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  • Haiti’s Flagging Transition
  • Jean-Germain Gros (bio)

Nearly three years after a U.S.-led military force restored the democratically elected government of Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the debacle that many had predicted would follow international intervention has not come about. Haiti is far from the hell that it was under the Duvalier dynasty (1957-86) and the murderous military regime of coup leaders Raoul Cédras and Michel François (1991-94). Yet prospects for the consolidation of democracy in the world’s oldest black republic remain highly uncertain, and the gains made since 1994 appear to be slipping away.

The local elections held in April 1997 drew a turnout of no more than 10 percent. 1 The second round of this balloting was postponed amid charges of fraud and partiality, and as of September 1997 had not yet been rescheduled. 2 The government of President René Préval, in office since February 1996, cannot get its programs through parliament. That body often fails to reach a quorum and acts capriciously when it does, even though most of its seats are held by members of the president’s Lavalas movement. 3 The judiciary is in shambles; corrupt and illiterate judges litter the bench. Meanwhile, a police force of 5,200 lightly armed and inexperienced officers is being asked to provide security in a country with seven million people and a long history of political instability and violence. 4

What lies behind the apparent unraveling of democratic efforts in Haiti? Many observers would nominate the country’s political culture as the cause. But arguments based on political culture as an independent variable all too often lead to a dead end. Once it is noted that a [End Page 94] country’s political culture is undemocratic, or that its history of ignorance, poverty, and oppression renders democracy problematic, what else is there to say?

This essay acknowledges the importance of culture, but it also recognizes that culture does not exist in a vacuum: It shapes institutions, to be sure, but it is also shaped by them. Democracy-resistant political cultures can be made less so by institutional innovation. Culture is not fate. It does not condemn people to live in a perpetual state of servitude and repression, but can be changed by institutional arrangements and the right mix of incentives and disincentives.

When Haiti is viewed through this lens, four concrete causes of democracy’s troubles leap into focus. They are: 1) the 1987 Constitution; 2) weaknesses within the party system, especially the ruling Lavalas coalition; 3) continued economic stagnation; and 4) the “failed” nature of the Haitian state. By examining the Haitian drama from this institutional standpoint, we avoid entrapment in a pseudo-logic of historical and cultural determinism that would cast the Haitian people, traumatized and “zombified” by two centuries of misrule, as incapable of enlightened self-government. 5

A Tumultuous Decade

In order to understand the workings of these concrete, institutional causes, it is important to know something of recent Haitian history. Haiti’s democratic transition began on 7 February 1986, when dictator-for-life Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) Duvalier flew into exile in France on a U.S. military cargo plane. This event was the culmination of a brief and loosely organized resistance movement against the Duvalier dynasty centered around the Roman Catholic Church and the tiléglize (a Creole term, from the French petites églises, meaning small, independent churches inclined toward liberation theology). The departure of Baby Doc, however, did not spell the end of Duvalierist corruption and repression. The dictator was allowed to handpick the members of the junta that was to replace him. Only one person from the prodemocracy camp was chosen, and he soon quit in disgust.

The transition was left in the none-too-solicitous hands of the Haitian armed forces. Modernized by the Americans during their occupation (1915-34), the military had always acted as both referee and player in Haitian politics, sometimes deciding which civilian leader would sit in the president’s chair, and at others taking the “throne” itself. In the early 1960s, Jean-Claude’s father, the dictator François (“Papa Doc”) Duvalier, created a counterweight...