News from Haiti

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A Cloudy Dawn in Haiti - Time

Cautious optimism greets a reelected president, but the challenge he faces may be overwhelming

Haiti's President René Préval took office on Sunday, opening what many hope will be a new chapter in a history scarred by political violence and social and economic instability. "The solution to our country's problems is in our hands," Préval told thousands of supporters. "The solution begins with dialogue. No one else can do it for us, not the IMF, the World Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank, the European Union, Bilateral Cooperation or the United Nations. We thank them for their support. Please, help me, help the country, help yourselves."

The 63-year old agronomist and former president is better known for being Haiti's only democratically elected head of state to complete his five-year term rather than for anything specific he accomplished while in office. But he has won high marks from even his strongest critics for his pro-active approach to this second term. Conscious of the short honeymoon period he will be granted to show signs of real change, he has traveled abroad in search of aid and investment. And at home he has held frank conversations with members of Haiti's fractured population, trying to win support from an antagonistic business sector, a hostile political community, skeptical media directors, and even gang leaders who had, for months on end, besieged the capital with kidnappings and criminal violence.

The initial response, across the board, has been prudently optimistic. "The last three months, he's said the right things," said presidential rival and vocal critic Charles Henri Baker. "If there's meat behind it, it could be great." Added one Western diplomatic, "He has reached out across the political divide, at home and abroad. He's building a new political tradition."

Préval's ability to deliver may depend on the extent to which donor countries deliver on their aid pledges — the previous interim government only received $850 million of the $1.4 billion it was pledged by the international community. Préval is counting on agricultural development and tourism to jumpstart the economy, but knows that Haiti has grown increasingly dependent on foreign aid to keep the economy afloat.

Unemployment is just one of multiple crises in a country that has seen its economy stuck in reverse gear for years: Two decades ago, 114 factories employed some 90,000 Haitians; today there are only 15 factories with slightly more than 15,000 employees. AG Textiles owner Georges Sassine, who employs about 400 people, has the capacity to create 5,000 new jobs in the next few months but for his precarious financial situation. For two years he has been hemorrhaging money; only in the last two months has he begun to break even. On his desk a baby jar full of spent cartridges collected on his property reminds him of the fragility of peace. "As a citizen who lived with Préval through the past, I look at him with a question mark. Since he was declared the winner, so far so good," Sassine says cautiously. "But the burden of proof is on him. My main concern? Security, security, security."

Providing security is currently mostly the preserve of some 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers under Brazilian command, on whom Préval will depend as long as the situation demands it. He plans to formally abolish the Haitian military, unofficially defunct since President Aristide dissolved it in 1995, although one of the greatest threats to Haiti's stability since then has come from the disgruntled former soldiers who eventually overthrew Aristide's government two years ago.

Préval also faces a challenge in rebuilding a police force whose own director admits that more than half its officers are corrupt. The United States, which helped in the creation and training of the force, has limited the distribution of weapons to police officers because of the criminal element in their ranks.

And beyond the security challenge, vestiges of a collapsing infrastructure are visible everywhere, from half-paved roads to unfinished public housing. Gasoline costs over $5 a gallon, and the parts of the capital buzz to the sounds of generators day and night in the absence of electricity. Even last week's parliamentary investiture was held in candlelight.

Local elections have been postponed indefinitely, hampering the functioning of government for the nearly 80 percent of Haitians who live outside of a handful of cities. And the absence of a majority party in the legislature forces Préval to seek consensus among a wide variety of parties on major appointments.

The unspoken question for many Haitians, is how much time Préval has to deliver before the guns that were used to destabilize previous governments reappear on the streets. He faces a daunting challenge in ensuring security and restoring the functioning of government and the economy, while cleansing the corruption that runs rampant throughout the public administration. The price of success will be the creation of many, very dangerous enemies.

The biggest threat of all, however, may come from within the Lavalas party of former President Aristide that helped carry Préval to power. Many in Préval's inner circle turn red in the face at the very mention of Aristide's name, but others are lobbying for his return from exile in South Africa. Préval has said that the constitution allows for Aristide's return, but the reelected President would be far happier if his controversial predecessor stayed put. Because to rebuild Haiti, he needs all of its stakeholders to be focused not on their longstanding conflicts, but instead on their future prospects.