans available through Venezuela’s Petro Caribe program, were used to support so-called ‘social programs’ that boiled down to political patronage hand-outs of goods packaged in ‘kits’ aimed at mollifying the poor while providing opportunities through corrupt contracts for the president’s family and friends to line their pockets.

The legacy of Martelly—apart from introducing the word “kit” to Haiti’s Kreyol language—includes no successful elections over five years (but at least eight national carnivals over that time), severely weakened democratic practice and process, a $2 billion debt to Venezuela (which had previously shrunk that figure to zero following the 2010 earthquake), and a country whose governing personalities and practices are viewed by its Caribbean neighbors and others in the hemisphere as either an embarrassment or an unfortunate joke.

While Martelly leaves a country in disarray, he has also provided Haitians with another opportunity to work toward a better future. Protestations against his failed leadership and attempts to hijack the now-aborted 2015/2016 presidential elections—led by opposition politicians but enjoined both by ordinary citizens and civil society, business, and religious leaders—have cleared a path for Haitians from various walks of life to join forces toward achieving their dreams of a truly liberated country.

International actors, particularly the United States, the United Nations and the Organization of American States, who had buttressed Martelly with strong and unwavering support and, as such, are viewed by most in Haiti as co-conspirators in his failures, now have an opportunity to place their support behind those Haitians who have remained steadfast in their desire to lead their country away from its difficult past towards that truly liberated future. Hopefully, those important international actors will join Haitians in rising to that occasion.


Dr. Robert Maguire is Professor of International Development Studies and Director of the Latin American & Hemispheric Studies Program at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

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