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Who ‘Owns’ Haiti?
A symposium convened on campus analyzes the country’s sovereignty.
May 05, 2014
With a lagging economy, destruction from a devastating earthquake, weak public institutions and a recent cholera epidemic, Haiti is often characterized as a non-performing state reliant on relief funds from non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The intervention of the international community—epitomized since 2004 by a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission (MINUSTAH) aimed at maintaining stability in the country—has led to questions about Haiti’s sovereignty in governance, political and economic arenas.
During “Who ‘Owns’ Haiti: Sovereignty in a Fragile State,” a symposium convened at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs on Friday, experts tackled the most pressing questions regarding Haiti’s future: Where is Haiti going? What lessons has the international community learned? And, most importantly, who will ultimately take charge of the country’s future?
The daylong event began with remarks from Professor of Practice of International Affairs and Director of GW’s Latin American and Hemispheric Studies Program Robert Maguire, who provided a background of the events that challenge the country’s sovereignty today. These include the ouster of an elected government in 2004 followed by elections insisted on by the international community; food riots in 2008 linked to increased prices of basic commodity imports; four massive tropical storms over a period of 28 days in 2008; the 2010 earthquake that launched relief programs and reinforced Haiti’s reputation as a “republic of NGOs”; a cholera epidemic; and recent chaotic, polarizing presidential elections.
“There is little doubt that Haiti’s sovereign space—and therefore, the dominion, autonomy, authority and self-determination of its leaders and population more generally—had been seriously eroded or under assault in the years following independence in 1804 up to the country’s bicentennial,” Dr. Maguire said.
Following an opening lecture by University of Virginia Professor Robert Fatton, Donald Steinberg, former deputy administrator at USAID, moderated a panel on how to revitalize Haiti’s economy and encourage stronger governance from Haiti’s political actors.
“It seems, frankly, Haiti is always in the middle of some period of an electoral crisis that affects the economy by creating low-investor confidence and dividing people in terms of a rational development strategy and encouraging labor unrest,” Mr. Steinberg said.
F. Carl Braun, chairman and CEO of Haiti’s largest bank and financial services group, UniBank, explained that the country is not only poor, but it has been continuing a period of regression and economic stagnation since the late 1950s. He argued for a paradigm shift to move the country forward, urging Haitians in the country to take the lead in creating the nation’s policies rather than relying too much on NGO assistance.
“We’ve lost our sovereignty. There’s no question about that,” Mr. Braun said.
Struggles of “crony capitalism,” he continued, have led to a divide in Haiti’s private sector, split between groups who want to change the status quo and those who would maintain a system that has resulted in little growth and massive poverty. The dichotomy—along with dependence on NGOs and a disappearing middle class—has continued to weaken Haiti, Mr. Braun said.
The Duvalier dictatorship and subsequent internationally mandated policies enacted by non-Haitian organizations have made it difficult for Haitians to capitalize on international assistance, setting the stage for the challenges of the last six decades. Mr. Braun said that an uncertain future faces Haiti as MINUSTAH’s presence dwindles and turmoil in Venezuela threatens to curtail its PetroCaribe oil program, which, unlike other aid programs, provides significant sums directly to the Haitian government.
Laurent Dubois, professor of romance studies and history at Duke University, said many factors today limit Haiti’s sovereignty—an irony, given that the country was the second free independent nation in the Western hemisphere and provided the possibility of sovereignty for other countries in the early 1800s.
“It’s striking that this particular nation that has been so defining on the world stage has seen its sovereignty and the self-sovereignty of its people undermined and refused,” he said.
In his book “Haiti: The Aftershocks of History,” Dr. Dubois analyzes how Haiti’s history can be used to form its democracy today. Democracy doesn’t need to be invented from scratch or imported from another country, Dr. Dubois said, but cultivated from the traditions that already exist in Haiti.
“Haiti has always surprised, and continues to surprise, and there’s not reason to imagine there can’t be another form of transformation and renewal today,” he said.
Gabriel Verret, an economic policy consultant, served as the principal economic policy adviser to Haiti's transition government. He added that one of the most important questions in Haiti is not who owns the country, but who is committed to it.
Throughout his career working both in and outside the Haitian government, Mr. Verret had a firsthand look at how Haitian politics work, and the level of corruption associated with them—issues that must be addressed to improve Haiti’s development.
“Haiti cannot change until it gets political leaders who are really committed to change,” he said.
The symposium also featured a panel examining cultural heritage, which included Olsen Jean Julien, Haiti’s former minister of culture and communication, and Haitian musician Richard Morse. A final panel detailing the intersection between Haitian politics and the international community, moderated by Thomas C. Adams, special coordinator for Haiti at the U.S. Department of State, included speakers from Brazil, CARICOM and Haiti.
Throughout the day, as speakers reflected on the complexities of Haiti’s contemporary sovereign status, they returned to the idea that the Caribbean nation must expand its sovereign space, achieve inclusive economic growth and strengthen democratic institutions before it can move beyond its current fragile state status.
The evening ended with a reception and Haitian art display.