Following the publication of our report, ‘Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination’, we continue to interview civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so. CIVICUS speaks to Jean Marc-nel Etienne, president of the Union of Brothers for Alternative Integrated Development (UFADI), a Haitian civil society organisation that works to promote human rights, particularly in the areas of health and education.
What are the minimal conditions for a functioning democracy and an enabled civil society? Are those conditions being met in Haiti?
Democracy guarantees rights and duties to all people without exception, regardless of their origin, skin colour or culture. Rights can be summarised as follows: the right to education, the right to food, the right to housing, the right to the freedom of expression and all other civil rights. As far as duties are concerned, I would say that the beneficiaries of rights must, in return, respect the norms and principles that society imposes on them in order to guarantee its smooth operation.
In the early 1990s, Haiti chose to become a democracy. Three decades later, however, the country finds itself in chaos. What caused this situation? Do the Haitian authorities fulfil their duties towards the population? Is democracy effectively in place in Haiti?
If we take into account the reality of Haiti, and particularly the level of social inequalities, we can say that the conditions for democracy are not being met. They have been flouted by our own leaders. The Haitian population has been left to its own devices. Many measures seemed to have been taken to improve our situation, but they all remained on paper without any impact whatsoever on the daily lives of the population.
Should we really specify the main limits of democracy in Haiti, where opposing parties have used democracy without keeping any limit or respect for others? Democracy is about behaviour - it requires the actual enjoyment of a full set of civil, social and political rights. This is in essence what constitutes the cornerstone of citizenship: the right to choose a leader, the right of expression – these rights cannot be denied to any individual no matter how low their rank or class. As a result of claiming their citizenship rights, over the past three decades the Haitian people have acquired a political conscience that is irreversibly their own and that no one can take away from them. But when the people's rights are not democratically respected, there will always be a struggle against the functioning of the government in place, either to overthrow it or to claim rights. And in Haiti the political parties both in the government and in the opposition do not respect democracy: all they do is protect their own interests while the situation of the population remains critical.
What other major challenges does domestic civil society face in Haiti?
The challenges that civil society faces in Haiti are revealed by an analysis of the national economy, which raises burning issues that must be approached with policy positions and strategies. These are growth, institutionalisation and good economic governance. The global context has led to the development of a weak local economy that over time has become vulnerable because of the inadequacy of the elements necessary for its reproduction, the absence of vision and objectives, the lack of concern for sustainability, and the inability to self-correct. This has resulted in major challenges for civil society.
First, civil society faces the challenge of contributing to the development of strong socioeconomic foundations for future generations. Haiti has one of the highest proportions of young people in the world, and today’s 15-year-olds are unlikely to be able to take care of the older generation 20 years from now.
Second, civil society must do its work in a politically and economically unstable society. Funding is low compared to needs, and when credit is available, it is only for carrying out profitable short-term activities that don’t improve local productivity, which would require longer-term efforts. Imports account for more than 50 per cent of the country's overall supply, while exports represent barely 20 per cent of aggregate demand, which has been mostly the result of an excessive liberalisation of foreign trade in the absence of remediation measures. The vulnerability of the economy puts civil society in a precarious situation. In order to obtain sufficient means to implement its projects, it is forced to become externally dependent.
Third, to implement its projects fully, civil society requires adequate infrastructure in sufficient quantities. This is the 21st century and we don’t even have an adequate electric supply. But poorly enforced taxes, dubious customs supervision, poorly designed liberalisation, various exemptions and hidden forms of protectionism, have developed risk aversion among capital holders, who therefore remain confined to activities that have nothing to do with what is required for national production. Additionally, the state is unable to generate the resources it needs because most economic activities take place in the informal sector, which makes the tax base very narrow. The taxes levied on the few activities that operate formally leave the state with no room for manoeuvre to produce and provide the necessary services and ensure equity in their distribution.
Finally, there is the challenge of putting institutions at the service of development and collective well-being. Civil servants should not be confused with the state; on the contrary, they should steer the state towards the fulfilment of the collective well-being.
What were the key issues that sparked the recent anti-corruption protests in Haiti? What has been the response to the violence that left a number of protesters dead?
