Observations From Haiti…

First Published: 2004-04-07

Introduction

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world, with 8 million people crowded into 28,000 square kilometres just a short boat trip from Inagua.

The Gross Domestic Product per capita is under $1500 a year. Some 80 per cent of Haitians live in abject poverty and the average lifespan is only 51 years.

Haitian refugees are scattered across the region. According to official estimates, there were more than 1 million living in the Dominican Republic, an estimated 1 million in the United States (and 300,000 in Florida alone), 50,000 in the Bahamas (although some estimates go as high as 100,000), 40,000 in French Guiana, 25,000 in Martinique and Guadeloupe, 1,000 in Jamaica, 1,000 in Venezuela, and 500 in Cuba.

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"This Haitian Diaspora may be the greatest hope for Haiti's future. These men and women have the skills and perspective required to rebuild their homeland."

We have watched the painful struggle in Haiti over the past 10 years, as Jean-Bertrand Aristide squandered his opportunity to build a foundation for progress.

Haitians…can begin rebuilding their country and reclaiming their future. Haiti needs support from its friends around the world, as well as its sons and daughters in exile. There are almost a million Haitian people living in the United States today. Many fled their homes to escape the violence and poverty of Haiti's recent history, and now long to return to work toward a stable, democratic Haiti."

Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

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"Writing in 1929, after 14 years of American occupation, a British observer pointed to the failure of American aid programs 'with their batteries of experts in Buicks and promises of prosperity on the Illinois model'…This may be one of the last opportunities for Haiti and the international community to get it right."

Michael Heinl, co-author of Written in Blood: The Story of the Haitian People, 1492-1995, in recent testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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I am a Haitian entrepreneur living in Haiti who has witnessed the Systematic destruction of roughly a third of the Port-au-Prince downtown area following the departure of President Aristide. I have also followed the indignation and general outcry of CARICOM leaders who are mistakenly jumping to conclusions while being greatly misinformed about Haiti's situation. Of an even greater concern to many of us, is that our former president would come back so soon, as a CARICOM hero, to our Caribbean waters.

Aristide was forced out by a combination of local and international political pressure, popular revolt throughout the republic, the ever-increasing footsteps of the Haitian rebels and the loss of American support.

His departure is a shame on all Haitians but more so on Aristide himself who was democratically elected, had massive popular and international support but turned out to be one of the most violent rulers Haiti ever had.

In retrospect, his only intent seems to have only been to replace the dictators that preceded him rather than to promote real change in Haiti.

Today, from the bottom of the pit, there is nowhere to look but up. With the swearing-in of a new prime minister and the installation of his brand new technocratic cabinet, a new sense of civic duty is emerging in the country as Haitians are beginning the exhilarating task of rebuilding their communities.

Haiti is capable of democracy, but in order for democracy to work we must have solidly anchored institutions that will guarantee the rights of all citizens. We need an independent judiciary, a professional police force…all the building blocks of a functioning democracy. We need institutions that will enforce the rule of law and establish a level playing field.

Haitian demagogues, (not the least being Aristide) have killed hope and transformed it into a sort of passive wait of an individual that is giving himself up wholly to another. The average Haitian no longer feels a need to build and work to improve his country, because somebody else will do it for him.

As our university students showed all of us during the protests that toppled Aristide, we need to stop blaming others for our failures and take charge of our destiny. Haiti is fixable, but in order to do that we will need leadership from our best minds and help from all of our friends (CARICOM included).

Our biggest need is education. If we are to improve the lot of the majority we will need schools. We will need post-graduate scholarships to the best universities in the world for our best pupils. Haitians need to be able to believe that a better future lies ahead, a future that will not be handed out to us, a future that we will have to build ourselves with help from the outside.

In order for Haiti to be stable it must be prosperous and vice versa. Stability can only come through institution building. Prosperity, on the other hand, will only come with the infusion of fresh capital.

