Originally: A Broad-based Coalition Offers Hope for Haiti’s Beleaguered Democracy

Written by Haiti Democracy Project founding board member Ira M. Lowenthal. Delivered by James R. Morrell at the 2003 meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Dallas, March 29, 2003 at the panel “Haiti and the Dominican Republic in Transition,” chaired by Haiti Democracy Project board member Prof. Henry F. Carey

The recent joint declaration of 184 Haitian civil society organizations signals that a new day may yet dawn in Haiti?s dark night of division, dérive and despair.  It comes on the eve of the bicentennial of its revolution, whose beacon of freedom cut through the pall of New World slavery like a knife. It comes some seventeen years after the sun rose on the vampire that was the Duvalier dynasty. Now Haitians from all walks of life once again appear ready to unite in the higher interests of the nation. 

This time, may they find their strength not only in a common enemy, but in a common cause; may they place their faith not in any one leader, but in the democratic process itself; and may 2003 be remembered as the birthdate of Haiti?s long-awaited Republic.

The Declaration

The declaration is ambitious; and its ambitions are nothing short of revolutionary, when seen against the backdrop of Haiti?s strife-torn history and current crisis.

 Towards a New ?Social Contract? for Haiti

First, it commits its diverse and multi-talented signatories to work together towards the elaboration of a new, consensus-based ?social contract? for Haiti?one which justifiably aims to improve the lot of all Haitians, but quite properly prioritizes the needs of the nation?s mercilessly overexploited and shamefully underserved (that?s right, ?poor?) majority. 

Such calls for a new social contract for Haiti?for a national ?project? that would finally transform the bitter legacy of slavery into a patrimony of freedom?are nothing new, of course.  Many have demanded as much over the years. 

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.  For if vigorous competition among divergent interests is a hallmark of any truly free society, then it is the absence of a much more fundamental consensus on the so-called rules of the game?on the principles and precepts that must govern such competition, if it is ultimately to be open and fair?that most clearly marks those societies that are not yet free in any real sense.  Haiti has borne this mark of Cain?pitting brother against brother in untrammeled and self-consuming conflict?for far too long. 

The new (or perhaps ?first?) social contract being called for here, then, is not some kind of utopian and eternal agreement about ?who gets what,? from now on.  Rather, it is and must be about how people can, and should, go about getting, or trying to get, what they want; and, conversely, about what kinds of stratagems, and results, will no longer be considered permissible or legitimate in the pursuit of self-interest.  These new rules, in order to be binding in their effect, must be mutually agreed upon and acceded to in advance.  And this is not just a question of agreeing to disagree (difficult enough, it seems, in today?s Haiti), it is also a matter of agreeing on how to disagree, so as to favor just and equitable outcomes, and to privilege competition that is constructive, rather than its opposite.

 Priming the Electoral Process

In keeping with these larger concerns, in fact, the declaration then quickly turns the bulk of its attention to what is obviously the most immediate and most pressing instance of intra-societal competition confronting the nation?the upcoming national elections.  By setting seven 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 patently 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 first?and fast.  Tellingly, all of these have to do essentially with leveling the playing field?not only for those who would compete in the upcoming campaign, but for those who will be called upon to go to the polls and cast their ballots, as well.  They are, for the most part, self-evident.  (They also, lest it go unnoticed, almost precisely mirror the government?s existing commitments under OAS Resolution 822 and the sense of the recommendations of the Permanent Council in that and other resolutions.)  They are that:

  ∙ 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 December 17 and the assassinations of journalists Jean Dominique and Brignol Lindor must be brought to justice
  ∙ Political prisoners being held illegally, and others ordered to be released by the courts, 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.

And they are right, of course.  Anyone who?s actually lived through a national electoral campaign in Haiti will immediately recognize that these seven points (including the last) are nothing more than the desiderata minima that may permit the next electoral process to unfold.  Much more, in fact, will have to be done to ensure that Haiti?s next elections do not simply reproduce the failures of the past; moving from one electoral crisis to another is hardly the kind of progress needed there.

The Coalition

If the events of the past several months were insufficiently convincing to some outside observers?who may quite sincerely, albeit entirely futilely, continue to yearn for some kind of a messianic solution to Haiti?s admittedly daunting predicament?then the emergence of this new civil-society coalition in December can leave no further reasonable doubt:  The jig is up for Haiti?s politicians, whatever their stripe, at least for now.  This new coalition is cross-sectoral, diverse, national in scope and articulate.  What?s going on in Haiti today?and what?s at stake?is simply too important to be left to the political class alone. All civil society is now engaged.

And Haitian civil society is clearly preparing itself to rise to this next challenge, this next opportunity, to attempt to consolidate the kind of change that has until now proved to be but a vain hope for Haiti?irreversible democratic reform.

In 1990, to be sure, the people of Haiti legitimately and overwhelmingly conferred the stewardship of their patrimony on a single man?one who, not incidentally, then stood at the head of a vast democratic movement, and strode the barren Haitian political landscape like a colossus.  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 some potent mix of disappointment and conscience.  Now, little remains but the proverbial feet of clay?and a legacy of frustration, fear and factionalism that are but the fuse on Haiti?s looming social implosion.

