Category Archives: Haiti politics

When will Haiti truly be able to celebrate its independence day?

Happy independence day, Haitians: a powerful act of emancipation for which you have been made to pay so dearly, and have never been allowed truly to savour.

Jean Jacques Dessalines, Haitian independence leader

In 1789, revolutionary France’s National Constituent Assembly declared the Rights of Man, but did not extend these great principles to the slaves of Saint-Domingue – producer of 40 percent of the world’s sugar, and the Caribbean ‘s most profitable colony.

By contrast, they were punished severely for daring to assume such sentiments might be universal, and years of conflict followed.

Haiti was consequently born of a revolution, a slave rebellion which threw off the planet’s most brutal system of oppression.

Its declaration of independence on January 1, 1804 made Haiti the second free country in the western hemisphere, and the world’s first black republic: an extraordinary achievement, testing the western world’s new spirit of enlightened people-powered government to the limit.

Battle on Santo Domingo, a painting by January Suchodolski depicting a struggle between Polish troops in French service and the Haitian rebels

As it turned out, the ‘international community’ (of white people) was horrified, and put in place a global boycott of Haitian goods and commerce. It was a devastating start for the fledgling nation.

In July 1825, French ruler Charles X sent a fleet of fourteen vessels and troops to reconquer the island. In order to survive, Haiti was forced to pay 150 million francs in return for French recognition. (The amount was reduced to 90 million in 1838).

It was a crippling toll; and the debt plagued Haiti’s economy for decades. The French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher wrote at the time: “Imposing an indemnity on the victorious slaves was equivalent to making them pay with money that they had already paid with their blood.”

Tragically, ordinary Haitians were from the very beginning treated with equal disdain by their new black and mixed race leadership, who mimicked their former European oppressors in brutality. Venality and cruelty became the hallmarks of a new Haitian elite.

Dealing another blow to Haitian independence, the United States occupied the island from 1915-1934. Woodrow Wilson clearly did not believe that his vaunted principles of self-determination applied to Haitians.

After its departure, the US continued to meddle intensely in Haitian politics. Years of dictatorship and instability were to follow.

The most recent challenge to Haiti’s independence came in 2004, when it was placed under a Chapter VII UN peacekeeping mission. There are many good reasons why the mission should be here, but it has been controversial and the simple fact remains: Haiti today hosts more than 9000 international troops and police.

Even if they see it as the lesser of potential evils, no free-spirited independent people ever enjoys the presence of foreign security forces on their soil.

So, happy independence day, Haitians. Few ‘independent’ peoples have had less opportunity to enjoy that phrase. May a day come soon when you can truly call it so.

(Note – this is necessarily a very simplified history, and if you think I have made mistakes, please feel free to correct them.)

FYI This is what Hillary Clinton had to say this year about Haitian Independence Day)

What Tropico 3 – the tropical island simulator – might tell us about ruling Haiti

Bought myself Tropico 3 – the island dictator simulator – for Xmas. [Downloaded thanks to the magic of Wimax: wireless broadband(ish). I can see why it’s seen by many as the future of internet in the developing world.]

I wouldn’t suggest for a minute that one can really understand the experience of a place like Haiti through a video game, but it is striking how many little insights pop up.

You start off the game in the 1950s as a newly risen dictator of yore (Papa Doc is an option), or you can design your own – replete with backstory, positive and negative traits.

A biblical scholar installed by the CIA, with a penchant for booze but a flair for administration, perhaps? Then all you need is a snazzy new outfit and you’re ready to go.

Gotta keep up with the latest dictatorial fashions

Your challenge is to build a sustainable island economy – a mix of farming, mining, logging, industry, tourism – while keeping various factions content, staving off rebels, maintaining order, and avoiding the ever-present threat of invasion from the US or USSR.

It’s extremely entertaining, brought to life by striking scenes of island life unfolding before your eyes, with a great Caribbean soundtrack and constant wry commentary by the local radio station.