Two days after his departure, we witnessed the Aristide-induced systematic destruction of the country's assets. As a consequence, some of Haiti's best entrepreneurs are now bankrupt. Dangerous stereotypes notwithstanding (from CARICOM and the Black Caucus of the US Congress), these are hard working, honest individuals who have lost everything through no fault of their own.

If capital is to flow back into Haiti's economy, it will need to feel Secure and welcome. Private investment will be an important determinant of sustained growth, a key component of a successful democratic transition. In short, our new government must become fully cognizant of the important link between democracy and an open market.

It must recognize that the essence of democracy is the existence of true freedom of choice as embodied in fair elections, in the possibility of hearing and fearlessly expressing divergent opinions on public policy matters and in the ability to invest and trade without the fright of undue governmental control or interference.

The prospects for a successful transition to such a system would be improved by the dynamic participation of the modernizing elements of civil society in the policy debate and implementation. Specifically, it would be desirable for an organized progressive private sector to be the proponent of a development strategy based on:

•Radically improving the financial position of the government (by spending wisely and taxing fairly),

•Establishing a free trade/free port regime with zero import tariffs,

•Privatizing public enterprises as the basis for foreign capital to start flowing into the country.

US forces have landed but they can no longer afford to window-dress. They will have to help us consolidate our democratic institutions and establish the rule of law. The US, Canada, France and our other friends will need to come up with aggressive initiatives to help us attract foreign capital.

It is in that spirit that we must boldly seize the opportunity provided by a generously funded political settlement to move the economy to a different growth path.

In the post-crisis environment, politically sensitive issues (cost of living, urban unemployment, the worsened fate of the vulnerable groups, environmental degradation, and chronic health problems) may crowd the policy agenda. While paying attention to these issues, our economic policy must however remain sharply focused on the priorities defined to attract foreign investments and satisfy the criteria of the World Bank and the IMF.

This will benefit us politically by indicating the new government's priorities, and financially by paving the way for the speedy disbursement of aid.

We need to fix our balance of payments to allow the rapid clearing of external arrears and the funding of priority imports like petroleum, medicine, agricultural and industrial inputs.

In 1991, when Aristide version 1 was ousted, the US had implemented the Foreign Assistance Act, which allowed indebted countries that reached an agreement with the IMF by September 30, 1991 to be eligible for US Debt relief.

Haiti was clearly poised to be one of the beneficiaries of that incentive. Since then, however, all hell broke loose and we never were able to take advantage of it.

In view of the truly exceptional circumstances that prevented its implementation, a way must now be found to still make Haiti eligible for the US debt relief, provided that a speedy resumption of negotiations with the IMF can be achieved. Perhaps the vehicle to do so ought to be the Incorporation of a similar conditionality in a Haiti Recovery Bill that could be sent to the US Congress to appropriate the additional funds needed to jump-start Haiti's economy.

In the end, I have to admit how sorry and sad I am that Haiti could not celebrate the bicentennial of its independence differently. I am sad and sorry that by behaving so irresponsibly, we are fuelling the racist argument that black men are incapable of self-governance.

Nevertheless, I am grateful for the new opportunities that we are being afforded. I believe that the French and American troops that are on Haitian soil today are different from those of 1803 and 1915. If once again foreign troops had to come to Haiti, the problem is with us Haitians, not with them.

Unfortunately, we have no magic wand that would allow us to increase the economic opportunities and ensure the prosperity of all Haitians. Real and durable change will come as a consequence of the cumulative effect of many small steps. 2004 is a new start and the extent of the challenge is exhilarating: we must drop our inherent distrust of each other, we must claim responsibility for our actions and with the help of our foreign allies (CARICOM included) we will steer our country towards a new destination that will take advantage of all the opportunities created by the new global world.

We will have to start dreaming again and have faith. This inescapable faith in a God that asks us to do everything we can, whenever we can, wherever we can, with everything we can, for as long as we can to change our country's destiny and improve the fate of our fellow Haitians.

Daniel G?rard Rouzier, Haitian entrepreneur.

March 18, 2004.

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