Hillary Clinton’s Long Shadow Over Haiti

Hillary Clinton visiting the Sae-A garment factory at Caracol Industrial Park in Haiti, in 2012. USAID / Flickr
Hillary Clinton visiting the Sae-A garment factory at Caracol Industrial Park in Haiti, in 2012. USAID / Flickr

Hillary Clinton may never be called to account for her role in Haiti’s ongoing political crisis.

Is Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid suffocating democracy in Haiti? A growing number of informed observers, both in Haiti and in the United States, think so. They contend that the former secretary of state’s political ambitions are having a profound effect on the Haitian electoral process.

The island’s deeply flawed elections — held last August and October, backed by over $33 million in US funding — triggered massive political unrest this past January.

Coming on the heels of Michel Martelly’s disastrous presidency, the elections spotlight how badly Clinton’s attempts as secretary of state to direct Haitian politics have backfired. The unrest caused the final round of balloting to be suspended and sent the US State Department into damage-control mode.

The department’s overriding — though unofficial — concern over the past year has been to finish Haiti’s elections before the US general election campaign begins in earnest this summer. It desperately wants to keep the results of Clinton’s involvement in Haiti out of the media glare.

Brazen Robbery

Michel Martelly has been aptly described as a Haitian version of Donald Trump. Brash, uncouth, and unapologetically reactionary, Martelly used his celebrity as a popular konpa singer (known as “Sweet Mickey”) to power his rise to the presidency in 2011.

While in office Martelly earned a reputation for corruption and authoritarianism. He wooed foreign investors with the promise that post-earthquake Haiti would be “open for business,” and surrounded himself with the children of Duvalierists and shady underworld figures known to be involved in drug trafficking and kidnapping.

For four years, Martelly declined to organize elections, appointing mayors directly and allowing parliamentarians’ mandates to expire without elected representatives to take their place. He jailed and intimidated political opponents, repressed anti-government demonstrations, and, at the very end of his term, revived the disbanded and much-despised Haitian Army.

By January 2015, Haiti’s parliament was dysfunctional and Martelly was ruling by decree. Under pressure from growing street protests against the return of one-man rule, Martelly grudgingly agreed to organize elections.

Openly declaring his intention to establish a twenty-year political dynasty, he selected Jovenel Moïse, a politically unknown agricultural entrepreneur, as his successor. In August and October of last year, Haitians went to the polls to elect representatives at all levels of government.

Neither election would meet any reasonable democratic standard. Widespread violence, disorder, and stuffed ballot boxes characterized the August elections; in October, hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes, cast using party accreditation cards sold on the black market, completely skewed the results.

These perversions of the democratic process were compounded by historically low turnout rates and corruption scandals within the electoral council itself, which further undermined the elections’ credibility. In both the legislative and presidential races, Martelly and his allies predictably came out on top.

“Even by Haitian electoral standards, this was brazen robbery,” said Henry “Chip” Carey, a political scientist who has observed numerous Haitian elections since the 1986 fall of the Duvalier dictatorship.

Despite the election fiasco, the United States (and the other wealthy nations) were enthusiastic, declaring them “a step forward for Haitian democracy.”

The small European Union (EU) and Organization of American States (OAS) observer missions rushed to approve the vote, claiming that the “irregularities” and “isolated” acts of violence had not affected the results.

Elena Valenciano, head of the EU’s electoral observation mission, did not even wait for the polls to close before declaring that the August election day had unfolded in conditions of “near total normalcy.”

Shortly before the October vote, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Haiti to reaffirm US support for Martelly’s stewardship of the process. As former Haiti expert for the US State Department Robert Maguire lamented, the international powers’ “objective seem[ed] simply to be able to check an ‘elections done’ box.”

But most Haitian observers denounced the elections, and Haitian citizens proved unwilling to accept the low democratic standards set by donor countries. Confronted with the outright theft of their elections, hundreds of thousands of Haitians rose up against what they called an “electoral coup d’état.”

Street protests surged after the October balloting, culminating in January’s angry and disruptive demonstrations. Protesters demanded the establishment of an interim government and an independent election commission to verify the vote.

Saving Face

At the peak of this crisis, former Brazilian diplomat Ricardo Seitenfus made an intriguing allegation: he charged that Haiti’s electoral calendar had been subordinated to the US election cycle. Meeting popular demands for a verification process would require time, much more time than Martelly had left in his mandate.

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SOURCE: Jacobin Magazine – Nikolas Barry-Shaw is a Montreal-based Haiti solidarity activist. He is the voting rights associate for the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and co-author of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism.