How Haiti can reclaim sovereignty

A recent article about the political situation in Haiti, among other things. I hope you’ll find this as interesting as we did. It was written by Landon Yarrington, from the


Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier returned to Haiti on Sunday 16 January, for the first time since being ousted from power in 1986, and his decision to return home has left many wondering. Rumours continue to circulate about what drew him home, but the question on many people’s minds now is, for someone as high-profile as Baby Doc, why hasn’t the Haitian government done more to bring him to justice?

In the year since the earthquake, the Haitian government has made a remarkable effort to demonstrate the rule of law. Last March, Laura Silsby and a handful of other Americans were indicted for a kidnapping scandal that drew international attention. More recently, Paul Waggoner, another US citizen, was incarcerated over allegations he kidnapped an injured earthquake victim. So why, people ask, hasn’t the Haitian government taken the gloves off and handled Duvalier the same way they prosecuted Silsby and Waggoner?

A different reading on the matter, though, might suggest that justice for Baby Doc’s crimes isn’t the only issue at stake here.

Haitian sovereignty has been contested, both from within and without, since the country’s independence in 1804. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, western meddling in Haitian affairs escalated to a number of flashpoints – chief among which was the US’s own invasion of Haiti in 1915. During the 19-year US occupation, nearly every executive decision in Haiti was made “in consultation” with American commissioners, who were usually selected more for their business savvy rather than governmental acumen. The occupation ended in 1934 with a visit from FDR and implementation of his “good neighbour” policy, but Haiti has remained home to a substantial American military, diplomatic and aid presence ever since.

Over the past 20 years, non-government organisations (NGOs) have increased by the thousands. In fact, Haiti has the highest per capita NGO presence in the world – earning it the title “a nation of NGOs”, emphasising the virtual substitution of the Haitian state by a non-profit Leviathan. With tens of thousands of non-state actors, the question of national sovereignty indeed looms large. Who runs Haiti? Is it the NGOs, the United Nations, or the government of Haiti?

In an effort to rein in the inflated NGO sector, the Haitian government instituted the ministry of planning and foreign coordination in 1989. NGOs working in Haiti must not only apply for 501(c)3 status in the US, but also register with the Haitian government and the MPCE. The process can be a lengthy one, involving frequent trips to the capital in Port-au-Prince, and is seen as a deterrent by many smaller groups – who ignore the system altogether. This is precisely what gets foreigners like Silsby and Waggoner in trouble.

For the thousands of unregistered groups who enter Haiti each year, theirs is a mission unbound by Haitian laws and “red tape”. I met one of these groups in northern Haiti last November. Mission Discovery is a Christian organisation that specialises in short-term mission work in Jamaica, Kenya, Haiti and other countries in the global south. For a nominal fee, participants get to spend a week or two painting churches, providing ESL seminars, or, less frequently, hosting mobile clinics. While well-intentioned, mission work like this hinders real progress in impoverished areas – it’s unsustainable, and unsustained – and tends to benefit the missionaries far more than the locals. Worse, it’s unaccountable.

After a rainy night, I happened on a dozen American Mission Discovery travellers tossing candy to Haitian schoolchildren in a muddy street. Parents who were looking on were appalled as their children became covered in filth on account of these foreign missionaries. A friend and I went over to tell the missionaries how inappropriate and offensive their behaviour was. We learned it was their first trip to the area.

The clamour drew the attention of the town mayor. I told the missionaries it would be good for them to speak to the mayor, but they couldn’t be bothered. Finally, I demanded they stop to introduce themselves. The two Mission Discovery leaders reluctantly agreed and greeted the mayor through an interpreter; the mayor, for his part, regretted not meeting the group sooner and asked why they hadn’t tried to see him first.

This may not seem as outrageous to some readers, but consider the analogy a friend made. Imagine a team of Cuban doctors deciding, uninvited, to open a hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, or a group of Canadian missionaries building an orphanage in New York after 11 September. How would the American public react to this? Would Americans interpret this as an act of saving grace – or an insulting violation of national sovereignty?

Interestingly, Haitians often say they are oblije, or compelled, to enter relationships with the thousands of registered and unregistered NGOs in their country. On one hand, they desperately need the services many of these groups provide; at the same time, they have no control over the terms or conditions according to which that “help” or “aid” gets doled out. It’s a case of “beggars can’t be choosers” writ large, and many Haitians feel they lose autonomy and pride in the whole exchange.

This is a scenario millions of Haitians encounter everyday, and the implications of it speak to the predicament the country now faces over Duvalier. The decision whether or not to prosecute Duvalier is an important synbolic way the Haitian government can assert sovereignty. Thus Haitian President René Préval has insisted charges will be brought: “Duvalier had the right to return to the country, but under the constitution he also must face justice.” In other words, Duvalier is a Haitian first, an alleged criminal second. He belongs to Haiti as both citizen and offender. Duvalier’s return offers the state a historic chance to pursue justice on its own terms and schedule, and in front of an international, if sceptical audience.

The same dynamic applies to ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose return to Haiti from exile in South Africa, many believe, would threaten political stability in the country. Préval is said to fear recrimination from Aristide, and has – until now – remained steadfast in denying him a chance to return, under pressure from France, Canada and the US, all of whom helped orchestrate his removal in the first place. Now, however, Préval is apparently offering his former mentor permission to come home.

One can only speculate why the Haitian government would even entertain the thought of allowing Duvalier or Aristide a homecoming, but it’s clear the decision is Haiti’s alone. Préval’s actions toward the two former leaders make a powerful statement about Haitian sovereignty. More than Duvalier’s fate or Aristide’s possible reappearance now rides on whether Haiti can assert its independence.

The link to the site with the article is here.


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