Originally: Diverse Interests Must Work Together


The recent joint declaration of 184 Haitian civil society organizations signals that a new day may yet dawn amid Haiti’s division and despair, 17 years after the end of the Duvalier dictatorship. Now Haitians once again appear ready to unite in the higher interests of the nation, placing their faith not in one leader but in the democratic process itself.

The declaration is nothing short of revolutionary when seen against the backdrop of Haiti’s strife-torn history and current crisis. It commits its diverse signatories to work together toward the elaboration of a new, consensus-based “social contract” for Haiti; one which aims to improve the lot of all Haitians, but prioritizes the needs of the nation’s poor majority.

Such calls for a social contract for Haiti are nothing new, but the notion that such a project is best pursued on the basis of unity and consensus, as opposed to one of discord and competition, is a relatively fresh and important one.

The bulk of the declaration’s attention is addressed to national elections. By setting preconditions for “any credible and democratic electoral process in Haiti,” the signatories seek to put the nation, the regime and, indeed, the world on notice that it is absurd to consider going to elections under prevailing circumstances.

For the next elections to have even a chance of being free and fair, they argue, some basic changes have to take place quickly in order to level the playing field for both potential candidates and voters. They are, for the most part, self-evident and virtually mirror the government’s existing commitments to the Organization of American States:

  • Freedom of assembly must be guaranteed.
  • Criminal gangs must be dismantled and disarmed; police officers and other public authorities associated with such gangs must be removed and brought to justice.
  • The leaders of these gangs, particularly those associated with the violence of Dec. 17, 2001, and the assassinations of journalists Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor, must be brought to justice.
  • Political prisoners being held illegally must be released.
  • Hate speech inciting violence, from the regime and its supporters, or from any other quarter, must cease.
  • The government must take concrete steps to ensure the safety and tranquility of journalists, students, teachers and others currently being harassed by armed gangs openly associated with the ruling party.
  • Security assistance from the international community must be forthcoming.

What’s going on in Haiti today — and what’s at stake — is too important to be left to the political class alone. Haitian civil society is preparing itself to rise to the challenge to consolidate the kind of change that has until now proved to be an elusive hope for Haiti; irreversible democratic reform.

In 1990, the Haitian people legitimately and overwhelmingly elected a single man who, not incidentally, then stood as a colossus at the head of a vast democratic movement. By and large, however, those of comparable stature who once stood with him, and behind him, are long gone.

They were either forced out, as the catholic embrace of the movement gave way to the parochial exclusivity of a ruling party; or they walked away, driven by a mix of disappointment and conscience. What’s left is a legacy of frustration, fear and factionalism that provides the fuse for a looming social implosion.

The signatories for the 184 organizations, with some significant exceptions, read mostly like a Who’s Who of the Lavalas movement circa 1990. But it also includes the private sector and virtually all of the organizations, such as the Center for Free Enterprise and Democracy, that have sprung up in the last 10 years.

The coalition has set a stringent deadline, demanding substantive demonstration of intent on the part of the government by Jan. 15.

The new “Group of 184” will be challenged on three fronts:

1. Expanding the circle of adherents to include some of the prominent and respected human rights and women’s organizations that are missing.

2. Crafting a new consensus on what position to take on Jan. 15.

3. Making concrete proposals for development of the new social contract they have endorsed.

The United States should position itself to provide significant support — technical, financial and diplomatic — to this coalition’s efforts to turn the tide in Haiti. Such support could focus on assisting the outreach and civic-education efforts within and outside of Haiti that will be required to broaden the scope and representation of this group’s composition even further; and on facilitating the convening of a National Conference of the Civil Society on the Electoral Process in the very near future.

If the mantle of democratic leadership in Haiti’s immediate future is to pass to civil society, as it clearly must, then those at the forefront of this movement will have to be up to the task.

Ira Lowenthal and Clotilde Charlot are members of the Haiti Democracy Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., that seeks a more proactive and effective U.S. policy toward Haiti.