Needless to say, survival is a constant struggle. Give people too much freedom and they demand a endless stream of services – even the occasional elections; clamp down and they run for the hills and join the rebellion.

Drama near the tenaments in Tropico 3

There is never enough money for everyone. Skimp on the armory, and your soldiers start threatening you; fail to build enough churches and the religionists get antsy.

Living conditions need work, but at least there are some nice soldier statues

And thus the insight: even with the best will in the world (and only the smallest trickle of money going into your swiss bank account) you quickly find yourself cutting corners, building unsightly tenements, forgetting to construct new clinics, failing to provide enough food.

At that point international aid workers get in on the action, and accepting their assistance could help my people… but install a humanitarian relief camp and the nationalists start to get angry, so it’s tempting to refuse.

Aid camp by the cabaret

Meanwhile the US is constantly on your back, trying to control your resources and demanding luxury houses for industrial barons, so dallying with the commies becomes quite tempting. And as for those tourists -always getting into trouble, stealing cars and crashing them into the local church or some such travesty – banging up a few and throwing away the key is deeply satisfying.

This spanking new cathedral by the beach should keep the pesky religionists off my back for a while


As time went on, I found myself increasingly irritated by the constant harping of human rights activists. So what if I made all immigrants change their names and speak Tropican? Installed a few secret police? Those bureaucrats have no idea what its like to keep an angry mob of nationalists at bay.

My people - the rumours of my death have been greatly...

And quit harping on about low wages and unsanitary living conditions. How am I meant to build a new airport to keep your fat yankee compatriots happy in my casinos if you insist I feed my population three square meals a day?

At last, an airport befitting my glory!

Dark humor aside, it is striking how a simulation game like Tropico can bestow some sense, however limited, of what it might be like to take profoundly impactful decisions of state under great pressure and constant criticism – even with the best of intentions, let alone if one’s goal were to fatten one’s own bank account.

In short, I found myself becoming quite dictatorial quite quickly. Of course I remain committed to my people… the enhanced security measures are ‘only temporary’, and I assure you, my compatriots, that the democratic process will be restored in due course.

It’s certainly the closest most of us are going to get to being in that position.

This is not the first time I had this sense of direct relevance in a game. In Iraq – where I was posted briefly for the FT – I played “Civilization” from my hotel room in Baghdad, cursing the damn digital freedom fighters who kept on shooting at my glorious tanks after I invaded an oil rich neighbour. So inconsiderate; without that oil my own civilization faced collapse.

While at the UN I played a game called ‘Medieval Total War’, in which factions would intrigue for papal approval for their latest military adventures. The similarities with the UN Security Council were striking.

Anyhow, next time I swear at badly maintained roads in Haiti, I might have a little more empathy. After all, elections beckon, and there’s that wonderful new cruise ship port in the north to focus on. What else would I show Bill Clinton on his next visit?

Incidentally, I came across this excellent analysis today, written two decades ago but still very pertinent, called “Why is Haiti so poor?” Worth reading.

Sergio in Port-au-Prince, and the collapse of international journalism

Just finished Samantha Power’s extraordinary book on Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN special rep who died in the August 2003 bombing of the United Nations in Baghdad. It was magnificent.

As someone who spent several years writing about the UN in all its flawed crucial complexity, I was prepared to hate this book – but instead found myself blown away by its portrayal of the agonising tension between pragmatism and principle, through the powerfully simple tale of ‘one man’s fight to save the world’.

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As Terry George, the director of Hotel Rwanda, told Ms Power, the narrative drive comes from the most archetypal of plots: “Once upon a time there was a kingdom. And in that kingdom, there was a good, flawed knight named Sergio. He had a sword, and he had a shield…”

The story of three decades at the highest peaks of the UN, we learn of a man torn between the desire to promote humanitarian principles, save lives and offer dignity, and the grimy reality of dealing with powerful governments, war criminals and shifting public opinion. He is dragged in both directions during his career, sometimes going too far one way, sometimes the other. Along the way he destroyed, then rebuilt, his personal life.

