Haiti’s Hidden Hope

A Haitian policeman detaining looters in Port-au-Prince, January 21, 2010 (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

The colossal earthquake that struck Haiti last week raises a profound and recurring question for this fragile nation. As they bury over 100,000 dead—some of them in mass graves—and more than a million survivors seek water, food, shelter and medicines, can Haitians ever move beyond mere survival to build a more viable state? For a nation battered by two centuries of misrule, divided by garish contrasts between rich and poor, stripped of its forests, victimized annually by vicious hurricanes, built astride a ghastly seismic fault-line and situated on a favored route for cocaine traffickers, one may well conclude that misery here is endemic.

Yet it is one of the terrible ironies of this latest calamity—the worst natural disaster in the history of the Western hemisphere—that in the year preceding the earthquake, Haiti had made considerable progress. Just last year, I sat in the now destroyed presidential palace with President René Préval as we discussed the need to move quickly on training and vetting new judges and relieving the pressures on vastly overcrowded jails. President Préval, who was elected in 2006 with broad popular support, initiated reforms of the police forces and judiciary, with some success. Following last year’s hurricane, the government was able to forge a national consensus on a recovery plan emphasizing rapid creation of jobs in industries benefiting from special U.S. trade offers and tourism, primary education, sustainable small-scale farming, and rural development. These little noted achievements could—if resurrected—provide the beginnings of a new Haiti.

As the world begins to shift its attention from rescue to reconstruction, simply establishing security will be a huge challenge: some looters already are being shot or lynched, barely half of the nascent Haitian Police Force (HNP) is working, penitentiary walls have buckled and prisoners are on the loose, and fear of violence among citizens is increasing. Making Haiti safe again depends not only on getting Haitian and international police onto the streets, but on enforcing rule of law in a country where the judiciary and penitentiary system barely functioned even before the January 12 earthquake.

Initially, much of the task of providing relief and law and order to the thousands of homeless in Port-au-Prince and other areas will fall to international forces. Despite the tragic loss of so many lives of UN officials who were trapped in the UN’s Haiti compound during the earthquake, the UN Security Council has reaffirmed its commitment by authorizing another 3,500 troops and UN police for the country, bringing the totals of its Brazilian-led peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) to nearly 9,000 troops and more than 3,500 police. The US has some 13,500 soldiers, sailors, and airmen positioned on the ground, and five ships including an aircraft carrier off Haiti’s coasts or on the way. The Dominican Republic has plans to send 800 troops to meet the MINUSTAH request and the region’s other nations are following suit. Canada has promised 1,000 troops and the EU is deploying 150 officers of its new European Gendarmerie Force.

Adding to the challenge of coordinating this ad hoc coalition is the complex and often chaotic nature of urban life in Haiti, which has frustrated the efforts of foreign peacekeepers before. Without the close cooperation of the Haitian government and the Creole-speaking and street-wise HNP police in the lead, it will be difficult to contain spoilers—particularly in places like the sprawling inner city of Cite Soleil.

Yet much could be learned by building on the changes in Haiti that were initiated—with UN help—before the earthquake. After coming to office, the Préval government had begun a serious effort to reform the police force, having stripped its ranks of many human rights violators and those on the take. (One indication of the challenge it faces is that the 2009 police academy classes graduated without weapons training because guns and bullets were not available for the shooting range.) While this reform was still incomplete, before the earthquake a poll showed nearly 60 percent of Haiti’s citizens approved of police performance—a far cry from the security forces that as recently as a few years ago were rightly feared by Haiti’s citizens.

Haiti’s police headquarters and many local stations were destroyed in the earthquake. However, for a force with barely four years under new leadership, getting almost half of its 8,000 police on the streets this week is a remarkable achievement. Many of the police don’t have uniforms because they were lost in the destruction of their own homes. Others are still searching for family members and still others have no weapons. But they are beginning to be visible in Port-au-Prince.

At the same time, the Préval administration had also pushed forward laws to establish a judicial academy, set new standards for existing judges, and authorize an independent oversight council. Along with rebuilding Haiti’s Supreme Court, and naming new judges to that court, these steps must remain high on the priority list. Préval’s earlier plan to reform Haiti’s notorious prisons, the site of appalling over-crowding and rights abuses, must be an equal priority, especially as the police recapture escaped prisoners.


Security for Haiti will not end with reform of the police, courts or jails. It also will require a broader strategy for post-disaster reconstruction and stabilization. This will require an unparalleled international partnership with Haiti, and all donors must put aside national pride and interest for the greater good and support the UN coordination mandate. In this highly fractured and polarized political, economic and social environment, Haitians also must come together in a new social compact that reaches across the country’s broad chasm of class, race, and ideology.

Clearly parliamentary elections planned for February 28 cannot be held. The Haitian government should also consider postponing the presidential election scheduled for November until the country has established greater stability. Combining presidential, parliamentary, and local elections would save money and increase voter turnout in communities still reeling from enormous reconstruction demands. These issues will be addressed at an international meeting in Canada on January 25 and at an international donor’s conference later in the year, but the long-term vision will have to be defined by Haitians themselves.

President René Préval called the social movement that propelled him to an electoral victory in 2006, “L’espoir”—Hope. Today it is that Haitian belief along with “Tèt kolé,” the Haitian Creole appeal for unity, that Haiti and the international community must embrace. Only then will the question of whether Haiti merely survives or emerges from the ruins as a modern nation be answered.

Mark L. Schneider is a Senior Vice President and Special Advisor on Latin America at the International Crisis Group.

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