Demonstrators asked: ‘Where is the Petrocaribe fund?’ - that is, they demanded an investigation into the embezzlement of funds from the Venezuelan Petrocaribe programme, which supplied crude oil to Caribbean and Central American nations on very generous terms. Last year the Haitian parliament published a report blaming former senior officials for irregularities in the use of these funds, but no prosecutions followed, so demonstrators demanded punishment for those who embezzled Petrocaribe funds. In other countries in the region these were used for infrastructure projects, while in Haiti they ended up in somebody’s pockets.
According to several analysts, the Petrocaribe affair is the largest operation of corruption and misappropriation of public funds and the biggest financial crime in the history of Haiti. Those responsible must be tried and sent to prison. Haiti will or should cease to exist as a state if there is no trial in the Petrocaribe case. Many young people have mobilised to demand action. While the struggle to shed light on the fraudulent use of the Petrocaribe fund was not born on social media, but rather was triggered by a parliamentary report, the movement grew considerably thanks to online activism, with the #PetrocaribeChallenge hashtag trending.
This challenge moved beyond social media and took a new dimension by taking to the streets. In multiple locations in Haiti - including Port-au-Prince, Port-of-Peace, Fort-Liberté, Hinche, Mirebalais, Jérémie, Jacmel, Gonaïves, Saint Marc, Ouanaminthe, Cap-Haïtien and Les Cayes - and among Haitian diaspora abroad - in Montreal, New York and Paris - thousands of demonstrators marched, with numbers increasing dramatically by the day. Armed with signs, posters and banners, chanting remarks hostile to political and judicial authorities, they vehemently challenged the incumbent government to shed light on the use of the Petrocaribe funds.
The #PetroChallenge movement culminated on 17 October, when tens of thousands of people demonstrated, mostly peacefully, in almost every major city in Haiti. The event brought together a wide range of people, including children, adults, older people and young people, high school students and university students. There were violent clashes between the police, who fired several times with live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas, and protesters, who responded by throwing stones and bottles and setting up burning barricades. And again in mid-November, demonstrations took place day after day, again with violent clashes with the police. This time, the demonstrations also became a kind of referendum against the president, as many members of the political opposition took advantage of the mobilisations to demand the president’s ousting.
On 18 November unspeakable crimes were committed. Many people were killed, in addition to those already killed in previous protests, including young children, and several people were killed even in their homes.
The gigantic demonstrations that took place across the country on those days, involving several hundred thousand people, perfectly illustrate the classic axiom of Sun Tzu, which goes that if you roll a ball along a steep slope, the force required is minimal, but the results are incalculable. 17 October and 18 November thus became doubly historic - both because of the reason they were summoned, to protest against the misuse of public funds, and because they were the most massive in decades.
Is this a pre-revolutionary situation? If so, who will it benefit? If we scrutinise carefully a few pivotal periods in the history of revolutions, we note that, unlike the revolutions of the past, modern revolutions are made by a minority against the majority. Indeed, when people talk about ‘mobilising the masses’, they have only one goal: to immobilise them. When agitators, instigators, leaders, self-proclaimed ‘leaders of the people’, charlatans, demagogues and false prophets have succeeded in the name of democracy, that is to say, when this majority has been struck by general paralysis, petrified on the spot, the fruits of the revolution have fallen into their hands like a loose stone.
What kind of support does Haitian civil society need, including from international civil society organisations and international organisations?
In Haiti more than a third of children are out of school. The government lacks the capacity and the will to engage in a policy of struggle against extreme poverty. The strongest support that Haitian civil society needs from the international community is to help provide education as a public good that the state has not been able to provide in the country. But the question of the role of Haitian civil society in the face of a humanitarian crisis is too complex. It will take a struggle for hegemony, for a logical and distributive change of resources which is now a challenge. We have seen that the motives of political actors of the country are uniform, so we must strictly conceptualise civil society strategically as a competitive space. This will require the political actors of civil society in Haiti to work in favour of a democratic society.
Civic space in Haiti is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
Get in touch with UFADI through their website.