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Haiti: In the Kingdom of Impunity

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There are many striking sights to be seen in Haiti today. In the north of the country, where over 200 years ago a revolt of slaves began that would eventually topple French rule, a 45-minute journey on a smooth road traverses the distance between the border with the Dominican Republic and Haiti's second largest city, Cap-Haïtien, replacing what used to be a multi-hour ordeal. From Cap-Haïtien itself, a city buzzing with economic activity, travel to Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, could previously be a 10-hour odyssey, but is now accomplished in around 5 hours via a comfortable air-conditioned bus. Once the traveler arrives in Port-au-Prince itself -- a city which, along with its environs, was largely devastated by a January 2010 earthquake -- one finds, startlingly, functioning traffic lights, street lights powered by solar panels and armies of apron-clad workers diligently sweeping the sidewalks and gutters of what has historically been the filthy fiefdom of Haiti's myriad of warring political factions. To the south, in the colonial city of Jacmel, which sheltered the South American revolutionary Simón Bolívar at a critical time during his struggle to break South America free from the yoke of Spain, one of the most pleasant malecóns in the Caribbean has been built, facing the tumbling sea and mountains sloping dramatically in the distance.

But perhaps no scene in the new Haiti -- governed since May 2011 by President Michel Martelly, now assisted by Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe, a former telecommunications mogul -- was as striking as that which occurred in the northern city of Gonaives on January 1st of this year. There, at an annual ceremony marking Haiti's independence, President Martelly, who in a previous incarnation was known as Sweet Micky and was perhaps the best-known purveyor of Haiti's sinuous konpa music, greeted on the official dais none other than Jean-Claude Duavlier, who ruled Haiti as a dictator from 1971 until 1986, and fled the country amid pillaging of the state and gross human rights abuses.

"Despite everything that has happened in the last 30 years, it is as if they want us to return to the situation that existed before February 7, 1986," says Laënnec Hurbon, Haiti's most well-known sociologist, referring to the date of Duvalier's departure.

Duvalier had taken over from his dictator-father, François Duvalier, a psychopath who lorded over a terrifying police state since 1957, and had created the infamous Tontons Macoutes, denim-clad paramilitary henchmen.

The younger Duvalier was only 19 when he ascended to office, but he grew into the role soon enough. In a speech in October 1977 -- the 20th anniversary of his father's assumption of the presidency -- the 24 year-old Jean-Claude Duvalier gave a speech in which he heralded the advent of "Jean-Claudism," supposedly a liberalizing trend in Duvalierism that would foster economic development. The near-fatal beating of a prominent government critic, Pastor Luc Nerée, only weeks later gave a flavor for how limited that liberalization would be. Fort Dimanche, a Port-au-Prince prison, during the Duvaliers' reign became known as the Dungeon of Death for the thousands of government opponents and other unfortunate souls who perished there.

In a landmark decision last month, a Haitian court ruled that Duvalier could be tried for crimes against humanity and for abuses committed by security forces during his rule, but deferred a decision as to whether he could be tried on various corruption charges.

"The Duvalier decision is a little victory against impunity and corruption," says Pierre Espérance, director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains (RNDDH), Haiti's most well-known human rights organization. "But we still have a lot of work to do."

Along with several other organizations, RNDDH is a member of the Collectif contre l'impunité, a coalition of groups advocating for legal action against Duvalier.

Duvalier is far from the only Haitian politician with a trial potentially in his future. The former boy dictator, now grown gray and sallow in old age, returned to Haiti in January 2011 in the midst of the contentious vote that saw Martelly elected. He was followed by another former president, and arch-rival, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

During his 2001 to 2004 second turn in office and immediately preceding it, Aristide was accused of, among other misdeeds, arming and organizing paramilitary youth groups known as chimeres, presiding over brutal collective reprisals by his security forces against the rebellious city of Gonaives, and a ghastly massacre in the town of Saint-Marc in February 2004, the latter killings by a combination of police, security personnel from Aristide's National Palace and allied street gangs having claimed at least 27 lives. In recent testimony presented in a Haitian court, Aristide was also accused of orchestrating the April 2000 murder of Jean Dominique, the country's most well-known journalist. Two separate bodies -- the Unite Centrale de Renseignements Financiers (UCREF) and the Commission d'Enquete Administrative -- that examined financial irregularities from Aristide's time as Haiti's president found that "Aristide's government illegally pumped at least $21 million of his country's meager public funds into private firms that existed only on paper and into his charities."

