Passing Milestones: Political and Economic Renewal in Haiti

Article excerpt

IN OCTOBER 1994, democracy returned to Haiti and our nation moved from death to life. As the guns were silenced and the rule of law restored, Haitians poured into the streets to celebrate freedom and their renewed opportunity to participate in the democratic life of the nation. With the inauguration of a new president in February, Haiti passed a second milestone: for the first time in its history, Haiti experienced a peaceful transition from one democratically-elected head-of-state to another. For 200 years, power transfers occurred when an individual or group seized rule from an equally illegitimate regime. But 10 years to the day that Jean-Claude Duvalier fled Haiti, the nation's second democratically-elected president took office, demonstrating that Haiti's move to democracy is irreversible.

Despite these achievements, the Haitian people know that the success of democracy is measured not only by elections but also by the degree to which a democratic government responds to the needs of its people. Today the Haitian people are asking for the establishment of a state of law, justice, jobs, food, literacy, education, health care, and an end to corruption within the state. To meet these needs Haiti must complete the process of building a state of law and bring to justice those who violated human rights during the coup regime. Moving beyond political and legal reform, the nation must also remove economic and social barriers which keep the majority of Haitians in abject poverty. And finally the nation must institutionalize the participation of the people in the governance of the nation.

The coup d'etat of September 1991 was a brutal attempt to silence the voices of the Haitian people and to reinstate oppressive power structures. For three years the Haitian people stubbornly resisted. Those in power responded with a massive campaign of violence, which claimed over 5,000 lives, forced 300,000 people into hiding, and forced another 100,000 individuals to flee by boat.

Despite this unrelenting use of state violence, the coup leaders could not govern the nation. The failure of the coup regime to consolidate its power demonstrated a crisis within the traditional structure of Haitian society, which had historically always been able to maintain control through force. For three years Haitians welcomed the embargo, struggled for change, and finally fled when other options proved untenable. This resistance spurred the international community to act in support of their quest for democracy and human rights.

With the restoration of democracy, Haitians finally attained the opportunity to dismantle the system of repression that had impeded national development for two centuries. Since its inception, the Haitian army had been the primary instrument of that repression. Under the rule of the coup regime, the 7,000-man army pilfered 40 percent of the national budget while the state failed to provide basic health care or education. The army, a source of internal repression, had never once served its purported mission of national defense. When I returned to the country in October 1994, the Haitian army was so despised by the population it had brutalized that soldiers found it difficult to walk the streets of Port-au-Prince in their uniforms.

Popular sentiment, expressed through demonstrations and graffiti, called for the complete dismantlement of the army. My government responded to this desire with both speed and caution by first retiring the majority of the officers and then demobilizing most of the soldiers. The final step, the legal dissolution of the Haitian army, was left to the parliament. In a symbolic demonstration of our break with the past, we transformed the former army headquarters into the newly formed Ministry of Women. The building in which several past coups originated now serves to give women a larger forum within the government.

The dismantling of the army has cleared the way for the establishment of a state of law and for the construction of an independent judicial system. …