Originally: Why Haiti is Not a Failed Nation State


Amb. Ernest H. Preeg*                                                His 1996 Study

Presentation at the
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, D.C.
June 10, 2004  

 The recent violence in Haiti, related to the forced resignation and departure of President Jean Bertrand Aristide, elicited the frequent assessment that this impoverished country is a failed nation state that will require ten or more years of international peacekeepers, humanitarian economic life support, and perhaps even a UN Trusteeship mandate in order to survive.  Fortunately, this is a wrongheaded assessment.  Haiti has suffered under extraordinarily bad government during the past 13 years and faces enormous challenges at this uncertain juncture, but it also has a deeply rooted national identity and the basic ingredients for an early resumption of political democratization and job-creating economic growth, albeit a highly conditional resumption as explained below.

 The critical error in the failed nation state assessment is an overly generalized 200- year historical perspective.  The line of thought is that since independence in 1804, Haitian history has been the same repetitive story of political violence and corruption, class struggle between a very small wealthy elite and the impoverished vast majority, economic stagnation, and the lack of an institutional capacity to support reasonably good governance and private sector job-creating economic growth.  A scorecard of frequent coup d?etats is cited, capped by the unique experience of Aristide being driven twice out of presidential office.

 This generalized pattern of Haitian history did apply reasonably well during the first hundred and fifty years, through about 1970, with the most stable and economically prosperous period the U.S. marine occupation from 1915 to 1934.  During the past 30 years, however, several important new developments have changed the underlying framework of the Haitian nation state, developments that can be described as the first essential building blocks in the process of political and economic modernization.  It has not been a steady forward path, and there were some devastating setbacks during the Aristide years, but the modernization building blocks remain basically intact, ready to be nurtured further and strengthened by the current interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.  Specifically, there are six such modernization building blocks:

(1) The experience of free and open elections.  The extensive criticism of the totally discredited legislative and presidential elections of 1997-2000 tend to obscure the fact that Haiti did have basically free and open elections in 1990 for the presidency and both chambers of the legislature, under circumstances less favorable than exist today.  In 1990, the Haitian army controlled the streets and its leadership was strongly opposed to presidential front-runner Aristide.  There were only 75 peacekeepers in country and a modest $5 million of international financial support for organizing the elections.  And yet there was a large and generally peaceful turnout. Now, with a respected interim government in place, several thousand international peacekeepers on the ground, and the prospect of ample external financial support, a second experience of free and open elections is highly probable in 2005. The demonstration effect on the Haitian population of two successful democratic elections, the first two in Haitian history, constitutes the first modernization building block.

(2) The emergence of a broadly based, pro-democracy civil society. The Haitian polity is no longer a simple conflicted dichotomy between a few very wealthy and the many desperately poor. The beginnings of a middle class and a wide- ranging organizational structure for political and economic reform have developed over the past three decades. It took more concrete form in recent years as the ?Group of 184? and the ?Democracy Platform?, consisting of democratic political groupings, private sector and professional organizations, peasant cooperatives, students, and religious leaders.  The movement survived persistent threats and violent attacks by Aristide militants and should continue to strengthen as the democratization process is resuscitated.

(3) The demonstrated capability to create labor-intensive industry at a rapid pace.  During the late 1970s and 1980s, Haiti was far ahead of other Caribbean and Central American countries in developing labor-intensive industry, principally for export. Private sector leadership was strong, workers worked hard and learned fast, and the necessary transportation, communications, and electric power infrastructure more or less kept pace with rapid job creation.  Port-au-Prince was almost fully employed, with a steady inflow of workers from the countryside.  Unfortunately, the anti-business climate and corruption of the Aristide years and the international trade embargo of 1991-1994 destroyed the bulk of this industry while the economic infrastructure has crumbled from neglect.  Nevertheless, the well-established private sector capability and supply of highly motivated workers remain to revive the industrialization process relatively quickly, with spillover to some service industries and significant development of the tourism sector.

(4) The beginnings of a modern system of justice under the rule of law.  This is the most tenuous of the building blocks, but basic change has occurred.  A civilian police force was trained by the United Sates during the mid-1990s to replace the Haitian army as the law enforcement mechanism.  The initiative was undermined during the latter years of the Aristide regime, but it can now be reengaged under professional leadership.  The rudimentary court system also requires continued international technical and financial support in order to operate effectively.  The fact remains, however, that a law enforcement system has been functioning subject to public scrutiny, which simply didn?t exist through the 1970s.