Nor can those tasked with checking the power of the executive branch be viewed with great confidence, with Haiti's legislative branch of government often resembling a prison more than a parliament.

Two members of Haiti's lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, Rodriguez Séjour and N'Zounaya Bellange Jean-Baptiste (who as parliamentarians enjoy immunity from prosecution), have been credibly accused of involvement of the April 2012 murder of Haitian police officer Walky Calixte, but both men remain free with apparent little fear of trial or even arrest. In the slain policeman's Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Carrefour, mournful graffiti still reads Adieu, Walky. Another deputy, fierce Martelly critic Arnel Belizaire, is alleged by the government to have managed to get himself elected despite the fact that he was a fugitive who had broken out of jail a few years before. (What is beyond debate is that Belizaire is prone to bouts of physical violence in the parliament itself).

One of President Martelly's chief advisers, Calixte Valentin, was identified as being responsible for the killing of a merchant named Octanol Dérissaint in the town of Fonds-Parisien, near the border with the Dominican Republic, in April 2012. Valentin was never tried for the crime and remains a free man to this day.

It is amid such a discordant background - foreign investment flooding into the country as never before in terms of tourist initiatives and industrial parks even as Haiti's politic milieu remains deeply dysfunctional - that long-delayed legislative elections for two-thirds of the country's senate, the entire chamber of deputies, and local and municipal officials such as mayors are scheduled to take place in October. Several political parties have not as-yet signed on to the electoral plan.

"There are a few parties who chose not to participate, but it was an open process," says Carl Alexandre, Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known by its acronym MINUSTAH. "It is our hope that those who didn't participate initially will want to join as the process unfolds, because the alternative is unthinkable. If the elections are not held this year, in January there will not be a functioning parliament. There will be no one there."

(The UN mission in Haiti has had its own issues with impunity. A cholera epidemic, all-but-certainly introduced by Nepalese peacekeepers, has killed over 8,000 people in the country, but the UN has claimed immunity from any damages.)

Around the country, the Martelly-Lamothe government seems to remain broadly popular, with one moto taxi driver plying Port-au-Prince's dusty Route de Freres telling me "they are working well for Haiti," a sentiment I heard often in my travels around the country. This despite the fact that -- from the crowds in Gonaives chanting "Martelly for 50 years!" to the huge billboards around the country bearing Martelly's image (in violation of Article 7 of Haiti's constitution, which bans "effigies and names of living personages" from "currency, stamps, seals, public buildings, streets or works of art") -- the government seems to have by no means entirely abandoned the realpolitik of Haiti's past. As they once did for Aristide, graffiti slogans around Port-au-Prince laud the bèl ekip (beautiful team) of Martelly-Lamothe.

Haiti's economy is indeed moving -- even roaring -- forward, but the old need for a mechanism for crime and punishment of the country's powerful keeps knocking on Haiti's door, unbidden, perhaps unwanted, but there nonetheless. In a marriage of impunity and economy, perhaps the echoes of Jean-Claudism do not appear so distant after all.

"We are talking about the situation of impunity that has been the rule since François Duvalier came to power in 1957, and something has to be done to stop that," says Sylvie Bajeux, director of the Centre Œcuménique des droits humains (CEDH), who also served as one of the officials who investigated Aristide's alleged financial misdeeds. Like RNDDH, the CEDH is a member of the Collectif contre l'impunité. "If we don't, we are going nowhere, we cannot talk about reconstruction."

"Jean-Claude Duvalier's case has become the symbol for the need to put an end to impunity," Bajeux says. "He's being charged with monstrous deeds. So what is going to happen? What happens with Duvalier's case is something that will affect the whole future of this country, one way or another."