02/01/2013 05:42 pm ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

Can Democracy Work in Haiti?

Thirty-seven years ago this week, Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier relinquished the presidency under international pressure and fled to France.

Duvalier, "Baby Doc" as he was known, had spent the previous fifteen years repressing the press and political opposition, misappropriating public funds and foreign aid, and creating a climate a fear through torture and executions. Haiti has been mired in instability ever since.

Meanwhile a few hundred miles to the north, the United States was a year away from celebrating the bicentennial of its celebrated Constitution, a symbol of democracy that historian George Billias calls "this country's greatest gift to human freedom" and that people around the world have used as model for designing constitutions of their own.

Yet Haiti and the United States trace their history to shared beginnings.

Both Haiti and the United States fought revolutions against dominant empires, the United States against the British from 1775 to 1783, and Haiti against the French from 1792 to 1804. Their revolutions led both to independence, the United States declaring its independence in 1776 and Haiti declaring its own in 1804.

Both Haiti and the United States made revolutionary generals their nation's first chief executive: George Washington was appointed America's first president in 1789 and Toussaint L'Ouverture was named Haiti's first governor in 1801. And both Haiti and the United States were among the first countries in the world to adopt a written constitution, the United States in 1787 and Haiti in 1801.

The parallels sadly end there. America has grown into the world's most prosperous and admired democracy while Haiti has become one of the world's least prosperous nations and most dysfunctional states.

The obvious question to ask is why.

Part--if not all--of the answer relates to race. As a former slave colony, Haiti had more sinister obstacles standing in the way of its success. The most devastating, and indeed the one to which many scholars attribute Haiti's retarded economic development, was the debt of reparations France imposed on Haiti in exchange for its independence. France insisted on compensation for its loss of slave-generated income as well as the goods and property that Haitians had reclaimed from the French. Pay us, France demanded, or we will deny you international recognition, blockade your ports and embargo your goods.

Haiti had no choice. It agreed to pay the debt, which amounted to roughly $25 billion in today's dollars, a disastrous blow to a country whose 2012 GDP was less than $12.5 billion.

The burden of this enormous debt therefore crippled Haiti at the time when the nation and its people needed those resources most. It took over a century for Haiti to pay off its independence debt. By then, the fate of the nation may have been sealed.

One part of the answer, then, is race. But another part may relate to the design of democracy itself.

The United States Constitution was one of the first of its kind. It established a representative federal government constrained by the separation of powers, an independent judiciary armed with the power of judicial review, and a bill of rights with bite. This system frustrates the abuse of governmental power, establishes structural safeguards against the rise of dictatorship, and promotes freedom by creating strong and autonomous branches of government.

In contrast, the first Haitian Constitution established a version of the imperial and monarchist model of government against which Haitians had rebelled to win their freedom. Unlike the separation of powers that characterizes the United States Constitution, the Haitian Constitution concentrated governmental powers in the hands of Haiti's military general, Toussaint L'Ouverture. There were few checks on his power, few structural safeguards, and even fewer independent public institutions. All of these are generally thought to be indispensable to the creation of democracy.

The first Haitian Constitution named L'Ouverture governor for life. He was given the power to name his own successor, in secrecy and in a sealed envelope that would not be opened until his death. L'Ouverture was therefore authorized by the Constitution to bypass the democratic norm of having his appointments vetted or confirmed in some way by another individual, institution, or branch of government. The Constitution also conferred upon L'Ouverture the exclusive power to propose, promulgate and to enforce laws. He was given command of the nation's armed forces and control over the state's finances. It is no surprise that Haiti's first Constitution came to be known as "Toussaint's Constitution."

Haiti's second Constitution was not much different. It conferred similar powers upon Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the military general who replaced L'Ouverture after L'Ouverture had been deported to France. Many of Haiti's subsequent constitutions also actually or effectively created military rule, hereditary monarchy, or forms of benign dictatorship.

Some scholars have suggested that Haiti's past is a window into its future. They argue that the Haitian people have grown accustomed to non-democratic forms of government, whether authoritarian or militaristic.

Even before the founding of their nation, they say, Haitians never ruled themselves democratically. Haiti was a colonial possession under the French and Spanish empires, then an independent state under home military rule during and immediately following the Haitian Revolution, and since declaring its independence it has failed to establish itself as a functioning democracy. So, scholars posit, Haitians are used to non-democracy, and they would not know how to begin to establish democracy if even given the chance.

The proof, some argue, is the current Haitian Constitution, which looks a lot more like the United States Constitution than previous Haitian constitutions. Adopted in 1987 after the departure of Baby Doc, Haiti's current Constitution, like the United States Constitution, creates a representative government with separated powers, establishes an independent judiciary, and entrenches a bill of rights. Yet achieving true democracy in Haiti has nonetheless seemed as improbable as ever before. Today it ranks with the likes of Egypt, Iraq, and Burundi in The Economist's Democracy Index.

I hope these scholars are wrong.

There are other plausible explanations why democracy has not yet taken root in Haiti. Perhaps, as other scholars have argued, economic growth is a condition precedent to democracy. With Haiti's economy on life support for so much of its history and still today, this could explain why Haiti is not yet a democracy.

Haiti's problems may also be a result of nature. As natural disasters have continued to strike Haiti at record pace and intensity, Haiti has had to spend its time rebuilding after ruin, cleaning up after catastrophe, burying its departed, and has therefore been kept from turning to the task of building democracy. It could also be that corruption in Haiti is growing, not declining, and that those in power do not have the best interest of the nation at heart.

And the Haitian Constitution itself may also be relevant to why democracy is still struggling in Haiti. Democracy requires more than a constitution. A constitutional text cannot by itself compel individuals to abide by the law or create within them the willingness to do the right thing.

The world is replete with examples of sham constitutions--constitutions that promise much but deliver next to nothing in terms of actually protecting human rights and civil liberties, structuring the functioning of government, and fostering civic engagement.

The point is that a constitutional text is meaningless without a political culture that respects the rule of law and abides by it. Perhaps, on this theory, the Haitian Constitution is more show than substance, and Haitians have yet to afford it the kind of public reverence that Americans afford their own constitution. The faith Americans have in the United States Constitution is a big part of the reason why democracy has grown so strong in the United States.

The Haitian Constitution cannot create democracy in Haiti. But it can reinforce it. And it can do that only if Haiti's leaders first foster a political culture within which the constitutional text can become a real promise of human rights and an effective check on their own power.