Haiti's New President: Welcome to the Toughest Job in the Americas

By Maguire, Robert | Americas Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Haiti's New President: Welcome to the Toughest Job in the Americas


Maguire, Robert, Americas Quarterly


The next five years are Haiti's moment to finally set its long-term development priorities.

After an election process that lasted almost a year and a half-and was marred by fraud and controversy- Haiti's new president, Michel Martelly, takes office in May. In the words of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, now United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, President Martelly will face the daunting task of "building back better."

The challenge is not just to tackle the sheer magnitude of destruction from the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Haiti has long been riddled with social, political and economic challenges that the earthquake magnified in the eyes of Haitians and the world. These challenges include a weak government hollowed out by limited resources and strained by crisis; inadequate social services highlighted by the recent cholera epidemic; and a history marked by social and political turmoil. Added to these have been the traumas of managing post-earthquake recovery and the unexpected and unsettling return of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier in January, followed soon after by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The country also faces the task of restoring legitimacy and trust in the electoral process. That challenge was underscored on November 28, 2010, by the controversial first round of the election to succeed President René Préval. Following a postelection period of street protests, complaints and challenges by candidates, and disquiet among international actors, Préval requested an investigation of the presidential vote count by a verification team under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The OAS concurred that no candidate had received an absolute majority of the votes required to avoid a run-off, but the team did not verify the preliminary results released by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). Instead, the OAS said that the government-backed candidate, Jude Célestin, did not qualify for the runoffand that the second round vote should be between Mirlande Manigat, a constitutional law professor, and Michel Martelly, an entertainer.

These daunting challenges mean that the new president will have a very short postelection honeymoon.

In addition to managing earthquake recovery and relations with international donors supporting that process, the new administration must respond to the needs and expectations of Haiti's people and move the country along a path of sustained poverty alleviation and decentralized economic growth.

It will also have to negotiate its way through the country's ever-volatile politics. The immediate priority will be working with the parliament- where opposition parties will hold the majority-to nominate and confirm a new prime minister. This person will fill the important role of cochair of the Interim Haitian Recovery Commission (IHRC), a mixed Haitian/international body created to coordinate post-quake recovery and development.

President Martelly will also have to manage relations with the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and determine how Haiti will manage safety and security once MINUSTAH leaves.

Without a doubt, reconstruction is the public sector's top priority. But the pace and scale of recovery remain slow. As of March 2011, only about 10 percent of rubble was removed. Roughly 750,000 Haitians displaced by the natural disaster remained in makeshiftshelters in and around Port-au-Prince, vulnerable to disease and sexual violence. Few steps have been taken toward meaningful decentralization.

And yet, assuming that the next president will have billions of dollars and widespread international support to lead the reconstruction effort and potentially set Haiti on the right track, the key question is: where to begin?

Restore Government Capacity

A Haitian prime minister told me in 2008 that he "was amazed to see from the inside just how badly corrupted and decimated our state institutions had become. …

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