Haiti: How do You Aid a Failed State?

Obama resonates in impoverished nation looking for solutions beyond U.N. aid

Fellows Fall 2008

By Ruxandra Guidi

May 26, 2009

Published on PBS's "Frontline/World"

"When people talk about my country, they refer to it as a failed state," said Pierre Joaquim, an unemployed 26-year-old who stood outside the Haitian National Police headquarters in Port-au-Prince. "But I say Haiti isn't really a failed state; it's more of a controlled state. Everyone has a plan for my country, except us Haitians."

Joaquim criticized the United States for often making decisions that shape Haiti's political future, such as the forced removal of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, which was carried out by American troops in coordination with the U.N.

He admitted that he didn't exactly know what an Obama presidency would mean for Haiti, but that people recognized its significance: "The fact that a black man, one of us, could become the leader of the United States, could only mean good things for us here," Joaquim said.

All over this troubled and impoverished Caribbean country, there are thousands of unemployed and eager young men like Joaquim who see themselves in the Democratic candidate, even as feelings of alienation are growing among the working-class poor.

Haiti's President Rene Preval came into power in 2006 on a wave of international support and hope. At first, many Haitians supported his plans to increase security and improve infrastructure with help from the U.N. and the U.S., which is Haiti's largest donor. This year alone, the Caribbean country will receive $750 million in international development aid -- about a third of which will come from the U.S.

But in the last two years, Preval's popularity has been on the wane -- a majority of Haitians consider him to be nonplussed by the country's growing poverty, and he's seen as too soft on corruption. Others say that Preval is simply happy to accept aid from the U.S. and Canada without questioning the efficacy of the development programs they support.

If there is support for the sitting president, it's that he's managed to reduce Haiti's gang and crime activity with the help of the U.N. And that's no small feat.

Security First

It's 9 am in early October and, alongside Joaquim, 200 men have come to the police barracks in Port-au-Prince to apply to become new officers. The job would pay them 15,000 Gourdes a month -- about $375 -- barely enough to cover living costs and the price of gas these days, which is a staggering $8 a gallon.

But the job has cachet: it would mean joining the new police force that's currently being trained by the United Nations; and it would mean young Haitians are taking an important role in achieving stability in their own country.

In 2004, shortly after President Aristide was ousted, the U.N. mission in Haiti created MINUSTAH, a stabilization force made up of troops from Central and South America, China, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and other U.N. member countries. MINUSTAH was designed to restore Haitian civil society and government institutions. Its most notable success so far has been to reduce kidnappings in Port-au-Prince and to disband many of the gangs that operated out of the capital's slums, in particular the notorious Cite Soleil.

But not everyone approves of MINUSTAH's plan for peace, security and police reform. Critics say the U.N. mandate mirrors that of its biggest donor, the United States. "If we just accept the dictate of MINUSTAH or the U.S. or Canada, we're going to hit a wall in about 5 or 10 years," said sociologist and former Defense Minister, Patrick Elie. Today, Elie simply refers to himself as an "activist" rallying for systemic change.

He believes the U.N.'s plan to revamp Haiti's police will work only in the short term, because this year's training budget of $120 million will become too costly for Haiti to support in the years to come. He says MINUSTAH's vision for security above all else comes at the expense of rebuilding infrastructure, relieving poverty and creating jobs.

"We don't need to address the question of security the same way the U.S. is doing in New York or in any other American city -- we've got to do it as Haitians, taking into account our culture and our history. Nobody -- not a new American president nor the U.N. mission here -- can tell us what the right answers ought to be for us in Haiti."

United States foreign policy has rarely enjoyed a positive reputation among Haitians. Many people remember recent and distant history: the 1915 U.S. invasion of Haiti followed by a 19-year occupation; the U.S. support for international trade embargoes' and its quiet endorsement of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier in the early years of his dictatorship.

Despite the legacy between the two countries, there is palpable support for Obama. "The country [United States] has managed to go from being one of the most beloved in the world, to being the most hated," said Guy Leveille, an accountant who recently settled back in his native Port-au-Prince after living in the U.S. for more than 15 years. He feels Obama could change political relations. "The American people per se are not bad, but the political system is definitely broken," he said.

Leveille says that during 8 years of the Bush administration, Latin America was abandoned for U.S. interests in the Middle East. The shift affected the flow of substantive development and investment to Haiti. He believes an Obama presidency could breathe new life into the region. "I hope we can begin to see more investment and economic cooperation with the U.S.," he said.

In the streets of Port-au-Prince, and throughout the rest of the country, MINUSTAH's presence is felt day in and day out. There are more than 7,000 troops in the country, patrolling the main "hotspots" -- the border with the Dominican Republic, the ports, and the notorious slums such as Carrefour Feuilles and Cite Soleil. Some 900 officers from Sri Lanka are charged with keeping the peace in the sprawling slum of Martissant.

I spoke to a young U.N. officer named Suhada, who preferred not to give his last name. Suhada has been following the U.S. elections on the TV at the MINUSTAH compound. "Regardless of who wins," he told me, "it still won't make a difference in Haiti. This place is so poor and abandoned, the last thing it needs is more U.S. intervention. What it needs is a strong Haitian government -- but I don't have any hopes about that happening any time soon."