It is a constant struggle, and one which – by its essential nature – the UN will always face. The United Nations is both a club of governments, and an organization committed to improve humanity’s lot. These two objectives often stand in stark opposition. To save the world, one sometimes has to make grim compromises. How much compromise is the question. Compromise too much, and you may find the world you saved to be a deeply unpleasant place.

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Haiti is no different.

The UN is here to staunch violence, and provide sufficient stability – and guidance – to enable Haitians to rebuild their fragile island. Peacekeepers provide breathing room. But it is up to Haitians to breathe.

In the broad scheme of things, it is doing a credible job. A full-fledged rebellion (in 2004), and the stranglehold of Haiti’s marauding gangs, have been ended. Institutions are, to a degree, being strengthened. And the UN is on hand to help mitigate the worst of nature’s calamities – such as last year’s explosive hurricane season.

At the same time, however, the current president is widely seen as consolidating his powers and playing fast and loose with a flawed electoral process ahead of polls next year. (The radio is filled with debate about a possible ‘electoral coup d’etat’, the kidnapping of Haitian democracy). The UN itself may be seen as a distorting influence on Haiti’s economy, creating a drift towards servicing the aid industry rather than rebuilding the country’s own capacity.

As long as it is here, the UN also serves as a distracting target for popular discontent; easy to blame where the root causes are far more structural.

The decisions it faces on a daily basis are no less complex than those faced by Sergio. How far should it support Haiti’s pre-election process, if it is seen to be unfair? Intervene too much, and the ultimate point of the UN’s presence – for Haitians to take peaceful control of their own destiny – is compromised.

With the world’s great powers otherwise engaged, and given their limited appetite for more conflict, the UN is also on something of a limb; it needs to cooperate with the government of the day. At the same time, if it is seen to go too far in the government’s direction, it runs the risk of losing popular legitimacy.

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These are the questions Mr de Mello faced every day.

Which brings me to my thought. The Samantha Power book did an extraordinary job of presenting the trials of political decision-making in a real time format, and yet cannot escape from the fact it was written with hindsight. Interviews were conducted after the event… with the clarity of knowledge that says ‘these were the pertinent facts’.

The fog of the present, however, does not allow such luxuries. How is one to know if the current uptick in Haitian violence is a pre-Christmas spree, or something more worrying. How can one tell if the exclusion of Lavalas, the party of exiled ex-president Betrand Aristide, is a major challenge to stability, or merely a reflection of its has-been status? These are questions that often cannot be answered until it’s too late.

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Telling that story is important work.

The decisions made here in Haiti are profoundly relevant to the new world order under construction. The role of the UN. Of peacekeepers from developing countries. Of the aid industry. Missionaries. International investors.

But who is charting this? Who is recording these challenges in an accessible journalistic manner, in a way that a broad international audience might understand?

The answer is: almost no-one.

The AP has a reporter here full time, and he is doing a great job. But that’s basically it. Major international media occasionally send a correspondent for a day or two, but with revenues falling, bureaus closing, and the model of independent journalism in wholesale collapse, it is very limited.

The Washington Post, for example, has one correspondent for all of Latin America. One.

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Who will take these journalists’ place? On one level, local reporters will, of course. Through the internet they have the power to reach out far wider than ever before. But resources are limited, and they will often have a personal axe to grind. The dispassionate views of outsiders remains invaluable.

Can the UN itself fill the gap? Not really. The UN – as any major organisation – does marketing, not reporting. It cannot criticise itself in public.

NGOs? To an extent. NGOs increasingly are the media in the world’s poorest most inaccessible countries, but they too need to market themselves. With finances under threat, they will be reluctant to present anything that could threaten their income.

