Toward a New Haitian State

The disastrous earthquake provides an opportunity to create a more democratic Haiti with a strong government.

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palace
The ruins of Haiti's National Palace. (Getty Images)

The devastating earthquake that has destroyed Haiti’s capital has aggravated the already catastrophic economic and political conditions of the country’s history. As a Haitian put it: “Tout ayiti krazé”—the whole country is no more. Beyond the utter terror, pain and loss that is overtaking the population, and the horrifying cries for help from under piles of rubble, the country is in ruin.

While it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the hellish pictures of lifeless bodies—young and old—Haitians and all people of goodwill must immediately contribute to the country’s rebuilding lest famine, disease and chaos set in. Despite their strong sense of nationalism, Haitians will have to accept the reality that at this time only the international community, and the United States in particular, that has the means to rescue the country from catastrophe. The government is an empty shell, the United Nations virtually decapitated, and local non-governmental organizations basically impotent.

Once the relief phase has ended, however, American military forces should withdraw, and be replaced by a civilian supra-national body that would cooperate with Haitian authorities to devise and implement a comprehensive program of reconstruction. This program should reverse more than 40 years of economic neo-liberalism and emphasize massive public works for infrastructural development, agricultural transformation and food self-sufficiency.

The fundamental goals should be to create employment for the vast majority of Haitians, alleviate poverty and bridge the obscene divide between the small privileged minority and the poor majority. This requires a credible and legitimate government that can speak in the name of the population. This is essential because the earthquake has violently aborted the legislative and presidential elections that were going to take place this year and that are unlikely to be rescheduled anytime soon. Extending the life of the current Parliament and Préval’s presidency beyond their constitutional term will not do. The “invisibility” of the current regime in the aftermath of the earthquake cannot be rewarded by a self-mandated reappointment until Haitians have an opportunity to go to the ballot boxes.

New Forms of Representation

In the interregnum, Haitians have to devise a way to express their collective voices in this exceptional moment of emergency. They have to create a new form of representation to elaborate a consensus on new national vision for reconstructing their country. Whether this should be an États Généraux de la Nation—a National Conference—or a provisional government of National Unity, or a distinct body, it is imperative that grassroots organizations, and all sectors of society as well as all political parties have a voice in defining a strategy of reconstruction.

While this may be an unruly process, it can’t be avoided. There’s the danger that reconstruction will reproduce the old and failed strategies of the past. Moreover, if the existing government and Parliament decide to “go it alone,” they are inviting destructive rounds of political recriminations and instability. Reconstruction cannot be the business of a self-appointed minority. It is an historical opportunity to include the “moun en deyo”—the marginalized—in the making of a new and responsible Haitian state. Letting this opportunity pass will further aggravate the extreme social polarization and of the traditional zero-sum politics that have characterized Haiti’s history.

Haiti’s tragic predicament portends the danger of a Hobbesian war of all against all, but it can also be an opportunity to create a new and more democratic society in which all Haitians treat each other as equal citizens. In fact, the earthquake has become the cruelest equalizer; while it is clear that the small, well-off minority will extricate itself more easily from this crisis than the poor majority, death and devastation are affecting all, irrespective of class or color.

In the midst of this cataclysm, Haitians could acquire a new sense of solidarity and citizenship to supplant the zero-sum game politics that have characterized the country’s history. Facing disaster, Haitians may finally understand that a better future requires the demise of the old ways of governing and producing. A more inclusive social pact between the privileged few and the poor majority could rise from the ghastly dust of the earthquake.

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