Seven months after the tragic Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti is at last on the path to reconstruction. Thanks to a substantial flood of assistance, with billions of dollars more promised, the minimal needs of the Haitian people are finally being met. Yet the pace of recovery is painfully slow.
The United States and the world have their sights set upon on a Haiti-owned process for building a new, sustainable, productive island nation. Yet in a country where 80 percent of the populace lives on less than $2 a day and where hundreds of thousands live in tents, rough sketches of a better future are still on the drawing boards.
Haiti’s future depends on how well its people can preserve political patience, mobilize massively to succeed and steer an essentially reformist course. A better Haiti requires sustained cooperation between rich, middle class and poor.
It also requires an ability to work with the complex maze of international bodies: the United Nations, non-governmental organizations, and key donors like Brazil, Canada, France and the United States.
Generally idealistic, sometimes cynical and always bureaucratic, this patchwork of forces provides the safety net that keeps Haiti from falling into the abyss. Without sustained international support, Haiti will collapse.
Elections on Nov. 28 offer the chance to select post-earthquake leadership with a mandate to build a new Haiti. They also pose a risk that political divisions will further fracture the nation.
Thus far, more than three dozen potential candidates say they will contest the presidency. The hopefuls range from hip-hop star Wyclef Jean to Yvon Neptune, an ally of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Electoral experts point out the fact that conditions in post-earthquake Haiti present immense registration and polling challenges.
One leader, currently removed from the Haitian scene, could easily make the devastated country again ungovernable.
The controversial Aristide is viewed as a pivotal Haitian political figure. His machinations and incendiary leadership led to his ouster in February 2004 following a rapid disintegration of public order.
Still viewed as a hero of the left, Aristide is in exile in South Africa. He is still considered to be the leader of his Fanmi Lavalas — the Flood party — currently barred from participating in the November elections.
The return of Aristide’s surrogates in Lavalas could easily trigger a new round of polarizing and violent politics. It could wreck the delicate process of rebuilding Haiti by unleashing suppressed anger and a desire for revenge.
Certainly Lavalas’ return to politics is supported by the American and international left. They consistently view Haiti and Aristide as victims, endlessly subjected to sinister forces from racial discrimination to capitalist exploitation. In the left’s book, Haiti remains a morality play between haves and have-nots, between privilege and social justice, with the United States and the West cast in the role of bad guys.
By opening old wounds and appealing to class politics, Lavalas candidates would trigger a sadly predictable chain of consequences.
Promising to remake Haiti from the bottom up, they would resort to land seizures, punitive taxes, and other draconian measures certain to trample rule of law, property rights and individual liberties.
Radicalization would spook foreign investors, leaving Haiti even more dependent on foreign assistance.
An Aristide-influenced Lavalas government would likely turn to Venezuela’s populist authoritarian Hugo Chavez to provide sufficient assistance — drawing it into his radical, anti-American camp. The 2009 removal of Honduras’ populist President Manuel Zelaya demonstrates where Chavez-led polarization can take a nation.
The United States cannot prevent the Haitian people from moving ahead with the Nov. 28 elections. It cannot say which candidate is right for Haiti.
It must state frankly, however, that it does not wish to see a fragile Haiti once more unraveled by the politics of division and hatred. It can send a clear signal that the return of Aristide’s Lavalas party would not be welcomed.
Ray Walser is a senior foreign policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Deseret News