Foundations? Maybe. But while they could provide a valuable service by sponsoring independent reportage – so crucial to conveying a message beyond tight academic circles – they are not doing so in practice, or certainly not on a sufficiently large scale. They are more interested, it seems, in promoting their own projects and political aims.

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So it is left to the occasional blogger. The random tourist. The short-term visitor.

But our resources are limited, our access curtailed, and our independence compromised by the realities of power relationships. Troubled times.

I would love to see a path through. Any ideas?

On MP salaries, and the death of a journalist

We learned this weekend that Francesco Fantoli, an Italian journalist, was killed after being shot by assailants as he left his bank in Port au Prince.

He had a number of films on youtube, was a sports commentator, and had just inaugurated a school for football in the town of Jacmel. Fantoli had once told colleagues at the Haiti Press Network: “I can’t stay more than two weeks abroad, I feel so attached to Haiti”. His death will go largely ignored by the world, but in Haiti – at least – it makes today’s radio news.

I attach one of his small films, made a couple of years ago.

Reminder how fragile it all is, and where we are. We also hear that – much as in Kenya – there tends to be a spike in crime as Christmas approaches. Ah well.

…………..

I learn a few surprising facts this weekend.

If you think the UK parliamentary expenses scandal is bad, check this out. Despite an official salary of less than $3k, with various expense accounts Haitian members of parliament (there are 99 of them) get around $9000 a month.

$9000! That is greater than a UK MP’s salary, give or take. In the poorest country in the west, whose budget (incomprehensible by all accounts) is 60% paid for through foreign aid, and where the minimum wage was recently raised to a princely $5. A day, that is. Causing significant grumbling from the business sector.

A woman not earning $9000 a month, yesterday

I also learn another striking fact. That the members of the country’s electoral commission – the one that has recently excluded Bertrand Aristide’s party, Lavalas, as part of a power grab by president Rene Preval – get $700 a day in expenses when travelling, even when in Haiti. It’s mindblowing.

There are also concerns at recent promises by Rene Preval that anyone who joins his “Inite” umbrella party will have all sorts of expenses covered. Perhaps a few presents besides. Who will pay for that? Hmm…

The west supports this government, because it tolerates the UN presence and because there is no countrywide violence. Neither is there any clear alternative. But added to widespread Haitian criticism of the pre-electoral process, which features non-stop on the radio right now – is Haiti’s recent shine beginning to look a little less shiny?

Construction workers not earning $700 travel expenses a day.

Club UNdigo

Oh joy – online again after a three day drought. May not sound bad, but for an addict it is challenging. I have internet dreams. Mercy comes in the form of the wifi at the Petionville Club.

Back to last weekend. Finally, we scored the requisite papers to travel en famille in Anna’s big UN car, so it was off to Club Indigo.

Club Indigo at dusk

Club Indigo was Haiti’s club Med back in the Duvalier days – described by an old Reuters piece as an ‘experimental playground’ from where holiday adventurers would seek voodoo-fuelled fantasies, Haitian art and other hedonistic pursuits. (Haiti was a famed spot for sex tourism, in multiple forms). It closed around the time the Aids epidemic emerged, and due to the political instability with the end of the regime; reopened again briefly in the 90s, then closed again. A discussion on tripadvisor (that most reputable of sources) had this to say:

“Club Med had problems marketing the location due to political instability but it was doing very well according to Club Med. One day a group of Europeans were going back to the airport and were blocked on the road by peasants who were protesting against the government. That did not help a struggling Club Med, especially in Haiti. So it finally shut down.”

It was refurbished by one of Haiti’s richest families – Mevs (pronounced Meuse) – in 2006 or so, and is a relaxing if unremarkable seaside resort, food all inclusive, small rooms, giant swimming pool and great beachside sunsets. A Xanadu for international aid workers, a two hour drive north from Port-au-Prince. I dub it Club UNdigo after one look at the white Nissan’s littering the car-park.