(5) The deepening interaction with the American diaspora.  There are eight million Haitians in Haiti and about one million Haitian-Americans in the American diaspora, including a large share of the more educated and affluent.  In recent years the diaspora has provided the economic support for Haitian survival through about $1 billion per year in remittances back home, amounting to one third of Haitian gross national product.  Looking ahead, not only will the remittances likely continue, but the deep family and personal ties from the steadily growing diaspora can have far broader positive impact on Haiti.  The renewal of the democratic process and an economic program to foster job-creating investment should receive widespread support from Haitian-Americans, both directly through personal and financial engagement in Haiti, and indirectly through political pressures on the American government to increase official support for Haitian economic recovery and democratization.

(6) Private sector-driven reconciliation between Haiti and the Dominican Republic (DR).  This is the most recent and least recognized change, but with clear potential for job-creating growth for Haitians.  The two countries share the island of Hispaniola and have had a miserable history, including the Haitian invasion of the DR in the nineteenth century and the slaughter of Haitians living in the DR by the Trujillo regime in the 1930s.  During the past decade, however, the two private sectors have developed cooperative relationships with a view to integrating investment and job creation for Haitians in both countries.  A driving force has been the rapid expansion of Dominican free trade zone investment, now likely to be extended through a free trade and investment agreement (FTA) with the United States.  Creation of a free trade zone at Ouanaminth on the Haitian north coast and discussion of joint construction and agro-industry projects are the beginnings of what can be a significant boost in productive activity throughout the island.

       These six building blocks together provide the foundation for what can be a success story in Haiti.  Such an outcome, however, is far from guaranteed.  The critical responsibility rests with Haitian leaders and the Haitian people.  As noted above, another free and open election is highly probable in 2005, but if Haitians again elect an antidemocratic, corrupt president like Aristide, there could be a repeat performance of the past 13 years.  The democratic political groupings, which are not yet functioning political parties, are more prone to fractious impasse than the cooperation necessary for effective democratic government.  There is also the need for practical checks and balances on the deeply ingrained habits of corruption and violence within the Haitian body politic.  The outcome in these areas, moreover will largely determine the willingness of the international community to provide adequate financial and technical support for reform programs within Haiti.

 The response of the international community, in any event, should not be constrained by the availability of financial resources.  Haiti is a relatively small country and could easily be the recipient of a more than sufficient $400-500 million per year of official development assistance: $100-200 million each from the World Bank and the Inter American Development Bank; $100 million from the United States; and another $100 million from other bilateral donors.  Add to this continued remittances of about $1 billion and a further $50-100 million from dozens if not hundreds of missionary and other private voluntary organizations, and the issue becomes clearly not the availability of external financial resources but rather the absorptive capacity of the Haitian government and private sector to utilize the resources to good effect.

 The starting point for the interim Haitian government and the international community is thus a comprehensive set of specific, feasible steps for restarting the process of democratization and job-creating economic growth.  The immediate objectives are restoring law and order on the streets, preparing for elections in 2005, and providing unhindered access for the distribution of humanitarian relief.  All of these objectives are already engaged, including the provision of international peacekeepers and financial support for election preparation.  Other urgent needs are to collect accumulated garbage, provide potable water, and restore at least periodic electric power. 

 The broader challenge of rebuilding the investment climate for job creation and economic growth is far more complex.  Some view this as a longer-term goal and thus a less pressing immediate concern, but such neglect would be a grievous error.  As long as an estimated 70-80% of the urban work force is unemployed and there is a general attitude of hopelessness and despair about the economic future, Haiti will remain a political tinderbox vulnerable to the most destructive demagoguery in the forthcoming elections, not to mention common criminals on the streets.

 A quick surge in economic activity is unrealistic, but even a handful of investment decisions to employ a few thousand people during the coming year would have great psychological impact on public attitudes.  And to achieve this, the interim government, together with the international donor community, need to establish specific priorities for early action to respond to the most pressing needs of the private sector and to demonstrate clearly a basic change for the better in economic as well as political terms.

