Five months into the transition government of Alexandre and Latortue the regime faces a wave of strikes and a crisis within the electoral commission which augurs ill for the future. Worse, at the core of the regime, in the entourage of the prime minister, there appear signs of corruption and a habit of hesitation that alarms observers and what’s left of the formal private sector.

After the renewal of hope engendered by the results of the international donors’ conference in Washington during July 19–21, economic paralysis and suspicion have returned. In an interview to the Radio Cooperativa of Chile on August 6, as reported by EFE, Juan Gabriel Valdez, the special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for Haiti, says that Haiti “faces a real danger of extinction.” According to Mr. Valdez, who will be the number-one in MINUSTAH and should be arriving here on August 16, the danger comes from the enormous difficulties blocking the workings of the state and a situation where the society is menaced by extinction. And indeed, every political observer can attest that although Haiti has undergone a political transition, the power of the dictator Jean-Bertrand Aristide has been disseminated among numerous sub-dictators who are anonymous and unaccountable, and continue the tyranny and corruption as before, an outcome that is unbearable and constitutes a real menace to the government and the future of the whole country. Faced with this somber tableau on the horizon, will the government stop dithering? If not, what will be the consequences for Haitian society? These are our questions now in “August 2004: Between Transitional Regime and Permanent Dictatorship.”

The Politics of Dithering

The recent two-week strike of customs workers in the port and airport of the capital cost the Haitian economy 500 million gourdes or U.S.$14 million, just for July 2004. Despite a threat to fire all the workers made by the economics minister Henri Bazin the government had to negotiate. A crisis committee named by Prime Minister Latortue joined by a committee of the strikers finally reached agreement on August 5. The strikers sought the removal of the director-general of the customs Jean Edouard ValPs. The government conceded the designation of the deputy director. Yesterday, they went back to work. Part of the story is that while the director-general of the customs has so far enjoyed the unconditional support of the minister of finance, others from the prime minister’s office intervened in a strike which was called “savage and illegal” by certain members of the private sector. This they say was a serious precedent directly implicating the prime minister’s office in the strike vis-a-vis the ministry of finance. Also, we cannot underestimate the corrupt and deformed part of the private sector in this customs crisis. The corrupt part resists the anti-corruption campaign recently launched by the government. The deformed part connives to retain illegal money to be used notably in the coming elections. If it does not give in, the government faces a new customs strike. The customs workers claim the right to name a deputy director of their choice, a choice that according to a reliable source will be a personality known for corrupt dealings and for prolonging the status quo in the customs system.

Moreover, you have many maritime companies who owe money to the customs and the tax agency. According to our information, they are negotiating these debts with the different government agencies whereas certain owners of these companies should be arrested and their release should be made conditional on payment of the debts. In applying its dithering policy, the government shows its weakness and encourages both those doing the corrupting and those being corrupted. If the transition team doesn’t show rather soon its authority and determination with concrete actions against corruption, it will find itself caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one side, the corruptors and corrupted will tie its hands; on the other, the international community will withhold the $1.5 billion pledged in Washington. The economic depression stems from the illicit trade which has pushed many formal-sector businesses, among them some very important ones, into bankruptcy. The hesitation of the government will impact not only Haiti in general but specifically the economy.

The strike called by the police has the same liabilities as the strike described above but is also vulnerable to political manipulation, as the police chief, Léon Charles said on Radio Vision 2000 on August 9. The chief, who was confirmed on August 4, said that strikes by police are prohibited. He minimized the strike call and said that a dialogue in the various police stations could deal with the grievances of the policemen. They are principally concerned with a salary increase. The police spokesman Bruce Myrthil has admitted that they were promised a 100-percent increase but the finance ministry said that it didn’t have the money. A top governmental official told Radio Métropole that the increase had been promised but had been blocked by the budget bureau. The state did not have the money to satisfy the policemen’s demands. On August 10, despite the chief’s warning, the police said they would strike during August 12–16. This outcome could mean the dismissal of Chief Léon Charles whom the police accused of not taking the necessary measures for fundamental change in the police administration. They repeated their salary demands by noting that normally they would deserve an increase of 500 percent. This figure, which could shock the public, did come from somewhere: according to a source in the Overseers’ Council created last April along with the interim government, the Multinational Interim Force told the police that under normal conditions their salaries should be multiplied by five. There are real problems of personnel and resources in the police. During times of acute insecurity, notably in Cap-HaVtien, the effects of the strike could be disastrous for Haitian citizens.