Dorian is thrilled to be allowed in the same vehicle as his mother. “Hey – we’re going to the beach tomorrow…” “The beach?” “Yes.” “With Benson?” “No. Guess what car we are going in?” “I don’t know.” “Guess.” “The UN car?” “Yes.” “Are you joking?” “No!” “Mummy got the piece of paper?” “Yes!” “For Alandra and me?” “Yes” “And daddy?” “Yes” “And mummy?” “Yes” “Yippee–aye!” Cute. Things are looking up.

Dorian roars on the beach at Club Indigo


What strikes me about Club Indigo is that while it makes for a very pleasant break for us, it is nothing special compared to what Haiti’s competitors offer: in a more dangerous locale, with fewer facilities.

For a country hoping to reinvigorate its tourist trade – beyond the occasional returning Haitian emigre, or aid worker – this poses a challenge. The food is tasty, but not spectacular. There is little in the way of marine life to see here, I am told. So what to do?

Over dinner I ask a friend about voodoo tourism. It strikes me that pretty much everyone I spoke to in the US or UK knew only two or three things about Haiti (that is, assuming they did not get it confused with Tahiti). a. Poverty. b. Papa Doc. c. Voodoo.

Surely, I reason, voodoo is a unique selling point here, and something that could be exploited for an increasingly demanding tourist market. One travel site has a traveller gushing: “The Shows every night were incredible. One evening we had a Folklore Show that showed us all the dances and songs that the Haitians love. Another night there was a Voodoo Show. It was magical. On the way back to my room I almost stepped on a snake. They had used snakes in the Voodoo show and I believe there are no coincidences in life so I decided that snake was telling me never walk alone at night!”

I also figure that getting involved could be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I learn that the current government is not too keen on the idea. Haiti is a Catholic country, and it wants luxury tourism – so goes the mantra. Voodoo is inappropriate. Yeah right. As the old phrase goes, Haiti is 80% Catholic, 100% voodoo. What a shame to resist your country’s greatest allure to foreigners.

Soft lighting at Club Indigo

I consider the Masai in Kenya and their genius in giving tourists what they want. They dance jauntily with their stiff high jumps and flowing red robes. They tell tales of lion hunting (despite, one suspects, never having hunted one). They even gave a gift of several cows to the US after 9/11 – a perfect reminder of their allure to potential visitors. It’s a great package, and highly memorable for travellers.

But for the moment there is no voodoo extravaganza in sight at the Club Indigo. Instead we briefly watch a Brazilian capoeira group banging its drums by the water-polo pool. Nice enough, but also a common sight these days in the west.

We purchase little tickets to pay for the occasional drink, and sport orange bracelets – no doubt a hangover from the Club Med era – which entitles us to the buffet. Two nights of calm, and electricity. Easy ride home, only a brief stop at the UN roadblock where a charming Latino MP checks we have permits for our children. It’s all perfect for us; but I suspect not so enticing for the thrill-seeker who might be considering Haiti as the next frontier destination, in a quest for impressive tales in relative security.

This said, I am fully aware that I still know next to nothing about my new home – and there may be a resurgent voodoo tourism scene bubbling underneath. The famed Hotel Oloffsen – as featured in Graham Greene’s the Comedians – continues to host the voodoo rock band RAM every Thursday, and I am keen to visit. It’s downtown, however, which raises some questions about whether Anna will be allowed there. UN rules.

Meanwhile, the political situation develops. Aristide has decried the electoral commission’s failure to recognize his party as a coup d’etat. Empty rhetoric? We’ll see. Students have been demonstrating for a couple of days over the arrest of their colleagues and the UN radio crackles out occasional warnings. As of writing, another deadline has passed, and a UN Human Rights rapporteur has inexplicably said the electoral decision was kosher. Lots of anti-UN muttering.

The UN leadership is in a thorny bind: if it lets the government decision stand, it loses legitimacy. If it contests it too vigorously, it alienates the government it is trying to support.

