Haiti needs elections, not dictators

It’s hard to imagine how things could go worse. A year after an earthquake in Haiti killed over 300,000 people and left more than a million homeless, little has improved. Last year’s November elections were mired by fraud and a winner is still to be decided. On January 16, Haitians faced another major setback. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, exiled in France since 1986, returned to Haiti claiming he is back to help. Haiti’s best choice is to arrest him (which they have), charge him for crimes against humanity (which are under way) and take back the millions of dollars he stole during his dictatorship so that it can be spent fixing the country he helped break.

Duvalier’s return would be hard to deal with at any time. Due to the poor recovery following the earthquake, it’s particularly poor timing. A recent Oxfam report states that only five per cent of the rubble from the earthquake has been cleared. Only 15 per cent of the needed temporary housing has been built as hundreds of thousands continue to occupy tents in camps. In large part this is due to the international community’s failure to provide promised money — when it has arrived it has been focused on projects, including housing, which can’t begin until the rubble is cleared.

The political situation is poor too. Two-thirds of the presidential candidates in the 2010 elections called for the results to be thrown out due to widespread fraud. Nevertheless, international monitors, wanting some signs of progress, declared them valid. A run off between the top candidates to decide the president is still on hold. Until then, Haiti will remain politically unable to enact the sweeping reforms necessary for its recovery. The earthquake exacerbated the political climate. The incumbent president, Rene Preval, has been widely criticized for how his government handled the chaotic aftermath.

Although Duvalier has returned calling for national unity, his arrival promises to bring anything but. Duvalier took over from his father, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, in 1971. Papa Doc murdered an estimated 30,000 Haitians during his 14-year reign and is responsible for the rape and torture of countless more. When Baby Doc took over at the age of 19, he was the world’s youngest president. Initially Baby Doc was an improvement. He allowed more press freedom and released political prisoners, but soon adopted the terror methods of his father. During his presidency, Jean-Claude Duvalier kept an estimated $120 million of government money meant for public programs, according to a lawyer who represented Haiti against Duvalier in a lawsuit during the 1990s.

Despite the ruthless way he governed, Duvalier is still liked by a handful of Haitians. Supporters claim that the stability he brought to Haiti outweighs the accusations of murder and fraud. Upon hearing the news of his return, some Haitians celebrated in the streets. But Duvalier most likely didn’t return to better the nation. What’s more probable is that he had to visit Haiti to release around $6 million being held in a Swiss bank account. Duvalier likely thought he could convince the Swiss courts the money was freely his (he had a return ticket for January 20). He was, however, arrested upon landing. His failure to anticipate the response of most Haitians (along with the international community) was his downfall.

Still, the timing is terrible. There is no doubt that Duvalier should be tried and, one hopes, imprisoned for the rest of his life. But it would have been better for his prosecution to happen on Haiti’s terms rather than his own. In five years, perhaps, Haiti might be stable enough to withstand the trial of one of its worst leaders (it’s a tight race between him and his father, who died in 1971). Right now, stability and recovery are the two strongest needs Haitians have. However slight, the political environment is bad enough that Duvalier might win more supporters than he would have otherwise.

Countries that pledged aid must make good on their promises and they must provide aid to the right needs at the right times. With the arrest of Duvalier, the international community must demand that he is brought to justice. So long as his crimes go unpunished, the country will never fully recover.

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