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Haiti Politics - 1957-2004

The decades that followed independence set a pattern that enshrined the use of violent force to achieve political objectives, punish political opponents, and ensure economic dominance by a tiny elite based in Port-au-Prince. Consequently, Haiti has never developed a civic culture -- widespread acceptance of the rule of law and institutions strong enough to enforce laws and legal decisions -- to replace the exercise of violence as a means to political power. Haiti has faced considerable instability deriving from a potent amalgam of factors, including deep poverty, social vulnerability, food insecurity, environmental degradation, HIV/AIDS, drug trafficking, organized crime, and institutional weaknesses of the Haitian government.

Although François Duvalier came to power through elections in 1957, he lost all credibility because of a fraudulent re-election in 1961, a rigged referendum in 1964 that confirmed him as Haiti's president for life, and the severe and unrelenting repression he dealt out, primarily through the Volunteers for National Security (Volontaires de la Sécurité Nationale--VSN), or tonton makouts (bogeymen). Duvalier ("Papa Doc") extended his illegitimate rule beyond his death by naming his son JeanClaude ("Baby Doc") as his successor.

Jean-Claude Duvalier came to power in 1971, under the informal regency of his mother, Simone Ovide Duvalier, and a small inner circle of Duvalierists. As Jean-Claude matured and began to assert his power independently of his mother and her advisers, some minor reforms in Haitian life took place. By the late 1970s, Jean-Claude had restored some freedom of the press and had allowed the formation of fledgling opposition political parties as well as the organization of a human rights league. This brief period of liberalization, however, ended with the arrest and the expulsion of a number of union leaders, journalists, party activists, and human-rights advocates in November 1980.

New outbreaks of popular unrest shattered Duvalier's plans, however, and he was eventually forced into exile in February 1986. The popular revolt, known in Creole as operation déchoukaj (operation uprooting), sought to destroy the foundations of Duvalierism. Its strikes and mass demonstrations reflected the Duvalier regime's general loss of support.

From February 7, 1986 -- when the 29-year dictatorship of the Duvalier family ended -- until 1991, Haiti was ruled by a series of provisional governments. In March 1987, a constitution was ratified that provides for an elected, bicameral parliament; an elected president that serves as head of state; and a prime minister, cabinet, ministers, and supreme court appointed by the president with parliament's consent. The Haitian Constitution also provides for political decentralization through the election of mayors and administrative bodies responsible for local government.

Haiti is a land with too many people for the remaining natural resources. Its forests have been cut down and its topsoil washed into the sea. To the outside world, its name has become synonymous with "boat people" and voodoo. It is a land of hunger, poverty, pride, and beauty. Haiti is acknowledged as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

On one side are the vast majority of citizens, mostly poor and poorly educated, who have traditionally been denied participation in the political, economic, and social decisions which affect their lives; they have been the primary targets of government-ordered or government-supported violence. On the other side are the groups that participated in the Duvalier political system and benefited from its repression of the disenfranchised majority. These include land holders who have used the political system to gain control of Haiti's limited supply of fertile land; business owners who have benefited from a submissive work force and enjoyed monopoly control over various segments of the country's economy; and armed soldiers, section chiefs, militia, and Tontons Macoutes who wish to retain the trappings of their power and fear the accountability for past abuses that a new political order might impose on them.

In December 1990, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a charismatic Roman Catholic priest, won 67% of the vote in a presidential election that international observers deemed largely free and fair. Aristide took office on February 7, 1991, but was overthrown that September in a violent coup led by dissatisfied elements of the army and supported by many of the country's economic elite. Following the coup, Aristide began a 3-year exile in the US. Several thousand Haitians may have been killed during the de facto military rule. The coup contributed to a large-scale exodus of Haitians by boat. The U.S. Coast Guard rescued a total of 41,342 Haitians at sea during 1991 and 1992, more than the number of rescued boat people from the previous 10 years combined.

The United States led a U.N.-sponsored multinational force to the country in 1994. The mission was to get Haiti's military dictatorship to step down and restore to power Haiti's constitutionally elected government - led by President Jean- Bertrand Aristide. The United States sent 20,000 troops to Haiti to restore Mr. Aristide to power after he was ousted by a coup. On Sept. 19, 1994, with U.S. troops already airborne, Haitian military dictator Gen. Raul Cedras and other top leaders agreed to step down. The intervening force, became an overseeing force and more than 21,000 service members from a number of countries helped with the restoration of the constitutional government. Aristide and other elected officials in exile returned to Haiti Oct. 15.

Haiti's political leaders failed to come to agreement on a prime minister and failed to resolve the contested April 1997 elections. That crisis turned from bad to worse when the parliament voted in November 1998 to extend its own term and President Preval responded by refusing to recognize the decision. A constitutional crisis erupted in January 1999 when President Preval refused to recognize the vote and announced he would rule by electoral decree. The parliament responded by charging Preval with trying to rule as a dictator. Haiti had been without a prime minister since June 1997, and the parliament had failed to ratify a successor. Eventually, the dispute was resolved after negotiations between an informal group of political parties called the Espace de Concertation.

Political instability grew throughout fall 2003. On February 29, 2004 Aristide submitted his resignation as President of Haiti and flew on a chartered plane to the Central African Republic. Boniface Alexandre, President (chief justice) of Haiti's Supreme Court, assumed office as interim President in accordance with Haiti's constitution. On recommendation from the Council of Elders, the President chose Gerard Latortue as interim Prime Minister.




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