Tricky days.

On building trust mid Haiti’s turbulence, and the safety of my children

Feeling slightly remiss at my failure to write anything about Haiti’s political situation. This is partly because I am new, partly because I am fond of political stories which emerge obliquely, through the stories of ordinary people.

Nonetheless, for the sake of context: after the violent upheavals of 2004, which led to the ouster and exile of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti has – with the backing of the UN peacekeeping mission – seen a gradual return to some kind of fragile stability.

Bill Clinton is spearheading international efforts to get investment flowing, but the country’s legislature recently threw progress into doubt by ousting a respected prime minister – a sign, many feared, that Haiti’s leaders saw little to gain in reform, preferring instead a more lawless status quo.

Elections are due next year, and Rene Preval – the current president – appears to be on a mission to consolidate personal power. This week the electoral commission excluded the exiled Aristide’s party Lavalas, believed to have considerable popular support, on dubious technical grounds. The UN is being asked to defend that decision; there are fears of unrest. Meanwhile, much of the country’s educated and wealthy elite remain abroad, showing little inclination to rebuild their homeland.

All this amounts to continued uncertainty. Institutions remain weak, and are likely to remain so at the behest of those who see profit in chaos and criminality.

This naturally leads two parents to question everything we see and hear, and to consider deeply the nature of trust.

Trust is a skittish creature. She is a child, for the most part, of time; born through consistency over prolonged periods – although her birth can be assisted by past experience and gut instinct. This is no idle philosophy; this is a very urgent and real question.

We trust you, Daddy!

Most immediately, I face a momentous decision: can I trust Benson, our driver, to take Dorian to school and back alone without incident?

How can one trust anyone after a mere week in Haiti? In the West – despite considerable recent erosion of trust in politicians, financiers, public servants and media – there remains some core belief that if someone does you harm, they will face consequences: whether in law, or informally, such as to their reputation or finances. There is some institutional protection.

Not so in Haiti. No dispassionate law to turn to, no stability of circumstance upon which to build instant confidence. For us, the UN offers some anchor: yet limited – its institutional reluctance to offer an official helping hand to our settling-in has made that abundantly clear.

One is left building trust from first principles.

Benson came to us through a recommendation – second hand – from another mother who works at the UN. We can trust her not to desire any harm, but we cannot assume due diligence. Encouragingly, Benson used to work for a western UN security officer, so we take some solace from the hope he would have done his own checks. Unfortunately, said officer and wife have left the country.

Benson

I have also built up some measure of Benson’s character over the week. We chat about this and that, but – beyond basic friendliness – there is a clear process of trust-building underway. I want a sense of his demeanour: is he open, friendly, comfortable? He appears so.

Benson would also seem to have a long-term financial interest in Dorian’s safety. He talks about wanting a proper career, and clearly hopes that working for expats might lead to opportunity. This is a comforting motive.

Also important: does Dorian like Benson? This may seem trite, but children can be surprisingly adept at detecting underlying emotions. Dorian likes him plenty. When Benson plays with Dorian, does it seem genuine? It does. So far so good.

Benson and Dorian fool around before getting in the car

Importantly, Benson is known at the school – from when he used to pick up and drop off the security officer’s kids. The guards wave hello. I make a specific point of quizzing the headmistress about him. Does she recognize him? Yes. Is he a good guy? Yes.

Can I trust the headmistress? I think so. She has an interest in the continued success of her school. She is open and welcoming.

So, painstakingly, Anna and I come to the conclusion that we can trust Benson.

But the decision is agonising… and this morning, as I wave smiling Dorian goodbye as he and Benson head out the door, I feel a deeply unsettling lump in my chest. I take a dozen photos, but am filled with a grim fantasy that these could be the photos we later circulate in the search for missing Dorian. I dismiss the thought.

See you later Daddy!

There is no greater trust than putting your child in the hands of another.