 The establishment of such priorities is the immediate task of the Haitian economic team, in consultation with international donors, and requires hard analysis of what should be done first and how.  Obvious high priorities include targeted road repair and electric power supply to the industrial parks.  The United States can enact the Haitian Economic Recovery Opportunity Act (HERO), which would quickly create some jobs in the Haitian apparel sector.  Beyond this, a number of steps can be taken which together would bring about significant positive change in the Haitian investment climate.  The three following examples are offered as the kinds of immediate actions that should be considered.

 The first example would be to put the Port-au-Prince container port, vital to labor-intensive industry, back under private sector management contract after more than a decade of corrupt and debilitating state control.  The once highly efficient port was built with a World Bank loan, and the Bank would be the logical body to provide necessary financial and technical support for an early return to effective private management of this key infrastructure component.

   The second example would be to establish an open and user- friendly legal framework for small business, which could, as a result, flourish quickly.  Thousands of small businesses struggle in the ?informal? economy without legal status, vulnerable to protection payments to officials and without collateral to obtain otherwise available small business loans.  In fact, a draft statute to this end was developed with the assistance of the distinguished Peruvian Hernando de Soto and his Instituto Libertad y Democracia, who have taken on this task with success in other developing countries.  This statute, which languished under Aristide, can now be adopted and implemented with support from de Soto and the InterAmerican Development Bank, which financed the earlier work by de Soto.

 The third example would be the earliest possible collaboration between the Haitian and American governments to draw up a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA), as precursor to a bilateral free trade and investment agreement (FTA).  Haiti was out front of others in the Caribbean region 20 years ago in attracting trade creating investment, but now it has fallen far behind as the Dominican Republic and the Central American nations have negotiated FTAs with the United States, with the strong support of the American private sector with a view toward early investment decisions.  A TIFA should qualify Haiti for funding from the newly created U.S. Millenium Challenge Account for ?trade capacity building? projects which is just what Haiti needs at this point.  In parallel, the Haitian and Dominican governments could negotiate a bilateral free trade agreement for the entire island for later integration with the FTAs with the United States.

These are examples of quick actions that can be taken over the next several months.  Other prime candidates for stimulating early job creation can and should be added to the action agenda.  A more complicated but obvious top priority would be majority privatization of the dysfunctional state electric power company.  It also goes without saying that new beginnings are in order for the longer term social needs of the country, such as increasing literacy, improving health care, and reviving the family planning program, where international donor agencies would play a major role.

 There is finally the need to change the political perception about Haiti, in the United States and in Haiti, away from the failed nation state syndrome to a more positive orientation of hope and constructive action.  For the United States, an important political step would be to reconstitute the pro-active bipartisan Haiti policy of the 1980s.  Back then, the Reagan administration, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Floridian congressional delegation and Governor Bob Graham, worked together for improved observance of basic human rights in Haiti, job-creating economic reforms, and the suppression of the dangerous and illegal flow of Haitian boat people to the beaches of Florida.  There was some success in those years, and the circumstances for such bipartisan achievement are more favorable today.  A bipartisan Haiti policy, in contrast to the partisan impasse of recent years, would enable the United States to play its proper leadership role in support of democratization and economic reform in Haiti.

 Change of political perception in Haiti is a far more complex challenge, with heavy historical baggage and many cultural subtleties beyond the comprehension of non-Haitians.  The basic objective was expressed poignantly in the most widely read Haitian novel by Jacques Roumain, Gouverneurs de la Rosée, through the dying words of the tragic hero, in the original French and an informal English translation:

 ?La réconciliation, la réconciliation pour que la vie recommence, pour que le jour se lève sur la rosée.?

 ?Reconciliation, reconciliation so that life can begin again, so that dawn can break on the morning dew.?

 The seeds of change have been germinating in Haiti for three decades and are now ripe to blossom forth in a new dawn of hope.  But this will only happen if the Haitian people can come to understand and practice the true meaning of reconciliation.


*Ernest H. Preeg is Senior Fellow in Trade and Productivity at the Manufacturers Alliance in Arlington, Virginia, and a member of the board of the Haiti Democracy Project.  He was the American ambassador to Haiti in 1981-83and is the author of The Haitian Dilemma: A Case Study of Demographics, Development, and U.S. Foreign Policy  (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1996).