Though Duvalier is Gone, Haiti Still Needs Help

By Mark Danner, Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley, The New York Times, 19 May 1986

In Haiti, as in many deeply troubled places, it was comforting to identify the national demons with one man, and to assume that his destruction would bring theirs. But three months have passed since the former President, Jean-Claude Duvalier, boarded a waiting United States Air Force jet and flew off to an opulent exile in France, and it has become sadly clear that building the new Haiti will be a slow and painful process—and one that the United States can do little to influence.

Mr. Duvalier bequeathed his country a weak interim Government—it is headed by the former Army chief of staff, Gen. Henri Namphy—that has spent the past three months struggling to wrest the political initiative from a newly vocal opposition. Some 60 people are already noisily campaigning to be President, but the Government has not yet set a date for elections. Seven people died during a demonstration April 26 in only the latest bloody confrontation between nervous soldiers and impatient civilians.

Mr. Duvalier has been brought down, but the forces that produced him remainstrong in Haiti, for what has come to be called, mistakenly, the revolution has as yet done little to alter them. Mr. Duvalier and his father, Francois Papa Doc Duvalier, were only the latest and worst of a lineage of rapacious men. For a century and a half, Government in Haiti meant little more than a mechanism to channel the country’s wealth and resources from the masses in the countryside to a tiny group of privileged in the cities, and politics was confined to struggles among them.

Mr. Duvalier’s departure did nothing to change the grim statistics that drag behind the country’s name like a ball and chain. Well over half of Haiti’s workers are unemployed. Eight of 10 Haitians are illiterate. Almost a third of Haitian children die before their fifth birthdays. Life expectancy is 53 years, per capita income $300. Once the richest colony in the world, Haiti is far the poorest country in the hemisphere and one of the poorest on earth.

The events that brought Mr. Duvalier down may properly be called a revolution only in the sense that they somehow gave birth to a mass of Haitians suddenly conscious of their power to influence rulers who had always been confident about ignoring them. Drawn from the ranks of the urban poor and recently organized into neighborhood committees often tied to the Roman Catholic Church, this new-found force marching in the streets frightened the established order and brought on a coup d’etat.

The regime seemed quite unable to deal with it in other than violent ways, and in a compromise mediated by the United States, Mr. Duvalier agreed to leave quietly on condition that his interests and those of his followers be protected. The Government that succeeded him was thus dominated by his supporters, and it managed in its first six weeks of power to spirit many of the old regime’s most hated criminals out of the country.

General Namphy has since been forced to sack the hard-line Duvalierists, but most Haitians still regard the Government with grave suspicion, and stand ready to take to the streets at the least provocation. The elite, meanwhile, deeply worried by the violent marches and recurrent strikes, demand that the Government maintain order. Its seeming inability to act has given currency to rumors of an imminent coup by hard-line Duvalierists in the army. The inexperienced soldiers running the Government are faced with the task of satisfying popular demands by means of a corrupt, inept system designed to do nothing of the kind.

Truly meaningful reform—elimination of trade monopolies, restructuring the tariff system, reform of the land-tenure system and enforcing the income tax laws—would entail cutting through deep encrustations of political privilege and challenging some very powerful people. It would also demand an administrative capacity the present Government clearly lacks: indeed, the entrenched bureaucrats themselves constitute the first line of resistance.

It is not for the United States to build a new Haiti, but we can help the interim Government by making it absolutely clear that we would oppose any Duvalierist effort to regain power. The United States justified its long support for Mr. Duvalier on the grounds that he provided stability, but if the events that brought him down prove anything, it is that stability throughrepression is no longer possible in Haiti. A right-wing coup would probably bring on the very bloodbath that his departure was meant to avert.

The United States can also help by creating new productive, private-sector jobs—Haiti’s most desperately needed commodity—by raising its textile quota. It should strongly support the Haitian Government’s own public-works program, and, where possible, work with the private sector to create jobs. This help, together with continued emergency food shipments and short-term credit, should be tied to specific, highly visible political reform.

The Namphy Government should be urged to promote what it callstransparency in public administration by making public the salaries of ministers and other officials. General Namphy and his ministers should make more and better use of the media—especially radio—in explaining their policies. Finally, Washington should continue to urge Port-au-Prince to announce at least a tentative date for national elections.

In Haiti, as elsewhere in Latin America, the United States’ concern for stability has often led to short-sighted policies. It is clear that stability in Haiti will come only when the legitimate aspirations of its people—for work, for a gradually improving standard of living and for some voice in how their country is run—are satisfied. The process has begun—haltingly, but unmistakably. It is in the United States’ interests to do what we can to see that this continues.