By Sir Ronald Sanders
(The writer is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. The views expressed are his own)
Haiti continues to be an unsettled country politically. Demonstrations against successive governments have become almost normal, and so too, tragically, are the deaths associated with them.
No one should be surprised at the continuous unrest in Haiti. It has been an impoverished country for too long, and it has been exploited by external forces and mismanaged by internal administrations.
The latest unrest flowed from citizens demanding an accounting for US$31 million provided by Venezuela under its “Petrocaribe” arrangements. Reported police violence against demonstrating civilians led to the deaths of several people and the injury of others.
Amnesty International rejected “excessive use of force” and declared that “police security operations must be carried out with a focus on the prevention of violence and guaranteeing the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, rather than repression”.
Rightly, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, issued a statement cautioning the government to uphold the right to free association and expression, while condemning violence; urging it to hold an inclusive dialogue on governance “to ensure greater social peace and growth”; and reiterating the OAS’ readiness to assist in efforts to strengthen democracy and the institutions of governance.
Unlike other statements on Venezuela by which Mr Almagro compromised the good offices role that the OAS could have played in that country, his statement on Haiti was exactly what is expected from the Secretary-General of a crucial hemispheric organisation.
Given that Haiti is a member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), it would have been beneficial if that organisation’s Secretary-General had also publicly commented on the situation in Haiti in terms akin to Mr Almagro’s. Haiti’s membership of CARICOM comes with commitments to the values of the community upon which CARICOM should insist.
The OAS Secretary-General dispatched a team to Haiti to assess the situation and to reaffirm the Organisation’s willingness to help promote dialogue and avoid further violence. At the very least, CARICOM should have done the same. Respecting the rule of law and democratic rights is as much an obligation of governments as it is of all other sectors of society.
The allegations of corruption related to the Petrocaribe funds, have not dissipated. Having found traction amongst the community, the organisers of the protests are unlikely to allow the momentum to dissipate. Their concerns assume greater importance because an investigation by the Haitian Senate suggested malfeasance and corruption by several high-level officials in previous administrations, and perhaps the present one.
The continuous political confrontations in Haiti, and the readiness of governments to deploy police without constraint to suffocate dissent, are fed by the desperate economic circumstances of the country. Deprivation, inequalities and intense frustration forge the collective fuse that can be easily ignited.
Most of the people of Haiti exist in dire conditions. Eighty-seven percent of the population is desperately poor; life expectancy is 63 years; infant mortality is 55 per 1,000 births; two-thirds of the 11 million people do not have regular employment; only 50 per cent of school-age children attend school; and the level of literacy is just 61 per cent.
The country’s debt is huge, estimated at roughly US$3.5 billion and its debt service is high. The government’s annual budget is approximately US$2.3 billion.
Over the last few months, the Haitian currency has devalued by 11 per cent and the financial situation of the government treasury and some government entities is dire.
Contemplating how to address the condition of Haiti in order to promote economic development and improve the standard of living, is more than a head-scratching exercise; it is almost mind-numbing. Yet, the nations of the hemisphere, Caribbean countries particularly, cannot simply decide to leave Haiti to its own devices.
Historically, politically and culturally, Haiti symbolises the Caribbean people’s struggle to free themselves from slavery and oppression and to stand up as the equal of all. The Caribbean owes it to itself as much as to Haiti to never abandon it and always to be engaged in seeking its advancement.
Beyond this, Haiti’s circumstances have driven a large number of its people to flee continually. The United States, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas have borne the brunt of Haitian refugees. If nothing is done to improve the conditions in Haiti, refugees will also reach the shores of other CARICOM countries, especially now that Haiti has been admitted to the Single Market, granting its nationals the right to enter and remain for six months.
The beginnings of a solution to all this resides in a compact between the political parties in Haiti. Writing those words is easy; achieving their meaning is a Sisyphean task as I know from the tortuous experience of leading an OAS delegation to Haiti in 2016 that helped to avoid civil war and chaos. Yet, however, daunting the task, it must be pursued vigorously and encouraged diligently by the countries of the OAS, including the Caribbean ones.
President Jovenel MoÏse won a supervised election in March 2017. In the interest of instilling Haitian respect for democracy and of maintaining political stability, he should be allowed to complete his term in office – a term that should adhere to the rule of law and respect for human and political rights. But he must be willing to see “governance” beyond “government” and be open to inclusionary dialogue with other political players that is purposeful, not perfunctory.
The Prime Minister, Jean-Henry Céant, stated recently that he would appoint to his cabinet leading opposition personalities such as Mirlande Manigat and Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He has also floated the idea of a Club of former Presidents “to facilitate the smooth functioning of the State”.
Whether members of the opposition will take-up either of these offers or propose their own ideas for national consultation and action is left to be seen. What is certain is that Haiti cannot afford instability and further economic decline.
The governing and opposition parties must be encouraged by all to sit at the table of governance, and CARICOM must play an active role.