The Foreign Service Journal, November 2006

to remain to help Haiti build stronger government insti- tutions, after helping to organize the presidential and par- liamentary elections. This positive international attitude spurred a new sense of optimism in Haiti, but it did not alter conditions on the ground. Frequently cited as an example of a failed and possibly ungovernable state, Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and among the poor- est in the world. Two-thirds of its eight million citizens live in abject poverty, while half of the adult population is illiterate. Haitian society is deeply divided between a small, well-educated, affluent and French-speaking elite and a large, uneducated, Creole-speaking, peasant popu- lation. The country ranks 153rd of 177 in the latest edi- tion of the U.N. Human Development Report , which com- bines measures of income, life expectancy, school enroll- ment and literacy. The challenge facing President Préval is to translate good wishes and pledges of support into constructive gov- ernment programs that improve the livelihood of the Haitian people while laying the groundwork for sustained political and economic progress. His task will be made more difficult by a historical legacy that has overwhelmed earlier efforts to reform the country’s social, political and economic institutions. A Troubled Past After an auspicious beginning as a French colony, Haiti suffered two centuries of insurrection, dictatorship and economic decline. In 1790, exports of sugar and coffee made it the richest French colony in the New World. Haitian society was composed of 30,000 Europeans, an equal number of free “gens de couleur,” and a half-million African slaves. In 1804, a successful slave revolt spawned a new republic that was seen as a threat to the existing world order. European nations and the United States reacted by isolating Haiti, for fear its example would incite slave revolts elsewhere. International exclusion and eco- nomic disruption at home forced Haiti’s founding fathers to reinstate the old plantation system and a return to forced labor, instead of protecting emancipation by allow- ing small, inefficient land holdings. Despite ending slavery, the Haitian Revolution created a tradition of imperious leadership and a hierarchical social structure based on stark class and racial divides. The polarization of Haitian society excluded the vast majority of citizens from meaningful participation in the country’s political and economic life. Haiti’s serial consti- tutions enshrined the tradition of a single, all-powerful leader who monopolized power, and a predatory state that exploited rather than served the people. Social tensions have reinforced a history of violent change in national leadership; only two of Haiti’s 44 presidents completed their terms and left office voluntarily. Fortunately, one of these was President Préval, who previously served from 1996 to 2001. Préval’s predecessor, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was re- elected president in 2000 in elections marred by allega- tions of irregularities and low voter turnout. Less than 10 percent of the electorate voted, as opposition parties led a boycott to protest disputed parliamentary elections held earlier. In an atmosphere of worsening political crisis, Aristide’s second term was marked by increased criminal activity, allegations of public corruption and government failure to deliver services and invigorate the economy. In February 2004, armed rebels led by former soldiers seized Gonaives, Haiti’s fourth-largest city. As the rebels marched south toward Port-au-Prince, Aristide reportedly requested U.S. assistance in leaving the country. Yet upon arriving safely in the Central African Republic, Aristide claimed that he was “kidnapped,” a charge the U.S. strong- ly denies. To deal with the chaos that followed Aristide’s depar- ture, the U.N. authorized a peacekeeping force composed initially of U.S. Marines and French and Canadian forces to restore order. In accordance with the Haitian Consti- tution, the Supreme Court chief justice was sworn in as president on Feb. 29, 2004. A government of technocrats with no party affiliations led by Prime Minister Gerard la Tortue was installed, but failed to gain traction. On June 1, 2004, the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti assumed responsibility for security, although it took over a year for the full compliment of 8,000 troops and police to arrive. Under the interim government, Haiti continued to be plagued by gang violence, drug trafficking, social unrest and economic calamity. F O C U S 46 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / N O V E M B E R 2 0 0 6 Robert M. Perito is a senior program officer and director of the Haiti Working Group at the United States Institute of Peace. This article draws on views expressed by par- ticipants during the group’s meetings, which are held on a not-for-attribution basis. It does not necessarily reflect the position of the United States Institute of Peace, which does not advocate specific policies.