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A return to dictatorship or a Haitian Spring?

Michel Martelly

Haiti's President Martelly is increasingly unpopular. www.GlynLowe.com under a Creative Commons Licence

Haiti’s political system is in turmoil. Years of failure by the Michel Martelly regime to hold elections have left nearly all the seats in the government empty and Martelly essentially ruling by decree. Tens of thousands of people have been taking to the streets in weekly demonstrations since November, facing teargas and rubber bullets from police and UN troops. They are demanding the resignation of the president and the removal of UN forces, which they view as an imperialist occupation.

The parliament stopped sitting on 13 January after the terms of all but 10 members of the Senate and all of the lower house expired. The last parliamentary elections were in 2010 and Senate elections were due in May 2012. Municipal elections are also three years behind schedule. The situation is the result of a bitter stalemate between the government and the opposition over a law to administer elections, an intractable situation which plays into the hands of Martelly. Elections were due to be held on 26 October 2014 and the failure to hold a poll ignited the mass protests.

The demonstrations’ most tangible success has been the resignation of Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe on 14 December. Since then, and with the dissolution of the government in January, there has been a major escalation, with a general strike and a transport strike in February leaving the entire country paralysed for days at a time. The public sector has been on strike since 13 January to demand back-payment of their salary arrears, and students have gone on strike demanding that their teachers be paid.

The date parliament was dissolved was ironically the fifth anniversary of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country, killing an estimated 220,000 people and leaving more than 1.5 million homeless. As of September 2014, over 85,000 people were still living in tent camps and around 300,000 in slums on the outskirts of the capital, Port au Prince. There is widespread anger at the development model that has been pursued by the Martelly government and international community following the quake, with development aid money going to build luxury hotels for rich tourists despite hundreds of thousands still living in tents and shacks. Of the $1.5 billion of USAID grants and contracts for the development of Haiti, only one per cent went directly to Haitian organizations.

The devastation of the quake was further compounded by a major cholera epidemic, caused by infected sewage from the UN military base into the country’s main river. As of 4 August 2013, 669,396 cases and 8,217 deaths had been recorded. The UN has failed to take full responsibility for the epidemic and has refused to pay any compensation to victims, despite numerous lawsuits.

Martelly is no stranger to electoral controversy. He came to power after elections which excluded the country’s most popular party, Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas. The majority of Haitians boycotted the vote and Martelly polled third. The first candidate was rejected after Martelly alleged electoral fraud. His inclusion in the run-off vote was orchestrated by the international community. An Organization of American States ‘expert’ mission stepped in, recounted a portion of the ballots and selected Martelly for second place using a methodology that was strongly disputed by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, which conducted its own independent election report. The run-off elections were, again, not without incident: three campaign workers for his opponent, Mirlande Manigat, were murdered during the campaign.

Martelly follows in the shoes of dictator Francois Duvalier, who came to power in 1957 and remained president until 1971, after declaring himself ‘President for Life’. He was succeeded by his son, Jean Claude Duvalier. Martelly has links to the Duvalierist far-right of the 1980s and 1990s, and with the leaders of the military coup that ousted the leftwing Aristide. He was a member of Duvalier’s infamous hit squad, the Tonton Macoutes, in his youth, a group responsible for the deaths and torture of Duvalier’s political opponents.

The recent political uprising in Haiti has shown that the revolutionary spirit remains in a country that gained its independence from colonialism in 1804 following a historic and bloody slave revolt. International intervention was responsible for the coup that ousted Aristide and brought Martelly to power. The troops provided by the UN have allowed him to keep hold of the presidency while public anger rages in the streets. It remains to be seen how July’s elections will change the political landscape of Haiti, but there is little faith that Martelly will let go of the reins of power in an election that is free or fair.

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