Therefore, these 184 organizations are not figment of the opposition?s Machiavellian imagination. Rather they reflect the capacity of the oft-invoked but little-respected ?Haitian people? to identify and to pursue their best interests. The Haitian people are no more an inchoate mass today than they were in February of ?86, or in December of ?90 or, indeed, during their three years of ultimately successful massive resistance to the de facto military regime, from 1991 to 1994.

And their organic leadership is today reemerging to take up the same cause, yet again:  Haiti?s civil society, although admittedly somewhat slow to reawaken after what will ultimately come to be known as ?the numbing nineties,? is on the march again?this time, let us fervently hope, better organized, tempered by bitter experience, and even more intent on establishing the basis for Haiti?s democratization, so long deferred.  The list of signatories to the recent declaration, with a few significant exceptions,  reads mostly like a who?s who of the Lavalas movement circa 1990. But?and this is extremely significant?it also includes the private sector and virtually all of the organizations, like the Center for Free Enterprise and Democracy (CLED), that have sprung up in the last ten years. In 1990 the private sector and the Lavalas movement were apart. Today the private sector and the successors to the Lavalas movement are together. One strength has joined another?a victory that eluded the organizers of 1990.

?Fool me once, shame on you,? as the proverb says, ?fool me twice, shame on me!?

Moreover, that this leadership, in its full diversity, and putting aside past differences, has determined in advance to work together, to work consensually, and to work through the electoral process, is the best grounds for renewed hope in Haiti?s future to materialize in many a day.

Next Steps in Haiti

The coalition has set its own, quite stringent, deadline.  It has demanded some substantive demonstration of intent on the part of the regime by January 15.  Mutatis mutandis, the coalition itself must be poised?on that very same date?to respond to whatever response, or lack thereof, is forthcoming.

Between now and then?a scant ten days or so?this new ?Group of 184? will be challenged on three distinct, but clearly interdependent, fronts. 

1. Expanding  the circle of their adherents yet further.  There are some prominent and highly respected human-rights and women?s organizations, for example, whose absence from the initial declaration?s signatory list is notable, and who should be brought on board, if at all possible. 

2. Crafting a new consensus concerning what exact position to take on the fifteenth, and then articulate that position as clearly and concisely as they did their first.

3. Making concrete proposals concerning the development of the new social contract they have endorsed?recommendations as practical and as forthright as those they?ve already put forward concerning the elections. 

The convening of a ?national conference? of some kind, under neutral (and perhaps even external) auspices would seem an appropriate first step.  Calls for such a conference have been multiplying over the past few months; and insofar as an initial open and public debate can pave the way for (rather than distract attention away from) the critical next elections, this could prove to be a positive and even transformative undertaking?with the potential to break the impasse that the politicians (and diplomats) seem to have accepted as the best they can manage under the current circumstances.

While this may all seem a tall order, so too was the task of convening this refreshingly diverse coalition in the first place.  If the mantle of democratic leadership in Haiti?s immediate future is indeed to pass to civil society, as it clearly must, then those at the forefront of this movement will simply have to be up to the task.

Next Steps in U.S. Policy

The United States has been looking for an honest broker in Haiti for as far back as memory serves.  They?ve made enough mistakes down through the years?both on their own and with the help of far, far too many Haitians?that it may seem fatuous to suggest that they may have finally stumbled onto that broker, even in spite of themselves. But that is essentially what has happened here.
Of course, if an otherwise preoccupied State Department simply doesn?t want to hear any bad news from Haiti, this new potential opening?above the fray of Haitian politics-as-usual?won?t represent anything more than another annoyance to them.  Who wants still more conditions placed on progress in this problematic little polity, after all?  Who?s ready to hear the truth, if truth be told?

On the other hand, if our government?s commitment in Haiti is to a more stable, just and prosperous society?one that doesn?t, in short, remain just an implacable incubator for illegal immigrants and political refugees?then it may well be time to take a fresh look at just who?s worth talking with, and listening to, among the citizens of our nearby neighbor to the south.  By their courage and solidarity, this new coalition has at least earned as much, and some acknowledgement of their signal initial achievement from the United States, however modest, would be strongly in the U.S. interest.

The old saw of ?elitism? used thus far to dismiss the Initiative de la Société Civile?in spite of its patent ecumenicism and its obvious role in inspiring this new and promising development?simply cannot be leveled at the Group of 184.  We can?t continue to demand ?more responsible leadership,? on the one hand, and then turn around and dismiss this emerging vanguard as some kind of new ?elite? because they have stepped to the forefront.  Or can we?

Moreover, there is much to be done, as noted earlier.  A symbolic gesture will suffice, perhaps, prior to January 15, but thereafter, the United States should position itself to provide significant and substantial support?technical, financial, and diplomatic?to this new coalition?s efforts to turn the tide in Haiti. Such support should immediately focus on assisting the outreach and civic-education efforts within and outside of Haiti that will be required to broaden the scope and representativeness of this already diverse group?s composition even further; and on facilitating the convening of a National Civil Society Conference on the Electoral Process in the very near future.

What better way to kick off a truly new year in Haiti, and particularly this critical, coming year of preparation for the celebration of the bicentennial.?  Let it not be to Haiti?s wake that the world is invited in 2004?as some discouraged diplomats have decried?but to its rebirth.  And let us lend our full support, as soon as feasible, to those whose midwifery is bound to be critical to a successful delivery?Haiti?s own rich and varied civil society.