Altogether, although the dictator has left, all of his repressive machine, human and financial, is still alive and well in the public institutions of the country. The police, known for politicization and corruption for the past nine years, is open to political manipulation of all sorts, notably by the Lavalas sector which has allowed some in the police to enrich themselves rapidly and in total impunity. As well the police who still need to be cleaned out must contend not only with low salaries and lack of human and material resources but have become a favorite target of the gangs in the capital and the armymen in the provinces. So the spirit of corruption infects them, as does fear, leading them to make demands rather than serve and protect. Here the inertia observed at certain times in the ministry of justice, as criticized by the NCHR this week, is not at all reassuring. The failure to arrest the former bosses of the Lavalas Party and their former and present followers and the corruption evident in the judicial system can only encourage fear and corruption within the police. Again the governmental hesitation and the lack of a real commitment to really change the police administration can only exacerbate the situation and poison the disarmament campaign announced for September 15, 2004 as well as the coming electoral process. Also one notes in August a resurgence of kidnapings in the capital and provinces including certain ones done by police in uniform. The purging of the police needs to be done from the bottom up. This would also encourage the remaining honest members of the police in the efforts they have made in recent months against criminality and would reinforce their legitimate demands which if satisfied even at the price of sacrifices can only help them avoid political manipulation and corruption and encourage them to protect and serve the citizens. If the strike takes place, it is the citizens who will be subject to the barbaric criminality of the gangs and the partisans of the former regime. The credibility so far accorded to the transition government would evaporate and violence, always latent in Haiti, would revive and threaten the fragile democratic achievements since February 29, 2004.

Persistence of Old Habits to the Detriment of the Nation

As if this unhealthy atmosphere within the public administration were not enough, along comes the Provisional Electoral Council with its animosity dividing its members. It is an internal crisis without precedent since 1986. It plunged the political class into near-panic.

The editorial judgement by Claude MoVse in the newspaper Le Matin on August 5 stands: “It’s not just that the CEP is going through a period of great turbulence, it has met a disaster, a lamentable failure.

The very fact that this organization, created in political circumstances which we well know, has shown itself incapable of handling apparently simple problems of operation suggests its incompetence to resolve the electoral problems which will be altogether much more difficult. Not to put a too fine point on it, the CEP has discredited itself and has reflected discredit on those who contributed to its formation.

The last straw is to hear on the radio that the president of the council, Roselor Julien, wrote to one of the council members that she was sent by God and her presence in the council is a divine mission. Source: “Reflects Discredit Also on Those Who Chose Commission,” by Claude MoVse,

So the crisis in the CEP is rooted in personal conflicts among certain members against the acting president of the electoral institution. The antagonisms were raised to the level of a Catholic-Protestant conflict between Ms. Julien and the Rev. Paurice Jean Baptiste. The animosity among some members not only gave the impression of stubborn children but discredited them in the eyes of the larger public.

For Claude MoVse,

If this situation alarmed the political class and brought them close to panic, this may yet prove to be salutary if it brings about an increase in modesty and rigor among all the groups, fronts, grand fronts, and other groupings who are moving ahead unevenly to grasp for power. If they understand once and for all that there is no safety and future for anyone apart from creating a political agreement on the rules of the game, and establishment of strict rules of operation and procedures of arbitration, the CEP should be part of this outcome. What is needed is a social pact or a contract, if you will, that presents in a convincing, concrete and documented fashion movement toward a nation of citizens.

The Follow-up Committee worked to resolve this crisis. Despite its goodwill, it did not reassure public opinion and many questions remain. Who can have confidence in this committee? Will the patch up of the CEP last? What are the deep reasons behind so much  public scandal? When one hears that $100 million is contemplated for the next electoral process, can one have confidence in the CEP today?

These different crises (customs, police, CEP) show the same persistent reality among the Haitians: they may unite against a government or against someone, but they haven’t always achieved the maturity and sense of higher interest of nation in showing that they can work together towards any task, today and under the circumstances, in the reconstruction of the country. Today it is clear that the achievements of 1986 have faded and that it is more difficult today to guarantee the transition in the short term and the reconstruction of the country over the long term. These crises that break out in the different institutions of the republic show one more time the precariousness of the institutional disfunctioning of the state. As Saint Just has said, “The institutions are the guarantee of a government of free people against corrupt habits, and they are the guarantee of the people and the citizen against the government’s corruption.” So at this decisive turn, if the government doesn’t engage itself resolutely against corruption and work to consolidate our public institutions, it will become victim of its own indecision and inevitably imperil the transition and the achievement of a new elected government at last applying the rule of law.

The historian Suzy Castor said it well recently:

The political crisis, , extending on an economical background and an explosive social , is bearer of dangerous convulsions. In such conjoncture, the outcome of the crisis is open to all possibilities: the most evil and the most hopeful.

At the end of the week, one heard that the protests of the students of the Université LumiPre against the ministry of health were increasing. At this decisive moment, if we don’t attend to these issues the crisis will get worse and our persistent habits of division and corruption that  have always characterized us under the reign of “Barbarian Haiti”, as Madame Castor would say:

The impact of all the frustrations, disappointments and the huge gap between what we think and how we actually live should arouse us to action(…) Surmounting the crisis is the business of all the citizens. No one else can do it for us. Everyone must work to eliminate the evils that assault us, revive hope and accelerate the achievement of real democracy.

—”Sortir de l’impasse,” Suzy Castor, éditorial de la Revue Rencontre du 29 juillet 2004.