[quote]A lament for Haiti
Franklin W. Knight
Jamaican Observer Wednesday, November 02, 2005
Haiti has enormous symbolic significance for every Caribbean person. After the United States of America, Haiti was the second free country anywhere in the Americas. It was the first independent Caribbean state. It was the first Caribbean state to defy the world successfully and the first state to abolish slavery in the history of the world. It was also the first state to try to reconcile the spirit and the letter of the law by establishing universal principles of human rights.
The first Haitian constitution declared all people equal regardless of race, colour, creed, condition or occupation.
Those mighty ideals strongly challenged the prevailing political thought in the powerful states of the 19th century world, and Haiti paid dearly throughout the foll
owing centuries for its audacity. Haiti, however, deserves better, especially from the neighbouring Caribbean people who owe a lot to early Haitian initiatives.
The good news is that Haiti is at present establishing a procedure for implementing national elections in late 2005.
The United States ushered out the last elected head of state two years ago and the country has not had general elections in five years. The unwarranted presumption on the part of the United Nations and the Organisation of American States is that new elections will now produce a battery of elected and appointed leaders who will usher in an era of democracy.
The idea of using general elections as a sort of litmus test of democracy is a peculiarly North American misconception. Almost all countries hold elections of some sort. Only a handful can be considered to be genuinely democratic.
Nevertheless in Washington supreme confidence exists that holding elections represents the best milestone-marking movement on
the road to democracy. In the case of Haiti, the interim government of designated prime minister Gerard Latortue has been haemorrhaging public confidence like a decapitated chicken on the run. Elections driven more by political desperation than intelligent design are not, however, the panacea for Haiti.
The problems of Haiti are threefold. It is poor and economically undeveloped. It lacks a strong civil society. And its political culture is virtually non-existent. All three problems are intimately connected and that is the bad news.
Haiti is dismally poor, with about 80 per cent of its people living below the poverty line. With a population of almost eight million, Haiti has more than three times the population of Jamaica. Its area of 10, 714 square miles makes it more than two and one-half times the size of Jamaica. In all the basic indices that measure social and economic well-being Haiti falls far behind Jamaica.
The Gross Domestic Product per capita in Haiti amounts to merely US$1,600
, or about one-third the figure for Jamaica. The unemployment rate exceeds 65 per cent of the labour force. The country exported a mere US$321 million worth of products in 2003, about one-seventh of the exports of Jamaica. Haiti also imported far more goods proportional to the value of its exports than its neighbouring island. Jamaica has about 6,000 more motor vehicles than Haiti and more than 18,700 miles of road compared to Haiti's 4,160 miles for a far larger geographical area.
Other statistics on Haiti are equally dismal. The illiteracy rate hovers around 50 per cent compared with Jamaica's 15 per cent. Haiti has roughly four television sets per thousand people compared with 306 in Jamaica, and 80,000 legal internet users versus more than 600,000 in Jamaica. The life expectancy in Haiti is 50 years and 73 years for Jamaica.
Political stability has continually evaded Haiti since 1804 when it became a free state. At present, there is a deep thirst for political expression reflected in the l
arge number of active political parties. These include Fanmi Lavalas (Lavalas Family) the party founded by ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the National Front for Change and Democracy, the National Congress of Democratic Movements, the Movement for the Installation of Democracy in Haiti, the Haitian Christian Democratic Party, and the National Progressive Revolutionary Party. These parties, however, all lack broad popular support and, given Haiti's tragic political history, any track record of open political participation. In any case, political legitimacy is hard to establish without common allegiance to the rule of law, and that is manifestly absent in Haiti today.
Holding elections in Haiti will be no easy accomplishment. Early in 2005 the Organisation of American States proposed spending more than US$22 million to support the Haitian electoral council. The goal was to set up hundreds of voter registration stations around the country. Voter registration was hampered, however, by the fact that s
ome 40 per cent of Haitians have no birth certificates. Moreover, the plan to use American-made electronic voter machines disregarded the scarce and unreliable supply of electricity in most communities.
Can Haiti then be saved? Of course it can. More important, it should. The international agencies, led by the Caribbean states, are vital to any permanent change in Haiti, but they should have their priorities straightened out. Elections should not be the top priority. Building a sound economic and social base should be. The foremost Haitian needs are in education, the police force, and poverty relief. The money devoted to elections should be directed to building schools, health centres and roads as well as training a police force.
Those are the basic needs. The country should be entirely disarmed, a task that would require boosting the United Nations armed forces and possibly supplementing that with recruits from the Caribbean states. That would be a signal effort in good neighbourliness.
nHaitian exile communities in North America and Europe can provide the basis for civilian reconstruction, not just for employment in the political process. Just as Cubans are helping out with medical personnel, the Caricom states should help train Haitian teachers, bureaucrats and the police. Haiti should be as much a regional responsibility as an international one. Helping to rebuild Haiti is a long-term engagement. But it would be worth it in the long run, not just for Haitians but for the entire Caribbean. After all, the success of Haiti should be important for all Caribbean states.[/quote]
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